In Partnership with 74

Commentary: Educators, show your students the value of activism

Jeff Steinberg | October 24, 2018

Your donation will help us produce journalism like this. Please give today.

Ask most adults when their U.S. history textbook stopped. Was it World War II? Maybe Korea? Perhaps it was the Vietnam War, but the last few chapters were rushed as you hurtled towards summer vacation.

Then ask most adults what they know about the defining social and political movement of the modern era, the civil rights movement, in which Americans of all backgrounds from across the country came together to demand that people of color be treated equally to whites. Of course you’ll hear about Dr. King, and perhaps Malcolm X. But the movement was so much more than that, and in divided times when cynicism comes easily, knowledge of what happened barely two generations ago is more important than ever.

For the past 19 years, I have led The Sojourn Project, a California-based organization dedicated to giving today’s middle and high school students first-hand experience with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Students from California and around the country travel to Montgomery, Selma, and other key sites, and meet with legends of the movement like Minnijean Brown-Trickey of the Little Rock Nine or Congressman John Lewis. Our neighbors here in California might feel removed from these stories, but students benefit from hearing about people who faced impossible odds, didn’t give up, and, through perseverance and with justice on their side, changed the course of history.

Many of the educators who bring dozens of students each year attended the trip as young people themselves. One of these California teachers, Ana Vazquez, recently told me, “I can stand in front of my classroom all day and convey these stories as best I can, but I can’t come close to watching these kids meet the people from their history books.” Ana told me it was “the start of things for me,” inspiring her to care about social justice and to want to be a teacher.

I’ve been fortunate enough to go on dozens of these trips, meet scores of activists, and talk to hundreds of children and young adults about the legacy of the civil rights movement, and when I travel the South with today’s students, they’re always surprised to find people younger than many of their grandparents who grew up without rights we know to be inalienable. With many young Californians feeling that their rights and identities are under attack from Washington, they need to see that change is possible. They need to know what happened.

Textbooks may not go far enough, but teachers can. We know about the value of social-emotional health and about keeping students engaged. Think of how you feel when you look at the divisions that exist in our country today and imagine how it might feel for teenagers just starting their life. But the leaders of the movement for civil rights weren’t much older than those students are today, and if we show them the way, they can build a better world.

Whatever you teach, teach hope. It’s not just something that exists in history books.

Jeff Steinberg is the founder and executive director of The Sojourn Project, a California-based nonprofit focused on civil rights education. The Sojourn Project takes students from California and around the country on tours of key civil rights landmarks in the American South.

Read Next