Historicizing Black Resistance in the U.S.

Historicizing Black Resistance in the U.S.


Questions for Discussion and Reflection:

  • What connections can be made between earlier black freedom movements and the current protests? What sets the current protests apart from previous examples?
  • What strategies and theories of change have African American activists supported historically? How do these compare to the current protest demands?
  • How have local, state, and federal government responses to protests affected the movement for social change? What lessons can be applied to the current official responses?
  • What can the history of policing black Americans teach us about gender/class/racial/ethnic stereotypes in American society?
  • What role does community organizing and mass protest play in pressuring government/society to affect change?
  • What is the role of youth in the current protests? How does that compare to past movements?
  • Using examples from the past, what methods can historians and the general public use to preserve the history of the current protests and make them available to the public?

Slavery and Resistance

Much of the wealth of the United States was built on the labor of enslaved African Americans. During the latter part of the twentieth century, historians began to focus on the experiences of slaves themselves. They began to use evidence in new ways to reconstruct the viewpoints of enslaved people and understand how the enslaved acted in response to their condition. The documents and teaching activities in this collection include a rich variety of evidence—from poems to paintings to advertisements for runaway slaves—which helps students to develop their own understandings of how enslaved individuals coped with hardship, managed to undermine the system of slavery in subtle ways, and seized back some of the humanity stolen from them. From: HERB: Social History for Every Classroom

In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which required police officers everywhere in the country to capture escaped slaves and return them to their owners. Although anyone who was caught helping escaped slaves could be arrested and face large fines, abolitionists resisted the law and continued to support the actions of enslaved people seeking freedom. From: HERB: Social History for Every Classroom

Why They Fought: Ordinary Soldiers in the Civil War Collection

The documents and teaching activities in this collection reveal the complex motivations that drove soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Some wholeheartedly believed in the stated war aims. Others had no choice but to fight, and tensions over conscription and the ability of the rich to avoid service exposed the class conflicts at the heart of both northern and southern society. African Americans, on the other hand, viewed service in the Union Army as a route to freedom and citizenship. Understanding soldiers’ reasons for fighting helps explain why the United States dissolved in 1861 and why such overwhelming violence was required to restore the union. From: HERB: Social History for Every Classroom

A collection of excerpted interviews with former slaves, conducted as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) from 1936 to 1938. The more than 2000 WPA interviews, an invaluable resource for understanding the experiences of the enslaved, were assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. From: HERB: Social History for Every Classroom

Two sets of classroom activities and resources focused on understanding the meanings and realities of freedom for African Americans after the Civil War; and the militant attack on slavery staged by black and white abolitionists, including John Brown.  From: Investigating U.S. History

Black Resistance in the Early 20th Century

A teaching activity in which students enact a debate among four African American leaders at the turn of the century, about what strategy the black community should adopt to achieve full equality in the twentieth century. Students research their roles by reading and analyzing primary sources. From: HERB: Social History for Every Classroom

During World War I, tens of thousands of African Americans fled the South. In Up South, a Mississippi barber and a sharecropper woman tell how they organized groups to escape Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and forced labor. The promise of freedom and full citizenship drew them to Chicago. Once there, the migrants faced poor housing, discrimination on the job, and racial violence. They responded by forming women’s clubs, engaging in political campaigns, and creating the “New Negro” movement. 30-minute streaming video from ASHP with accompanying Viewer’s Guide.

