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The Forgotten Role of Black Teachers in Birmingham’s Civil Rights Movement

Odessa Woolfolk began her teaching career at Ullman High School during the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. (FILE)

By Tonyaa Weathersbee | Chalkbeat

As a Birmingham, Alabama, native, Tondra Loder-Jackson was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. She was especially inspired by the 1,000-plus Black children who walked out of school in Birmingham on May 2, 1963, to protest Jim Crow segregation in what would be known as the Children’s Crusade.

Still, one question lingered for Loder-Jackson. Where, she wondered, were the Black teachers?

Now a professor of educational foundations at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Loder-Jackson sought the answer to that question — and wound up debunking a narrative that Black teachers either shied away from the movement or were hostile to it.

In her 2016 book, “Schoolhouse Activists: African American Educators and the Long Birmingham Civil Rights Movement,” and in a 2023 book she co-edited, “Schooling the Movement: The Activism of Southern Black Educators from Reconstruction Through the Civil Rights Era,” Loder-Jackson details how many Black teachers, at the risk of losing their jobs and, in some cases, their lives, organized quietly and supported the movement through their scholarship and their teaching, and through associations with outside groups.

Tondra Loder-Jackson

Loder-Jackson recently talked to Chalkbeat about her work and the lessons teachers in states like Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and others where teaching about race is being restricted, can learn from those 1960s schoolhouse activists on how to resist new state-sanctioned attempts to whitewash Black history.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

This seemed to be a relatively untold story, although some scholars began to unearth some archival data and tell new stories decades ago. But no one that I knew of in Birmingham was focused on educators, and really, on the contrary, I discovered there was a false narrative in Birmingham that Black teachers and principals were categorically tepid about getting involved in the movement. In fact, there’s one narrative about a Black principal who stood in the schoolhouse door to prevent his students from skipping school during the Children’s Crusade in 1963.

The false narrative that Black teachers in Birmingham, and in the southern region, were not active in the Civil Rights Movement leaves our teachers today with a lost memory of the kind of activism that teachers were involved in. There was an active network of below-the-radar teachers and administrators who contributed to the Alabama movement in various ways that were typically aligned with their professional practices. They formed Black teachers associations … There is clear evidence, in national and local archives, that Black Alabama teachers joined ranks with the Alabama State Teachers Association. They were involved with them, they were involved in the NAACP, they were involved in the Alabama Christian Association, they were involved in all the civil rights organizations. It’s important for all educators to know, irrespective of race or ethnicity or nationality, the role that educators played in voting rights and in all aspects of the movement.

I was surprised by this underground railroad of Black educators and how they came together as a collective to fight for civil rights. They were instrumental in putting together reports to document racial discrimination, they fought for voting rights, they sponsored Black history programs, and they were involved in strategizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They came together as a collective to fight for civil rights.

It was true that some didn’t feel comfortable protesting, but many blended in with crowds during the mass meetings, which was one of the core activities of the movement. I have interviewed teachers who said they have attended every one of those meetings.

Everything goes around in circles. We had a backlash against multiculturalism in the 1980s, but then things died down a bit. The backlash today, however, seems especially vitriolic. I have to consider the role that the first Black president elected two times, and a pandemic that opened up classrooms virtually with some students’ parents looking over their shoulders, and the George Floyd protests may have played in this.

The attacks on civic education are disconcerting to me. That is the space in public schools where students learn how a democracy should work. One teacher I interviewed told me one important lesson she taught during the movement was to help students understand why they were going out to march in the streets, and she would use her civics lesson to make a connection between their actions and what they were doing. So teachers play an important role in laying the intellectual foundation for any social movement, and teachers, and Black teachers in the South particularly, played that role.

Today, we definitely don’t want to have situations where we have educational gaps and orders keeping teachers from teaching social studies authentically and with fidelity.

So I would say that the lessons that teachers of today can learn from teachers of the past is to find ways to organize at their schools on a local, state, and even a national and international level. Beyond unions, there are a lot of professional associations and informal coalitions that are emerging.

In Birmingham, I’ve become part of a group called Coalition for True History. It’s an emergent grass roots organization that is made up of educators, civic leaders, and community members. We are advocating rigorous, authentic, and critical approaches to teaching history. We’ve had the NAACP and other groups to help interpret legal leeways (around laws that restrict lessons on race).

So, (teachers) are going to have to work in solidarity. Based on my scholarship and research, that is the model that we have from the past.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.