In civil rights history course, students rethink movement's past, future

A creative collage interpreting civil rights history with poetry and photographs.
As part of her civil rights history course, Professor Crystal Feimster asked her students to create zines, which are social justice/political act projects that originated in the 1960s. The focus of the zine project this semester was Pauli Murray ’65 J.S.D., ’79 Hon. D.Div., the leader in civil rights and the advancement of women for whom a new Yale residential college was recently named.

With unfortunate frequency, Crystal Feimster has found herself having to rethink her first day of class lecture for her course “The Long Civil Rights Movement” to respond to incidents of civil unrest in the United States. The first year she taught the course came after the Ferguson riots, the second, after the Charlestown massacre, and then this year Charlottesville and the controversy over the confederate monuments.

I realized I couldn’t just jump into my lecture without acknowledging what had brought many of them to the course. I had to think about how I was going to address these issues as a historian in a classroom filled with young people looking for answers about what was happening today,” says Feimster, associate professor of African American studies.

Feimster says that the first year she taught the class it was held in a room that seated about 75 students. She did not expect a large turnout. “When you teach a lecture course at Yale it may take a while for it to gain momentum. ‘Maybe I will get 30 kids,’ I thought.” In reality, the students spilled out of the room, says Feimster. “I knew that they were there because they were thinking about civil rights and about Ferguson. I was very clear with the students that I would give them tools to help them understand, research, and write about the past and I reassured them that those same tools would help them begin to make sense of the current moment.”

On the first day of class Feimster tells her students that “The Long Civil Rights Movement” is a call to action, which makes them a bit anxious at first, she says. “What I mean when I say that it is a call to action is that I want my students to stretch themselves. I tell my students that this course is an intellectual exercise in which I’m asking you to suspend everything you think you know about the Civil Rights Movement. I am going to present them with new knowledge, and I’m asking them to be open. That in itself is an act.”

Most students, Feimster finds, think of the civil rights movement as taking place mainly between 1954 and 1965. Feimster debunks that myth and pulls the narrative back to the 1930s. “I try to make connections about the Civil Rights Movement as not just about ending segregation in the South — which is the way that it is mostly understood — but thinking about civil rights as part of a much longer movement for economic, political and social justice that stretched far beyond the South, that took root in the liberal and radical milieu of the late 1930s, was tied to the rise and fall of the New Deal Order, accelerated during the WWII, was relentlessly and ferociously contested, and in the 1960s and 1970s inspired a 'movement of movements.'”

The Yale scholar wants her students to create their own arguments about the material that they study in her class. She wants them to consider the issues surrounding the civil rights movement that are of a particular concern for them. “You don’t have to agree with my interpretation of the civil rights movement,” Feimster tells her students, “but you need to be able to wield sources, primary and secondary sources to express a counter argument. I want you to understand how one of the most remarkable mass movements in American history not only changed the world but how you can mobilize that history to speak effectively to the challenges of the world you live in today.”

Feimster eschews mid-terms and final exams for more creative — and, she hopes, lasting — research projects. She wants her students to complete the course having acquired new knowledge as well as a skill set that allows them to create original scholarship. For their midterm project, she had her students create zines, which are social justice/political act projects that originated in the 1960s. The focus of the zine project this semester was Pauli Murray ’65 J.S.D., ’79 Hon. D.Div., the leader in civil rights and the advancement of women for whom a new Yale residential college was recently named. Each of the six discussion sections were assigned a decade in Murray’s life for their project. The guidelines for this assignment were that the students could be as creative as they wanted to but they were required to upload primary and secondary documents on the decade they were researching onto Canvas so everybody could use the sources. “It was like crowd sourcing,” says Feimster.

For their final project, students are tasked with creating a children’s book on a civil rights activist. Feimster provided her students with a list of 50 people to choose from. The students are required to use both primary sources and secondary literature to support their thesis in the book. They must also take on a theme, be it segregation, education, black power, or sit ins. “I want them to have something when they leave this class that will make this knowledge that they have acquired both accessible and useful to someone who won’t be able to take ‘The Long Civil Rights Movement’ course or who might not come to Yale,” said Feimster.

I think our students live in a world where everything is instantaneous,” notes Feimster, who says that her students think that by googling a topic they learn everything there is to know about it. “I want them to know the importance and value of engaging in deep research and reading across genres — whether it is reading letters that people have written, or newspapers, or diaries, or government documents or legal briefs. I always tell my students that as a historian I am comfortable with multiple truths, competing interpretations, and contradictory sources. Indeed, oftentimes when I am finished with a project I have more questions than answers.”

Her relationship with her students is a “dynamic” one, says Feimster, who admits that her students use terminology that sometimes has her searching the Urban Dictionary. Occasionally, though, she is able to turn the tables on them. “I’ll learn from them how they are talking about a particular social justice or civil rights issue and then sometimes I will tease them about their ‘new’ terminology.”

For instance, she says, their expression for being socially aware is “to be woke” —  a phrase, she says, that was being used in the 1940s by Lead Belly, a folk and blues musician. “Oftentimes they think they invented something and I remind them that so much of what they think is new is rooted in history.” 

Media Contact

Bess Connolly Martell: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324