A set of activities and primary sources that introduces k-12 students to the term Jim Crow and the concept of legally mandated racial segregation.  From: HERB: Social History for Every Classroom

This text highlights the growth of political activism in Harlem during the Great Depression. Discriminatory hiring practices and widespread unemployment triggered campaigns focused on increasing black employment in the largely white-owned business sector of Harlem and creating more opportunities for qualified blacks in non-menial (white-collar) jobs. This chapter discusses both the successes and the failures of  these campaigns and Harlem’s economically and politically diverse population. From: HERB: Social History for Every Classroom

Thousands of southern blacks and returning black soldiers moved north after World War I, looking for good jobs, respect, and security. The Great Migration prompted a series of urban race riots; it also nurtured the era of the “New Negro,” a time when cultural expression and black self-help organizations proliferated. The Crisis, the national magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), offered one of the earliest and most powerful endorsements of the “New Negro.” In an editorial following a 1919 riot in Chicago, Crisis editor W. E. B. Du Bois advocated black self-defense and armed resistance. From: History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web

This 1921 article by Rollin Lynde Hartt, a white Congregational minister and journalist, captured well what was “new” in the “New Negro”: an aggressive willingness to defend black communities against racist attacks and a desire to celebrate the accomplishments of African American communities in the North. From: History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web

The Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, a brilliant orator and black nationalist leader, turned his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) into the most important black organization in the United States in the early 1920s. Garvey’s speeches drew huge audiences, and stories of his stubborn resistance in the face of white hostility proliferated among his supporters. In an oral history interview, devotee Audley Moore remembered that Garvey’s defiant behavior at a rally in New Orleans caused “the [white] police [to] file out . . . like little puppy dogs with their tails behind them.” She proudly recalled the crowd intimidating the police by raising their guns and chanting “speak, Garvey, speak.” From: History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web

In the years following World War I, devastating race riots erupted across the U.S. The 1921 Tulsa race riot, a 24-hour rampage by white Tulsans, was one of the most vicious and intense race riots in American history before or since. Between 75 to 250 people were killed and more than 1,000 black homes and businesses were destroyed. In this article, Amy Comstock, personal secretary to the editor of the Tulsa Tribune, attempted to shield Tulsa’s white citizenry from criticism and fix blame for the riot on an ostensibly impoverished and licentious black community. From: History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web

A poster distributed in support of Benjamin A. Davis’s 1945 campaign for a seat on the New York City Council.  A lawyer and communist who was first elected to City Council to represent Harlem in 1943, Davis was a fierce advocate of fair employment, fair housing, and an end to police brutality.  From: HERB: Social History for Every Classroom

Civil Rights and Black Power

A classroom activity and resources to teach the history of the civil rights movement and to discover how historians’ understanding of the movement have changed over time.  From: Investigating U.S. History

This letter from the Women's Political Council to the Mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, threatened a bus boycott by the city's African American residents if demands for fair treatment were not met. From: HERB: Social History for Every Classroom

An excerpt from Reverend Ralph Abernathy’s recollections of the first mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) at a Baptist church on the first day of the boycott. After this, the MIA held regular weekly meetings until the boycott ended. From: HERB: Social History for Every Classroom

Rosa Parks gained international fame in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat in the "whites-only" section on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Parks, an employee of the Montgomery Fair department store and secretary for the NAACP, later said, "It was just time... there was opportunity for me to take a stand to express the way I felt about being treated in that manner." This record from the Montgomery Police Department details Parks' arrest and fingerprinting. Although not the first to challenge segregation laws on buses and elsewhere, Parks' act of civil disobedience launched the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott, the event which catapulted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into fame and sparked the modern Civil Rights Movement. From: HERB: Social History for Every Classroom

In 1960, following student sit-ins at segregated lunch counters throughout the South, reporter George E. McMillan traveled the region and analyzed its “current raw, ugly temper.”  Despite the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, most Southern schools remained unchanged. African Americans faced disenfranchisement, severely limited economic opportunities, prejudicial treatment in the criminal justice system, and attacks from mobs and police. McMillan contrasted black outrage at a gradualist approach to change with white insistence on retaining the status quo, and he examined the role of the military and business communities in fostering change. From: History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web

In this 1964 speech, activist lawyer Pauli Murray describes how race discrimination uniquely affects black women.  Written decades before legal scholar Kimberle՛Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality,’ Murray articulated the dual burdens of racism and sexism black women faced, and called for white and black women to ally to address sex discrimination.  From: HERB: Social History for Every Classroom

