Peaceful Animals:

A Look into Black Pacifism and the Pedagogy of Civil Rights in American Public Education

Originally Written: February 16, 2017

Submitted and accepted to the 2017 A&M Communicating Diversity Conference

Winner of Best Undergraduate Paper Award

*Edits made for grammar and clarity since original creation. 

*Note - Pedagogy: the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept. Per google dictionary


A comprehensive history of the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King campaigned nobly promoting peace and nonviolence. His friend Rosa Parks also refused to give up her seat on a bus. Together they marched through the streets never raising a fist. There was also a guy, Malcolm X, and he was kind of like MLK, but he was violent. Then somebody shot King in the neck, and that was it. Race was not a thing of note again until a Black man entered office in 2008. This gross over-simplification reflects the entirety of the knowledge imparted to many who have experienced the United States public education system.

American history education is in a word: lacking. United States history curriculum downplays the impact felt by marginalized groups in this country, resulting in adverse effects. I assert that the pedagogy of Black history in American middle and high school public education, specifically in regards to forms of protests during the civil rights movement, has been intentionally structured in a manner that, by way of purposeful omission and harmful misinterpretation, promotes the passivity and pacifism of Black Americans.

Generously, the relationship of the powers that be of America and Black education can best be described as tenuous. Obtaining accurate and comprehensive information about the Black condition is an endeavor that one must explicitly elect to partake in. Simple reflection by those privy to American Public Education reveals that most key figures commonly discussed were of the White race. History of minority groups seldom sees the light within core-curriculums. This contemporary self-taught requirement for knowledge acquisition has direct parallels to American Slavery. As explored in Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom by Heather Andrea Williams, African Americans’ quest for education has historically been an uphill battle (Williams). Unsurprisingly, society rarely provided enslaved individuals a means to an education. The barriers to literacy and other such skills have historically been high. In 1830, North Carolina passed a statute to make education of slaves by either freedmen or other slaves a harshly punishable crime (Raleigh: 1831). From a warped and racist mindset, the reasoning behind this law and laws like it was sound. As Frederick Douglass states in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave: “The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers” (Douglass 35). By affording knowledge and context to the oppressed, the oppressor stands to lose their status as such. Following the Douglass parallel, his liberation, and eventual coalescence into the abolition movement, was directly precipitated by his education. I contend that, while at times more indirectly,  the same logic of attempting to prevent political action is applied to the current methods of public Black history education.

To understand this, we must first endeavor to comprehend the evolution of the pedagogy around the most apparent ill inflicted upon Black bodies in America: placing Black people on the same societal level as animals. In his work The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley, Malcolm X balked at the historical knowledge that the average Black American possessed. “It’s unbelievable how many black men and women have let the white man fool them into holding an almost romantic idea of what slave days were like” (Haley, 217). Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, slavery was often approached to be a mutually beneficial situation. In return for food and shelter, slaves provided free labor to their masters. Fortunately, much of the current pedagogy allows us to see the blatant error of this method. However, even still, this approach to teaching slavery is not a relic of the past.

Infamously, the New York Times showcased in 2015 a textbook by major publishing company McGraw-Hill that presented the idea that “The Atlantic Slave Trade… brought millions of Workers to the Southern United States to work on agricultural plantations” (Fernandez and Hauser). McGraw-Hill eventually acknowledged the error. However, the “misprinted” issues will likely circulate for years to come (McAfee). The implication of compensation completely undermines the inherent evils that occurred during American Slavery. All considered, regarding impact, this egregious outlier does not even deviate significantly from the actual standards. Improvement from past pedagogies is undeniable. However, the current approach hardly captures the brutalities and atrocities of enslavement. Without being aware of the scope of the inhuman cruelty that society has long levied against Black bodies, the present educational system affords no proper context for a Black individual to question their current state of being. Simultaneously, members of the non-afflicted groups have less basis to understand contentions asserting the continued existence of institutional racism.