In the 1960s, the FBI's COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) investigated and tried to disrupt dissident political groups within the United States.  It targeted civil rights activists, both advocates of non-violence, like Martin Luther King, and those whom Hoover referred to as "black nationalist hate groups," like the Black Panther Party. This document outlines COINTELPRO's goal to limit the effectiveness of such groups. In practice, the FBI used infiltration, legal harassment, disinformation and sometimes extra-legal intimidation and violence against black activist groups in its attempt to discredit and disrupt them. From: HERB: Social History for Every Classroom

In June 1966, Stokely Carmichael first voiced the slogan “Black Power” during a march in Mississippi. He later explained that the slogan was “a call for black people in this country to begin to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.” Carmichael’s rhetoric, influenced by Malcolm X, revealed a growing divide in the civil rights movement between those who encouraged interracial collaboration and those who advocated black separatism. This testimony before a Senate subcommittee investigating internal security includes an interview Carmichael recorded during a visit to Cuba in 1967. Although he advocated an international struggle to end capitalism, Carmichael later declared Communism is “not an ideology suited for black people.” From: History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web

President Lyndon Johnson formed a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in July 1967 to investigate why riots had plagued cities each summer since 1964 and to provide recommendations for the future. The Commission’s 1968 report, informally known as the Kerner Report, concluded that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Unless conditions were remedied, the Commission warned, the country faced a “system of ’apartheid’” in its major cities. From: History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web

How does 2020 compare to 1968? During the Democratic Party National Convention, held in Chicago, violent confrontations exploded when 10,000 protesters faced off against more than 20,000 army troops and police officers. Seven police officers faced dismissal proceedings; but eight leaders of protest organizations were indicted for conspiring to violate the 1968 Anti-Riot Act. In this testimony before a House Committee on Un-American Activities hearing to investigate “subversive involvement” in the disruption, activist Tom Hayden expressed outrage at the current “state of anarchy,” and his continued support for participatory democracy. From: History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web

In the 1960s, Black and Puerto Rican students at CUNY mobilized to demand a more equitable public university system. In 1969, black and Puerto Rican students mobilized at the City College of New York (CCNY) campus, in Harlem.  For more than a month they occupied CCNY buildings and held marches. This flyer outlined their demands. Although they encountered violence from police, their protests led to the resignation of CCNY’s president and helped establish an Open Admissions policy at CCNY and across all CUNY campuses in 1970. From: CUNY Digital History Archive

In 1970, students at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) mobilized to demand an end to increases in tuition fees, a day care center for children of students, and new practices regarding the use of city police on campus.  This photograph shows Maria Ramos, the BMCC Student Government President, and others shortly before their arrest in a 1970 protest. From: CUNY Digital History Archive

This flyer from 1976 advertises a protest, sponsored by the Black Students Union and other Black student organizations, against “genocide and racism in the city’s university.”  The protest, held at the United Nations Plaza in Manhattan on Paul Robeson’s birthday, was in response to austerity measures that severely cut funding to vital city services and CUNY, and overwhelmingly targeted working-class class communities of color.  From: CUNY Digital History Archive

Resources by and/or for Public Historians, Archivists, and Museum Professionals

A publicly-accessible reference to support equitable and inclusive work in public settings. The handbook contains concrete examples of how to make history more relevant. Compiled by the National Council on Public History.

A collection of resources developed by the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture for parents and educators.

A list of culturally-specific museums created by people of color in the United States.

This project connects archivists and other memory workers who are willing to share their time, resources, and expertise with activists documenting protests against police violence.  

An extensive list of resources (syllabi, books, articles, podcasts, video, etc) probing museum accountability as sites of racial and cultural exclusion.