Racism is deeply embedded into a great many facets of society, making it difficult to pinpoint parties solely responsible for the historical miseducation of American Youth. However, when it comes to a substantial portion of the information diffused throughout the nation, few governing bodies have a more direct impact than the Texas Board of Education. Former social studies textbook editor, Dan Quinn, states: “What happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas when it comes to textbooks” (Collins). The Texas market for textbooks in unequivocally large. Thusly, the guidelines set in place by this body have profound implications on the books received by much of the nation.

This reality is extremely troublesome when we look at both: statements made by board officials and the recently revised Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), which outlines the curriculum required for Texas public schools. After the state adopted new standards in 2010, board member, Pat Hardy was quoted saying “There would be those who would say the reason for the Civil War was over slavery. No. It was over states’ rights” (Brown). The exact merits of the Civil War is a topic that is worthy of much discussion. But attempts to relegate slavery to an immaterial role takes away agency from Black individuals who sought their liberation.  

While the official TEKS makes no allusion to Jim Crow Laws or the Klu Klux Klan, again dismissing suffering crucial to contextualization, the document does, of course, mention the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King (CH 113). King’s grand contributions to assisting the Black Condition are undeniable and certainly deserve inclusion in educational standards. However, the way TEKS broaches King serves as a promotion of pacification of the Black race.

Our current collective consciousness dramatically downplays the radicalism of King and fellow Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks. “In the popular legend, Parks is portrayed as a tired old seamstress… who, on the spur of the moment... decided to resist the city’s segregation law by refusing to move to the back of the bus on December 1, 1955” (Drier 88). However the reality of the situation as recounted in “Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, Stewart Burns’s Daybreak of Freedom, and Parks’s autobiography, My Story” is that the move came as a result of a massive coordinated effort on the part of veteran activists (Drier 88). The removal from our shared memory of the careful and calculated effort to dismantle Jim Crow sells short the scale of the effort required to uproot institutional boundaries. Peter Dreier, a professor of politics and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College, asserts “Contemporary struggles for justice... may seem modest by comparison to the movements of the 1960s that began in Montgomery in 1955” (92). The false narrative of she was tired-so she sat cause and effect ignore the radical line of thinking that is openly and actively defying American Racism. The simplification of the actions of Parks does not create an environment that is inherently conducive to radical schools of thought, which she exemplified.

The pacified version of King provided to Americans allows for the bastardization of his beliefs as a source to combat current political and social movements. The evocation of King is often elicited to disapprove of riots that come as a result of police brutality. We live in a time where it is antiquated to believe that online comments hold no relevance in the grander discourse. The term internet “trolls” is presently included in official reports created by top United States Federal Agencies (ICA 2017). Posts on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or other such sites are legitimate reflections of the society in which they originated. The vitriol and ignorance found in online commentary are deeply troubling and indicative of mass miseducation. Politicians and individuals have haphazardly contorted King’s quotes to fit whatever narrative is convenient. This pacified version of King is then in turn used in an attempt to pacify Black people. These claims bear no mind to the September 27th, 1966 CBS interview, in which King stated: “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard” (Rothman). Dr. King’s vocabulary was not limited to the four word phrase “I have a dream.” There are many layers of complexity to King that society ignores in the broader conversation. While not exactly a total endorsement, it is apparent that King’s thoughts on riots would often not align with those who champion his name.

To call King strictly non-violent is in itself misleading. The rhetoric of King was very deliberate, but you can not divorce racism and violence. King and his followers employed a disciplined sacrifice of the Black body. The violence was there. It simply was not directed towards white bodies or white property. We are shown King because he is easier to digest. His general message of nonviolence is malleable. Despite his desire to expose the grave violence of racism, the paired down version of King does not force us as a collective to deeply explore the gravity of the injustices placed against Blacks. The torrent of the firehose, while shocking and horrific, still rests easier on our minds than the state-sponsored murder of Black Panther Captains.

Further, the High School TEKS does briefly mention the Black Panther Party for the sake of contrasting their beliefs with those of MLK (CH 113). I, as a product of Texas High School public education can say, in practice, this comparison amounts to only further dismiss the validity of their actions while touting King’s “peaceful” approach. Neither the middle school or high school TEKS makes reference to King’s influential counterpart, Malcolm X. Again anecdotally, mentions of Malcolm X consisted of characterizing him as violent and not much else.

In the civil rights section of San Jacinto Museum’s Curriculum Guide for Teaching Texas History, which aligns with TEKS, Non-Violent Protest is the first critical vocabulary point. Shortly thereafter, the curriculum suggests that “Students should have a basic knowledge of the rights of United States’ citizens to petition the government for a solution to grievances”(7-25). Again while there is validity in promoting this innocuous form of protest, the same section draws the parallel to the “Declaration of Independence as a list of complaints by the colonists against King George in England”(7-25). The irony being that a proudly boasted and bloody revolution was subsequent to that list of complaints, while Black Power Groups who almost exclusively subscribed to revolutionary mentalities receive no mention in the Guide. In America, “Violence” is an acceptable avenue to achieve a means as long as those who carry it out are not of a dark complexion.

The rhetoric of what has been selectively chosen to be praised and condemned in our teachings of history, while not surprising, is incredibly problematic. In America, passivity and pacifism are standards that we disproportionately hold to Black and Brown bodies. Malcolm X articulated this point to an LA crowd in 1962:

The white man is tricking you. He’s trapping you. He doesn’t call it violence when he lands troops in South Vietnam. He doesn’t call it violence when he lands troops in Berlin. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he didn’t say get nonviolent. He said, Praise the Lord but pass the ammunition. (X 1962)

The double standard outlined by X places boundaries on current political efforts lest they risk misaligning with the beliefs of the deified King.

Within the scope of this paper, the complexities of Malcolm X’s ever-evolving racial beliefs cannot be justly covered. But to only classify his actions and beliefs as violent is wildly inaccurate and harmful. We cannot afford to remove the more direct and blunt approach of X's perspective from education standards. Major influential names of the Black Power movement similarly receive no mention. In the status quo, we completely ignore the perspectives of Fred Hampton (the young Panther captain who was assassinated by the FBI), Robert F. Williams (Author of the important book: Negroes with Guns), and the controversial fugitive and activist Assata Shakur, among many others. This erasure limits both our understanding of the context that these ideologies evolved in and our understanding of the options available to combat the conditions we find ourselves under. The omission of these figures is indicative of a larger narrative that operates under the impression that Blacks are innately dangerous creatures, and thusly should not be encouraged to take a bold and active role in liberation, lest they risk harming White Americans. America frowns upon the idea that Blacks should either want to or need to defend themselves. The absence of these individuals (X included) from not only TEKS but the AP US History Guideline and Common Core standards is indicative of a devaluing of an entire school of thought (“AP® United States History Including the Curriculum Framework” and “Common Core Standard”).

There are subjective flaws in both the ideology of King and that of X. But by only providing a simplified version of one side of the crusade for Black Liberation, historical curriculum discourages radical approaches to combating deeply rooted issues. Iconic author James Baldwin best defines Education's intrinsic relationship with a prosperous society in 1963:

“Man is a social animal.  He cannot exist without a society...  Now the crucial paradox which confronts us here is that the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society.  Thus, for example, the boys and girls who were born during the era of the Third Reich, when educated to the purposes of the Third Reich, became barbarians. The paradox of education is precisely this - that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.  The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself… But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.  (Baldwin 1963)

It is a crucial time for Black America. It was a crucial time when Baldwin spoke, and when King and X met their untimely demises. It was a crucial time, much like the time before that, and the time before that. There exists no point in the history of this great country that did not have the potential to be a turning point for Black America. The barriers levied against us have always been numerous and powerful. This country is deeply scarred. To protect its sense of self, it is imperative that revolutionaries and radicals do not present evidence of this nation’s past sins and current imperfections. In a country that has asserted that Black people are animals that must remain peaceful at all times, it is our duty to actively reject that notion. Education is the focal point of all of this. The system does what it can to keep the slave from literacy. So in order to give Black youth the proper tools to contextualize and fight the contemporary manifestations of racism, public education needs to allot more time to focus on the valid duality of the struggle for Black Liberation.


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