Other Teaching Activities and Reading Lists

The Zinn Education Project provides many valuable free resources, including their ongoing People's Historians Online weekly webinars that pair a scholar and teacher, and teaching activities designed for students in grades k-12. Classroom activities include: ‘If There Is No Struggle…’: Teaching a People’s History of the Abolition Movement, COINTELPRO: Teaching the FBI’s War on the Black Freedom Movement, and Attica Uprising.

Teaching Tolerance creates lesson plans and classroom activities to teach about ‘hard history’ including topics ranging from slavery to police violence in the U.S.

In 2014 historian Marcia Chatelain started #FergusonSyllabus and How to Teach Kids About What’s Happening in Ferguson to gather recommendations of materials suitable for teaching about the death of Michael Brown and the uprisings that followed.  Scholars subsequently generated the CharlestonSyllabus, after nine African American parishioners were murdered during a Bible study class at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church; and the BaltimoreSyllabus after police in that city killed Freddie Gray while transporting him in a police van during an arrest.  The Confederate Monument Syllabus offers resources for teachers and students on the high school and college levels and others who want to understand better ongoing debates about the meaning of Confederate monuments and the American Civil War. Institutionalized Racism: A Syllabus is a collection of articles coordinated by JSTOR Daily to bring context to present-day violence against African Americans.

The co-editors at the Abusable Past have compiled this list to provide adult readers with quick access to collected resources for teaching, learning, and acting in the wake of the most recent wave of police killings in U.S. cities.

This extensive reading list and syllabus for adult readers was compiled by Trish Kahle, a Postdoctoral Social Sciences Teaching Fellow in the Department of History and the College at the University of Chicago, and published on the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.  

A wide-ranging list of books, suitable for children, young adults, and adult readers and including fiction, nonfiction, classic texts, and more recent titles.

This daily calendar, put out by the Equal Justice Initiative, provides a set of tools for learning more about people and events in American history that are critically important but not well known. 

A collection of excerpted writings by radical Black activists from Reconstruction to the present, produced by CUNY Struggle, a collective of students and teachers affiliated with the City University of New York.

  • Anti-Racism and #BlackLivesMatter Resources This list highlights anti-racism and Black liberation resources found in the collection of Mina Rees Library at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.  It also points to critical works made by scholars teaching at the Graduate Center.
  • Online Resources for Learning Civil Rights History A list of resources to explore and expand your understanding of the American Civil Rights Movement as part of a larger struggle for human rights and racial equality.

Crowd-Sourced and Interactive Digital Resources on Police Violence, Segregation, Incarceration, and Protests

Statistics regarding police violence are hard to find. There is currently no national, governmental database for those killed or injured by police. Non-governmental resources that track fatal police shootings include the Washington Post’s Police Shooting Database, and Mapping Police Violence, a free, crowdsourced database. A “National Use-of-Force” database that would track killings and injuries (when such data are voluntarily made public by police departments) was announced by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2019 but has not been released. 

  • Mapping Prejudice delves into residential covenants and documents that disclose the history of residential segregation in Minneapolis. Mapping Inequality offers an interactive map of HOLC Security Maps of cities across the country, which were one piece of the institutionalization of redlining. All maps, and their accompanying area descriptions, are downloadable.   
  • Chicago’s Million Dollar Blocks is an interactive map showing the high cost of incarceration in Chicago. Using data from 2005-2009, the authors determine—unsurprisingly—that public dollars flowing into the city’s carceral landscape are most concentrated in majority Black neighborhoods, revealing the stark racial disparities of incarceration.
  • Preserve the Baltimore Uprising: Your Stories. Your Pictures. Your Stuff. Your History is a crowdsourced project that documents the uprising following the 2015 murder of Freddie Gray. Similarly, Documenting Ferguson makes available interviews and other materials detailing the protests following the murder of Michael Brown in 2014.
  • States of Incarceration, a public humanities project organized by the Humanities Action Lab and focused on the past, present, and future of mass incarceration and prisons in the United States.