For students raised on a digital diet of virtual content enrobed in Technicolor, impressing the historical relevance of the March on Washington, documented in black and white, can be daunting.
Compounding that task are the guardrails many educators face in the U.S. today on how to teach classes about Black history, and challenges from the past that remain in the present. As experts note, many of the hurdles facing Black Americans 60 years ago, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech, still exist today.
Yet educators say finding local connections to the civil rights movement or steeping students in the issues organizers faced without idolizing the event itself can help them connect the relevance of that day to today — and paint a more vibrant picture of the summer of 1963.
“I think it’s important that teachers don’t just highlight moments, but help students understand the context of what makes this moment,” said Kelisha Graves, chief research, education and programs officer for The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center For Nonviolent Social Change. “If we deify it, students lose the context of what it was and the blood, sweat and toil to make this moment successful.”
Mobilizing without the Internet
One way to transform Aug. 28, 1963, from a hallowed moment in time to a more tangible day is to talk about what it took to get 250,000 people to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on the same day and at the same time. The march was organized and took place during a time when social media, mobile phones and the internet did not exist.
Radio helped to spread the word, as did the Black press. Flyers — many of which have been documented online — were another crucial method for getting details into people’s hands. But the main available tools? People.
“People were going door to door, coalition building and helping them understand the issues,” said Graves. “It’s necessary for educators to reinforce the person-to-person relationship so we don’t lose the human element.”
Lerone Martin, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, suggests educators craft assignments that ask students how they would mobilize people to one location without the digital tools they lean on today. Graves added that an assignment like this helps present the March on Washington in a way that challenges pupils to problem solve for the present.
Martin said teachers could also ask students how they would support marchers. For instance, how would they calculate the time it takes to walk to a location without Google Maps? Or how would food and water be made available — or medical support for, say, someone with asthma who needs an inhaler but can’t access texting apps or mobile devices?
“People met at a specific church, and they would walk from that church to a store to find out how long it took to get there,” said Martin. “They also took lessons from previous campaigns.”
Make it local and immediate
Another way to help students pull the summer of 1963 into the present is to talk with relatives and people in their community about what they were doing and where they were 60 years ago on Aug. 28. Graves encourages educators to consider doing this by assigning an oral history project about the March on Washington.
She added that because photographs and video recordings from the day, including those of King’s speech, are captured primarily in black and white, it can be hard for today’s students to feel the immediacy and energy of the event.
Listening to people who lived through those times and are right in front of them can bring history alive. Students could ask great-grandparents or grandparents what they felt when they heard the news of the event or watched the coverage on TV. And if people attended in person, students could ask about their experiences getting to Washington, D.C., and hearing the speech live.
The march “can feel extremely old and outside any chronological sequences,” Graves said. “To bring flesh and blood to this time, even if someone did not attend, can make the history real and deliver it in living color.”
While the March on Washington was a pivotal moment, the civil rights movement extended long beyond that August day, said John Gartrell, director of the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History & Culture at Duke University. Educators can help students find the local impact in their own communities by looking for civil rights trails and markers, which are present in many areas of the South, he said.
Gartrell encourages classes to consider whether local churches or places of worship, historically black colleges or other centers organized and sent buses to the march — or just a few people. Students could see if these locations still exist and if people still work there who were involved.
“The march is the product of a lot of on-the-ground organizing and coordinating,” said Gartrell. “A lot of people don’t consider the fact that there are places in their community that sent one or two people to the march.”
Link demands of the past to present day issues
Martin noted while the most remembered element of the March on Washington was the fight for civil rights, the demands of the day included some of the economic issues making headlines today, from a national minimum wage to a guaranteed income.
“The ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is so moving and popular that we forget the part that this was a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” he said.
Organizers had a list of 10 demands, with several linked to financial and economic inequality, including one for a federal program to train all unemployed people for “meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.” Another was a demand for a national minimum wage “that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.” Martin said King expanded upon this request by exploring the idea of a guaranteed income.
“That was in the 1960s, and we now see people including Andrew Yang and mayors across cities in the U.S. talking about piloting basic income policies,” Martin said.
With these 20th century concerns still prevalent in the 21st century, learning about them can help bridge students to the continued relevancy of King, the civil rights era and that August day in 1963. Classes can look beyond the basic facts of that day and discover its impact on their lives today, helping them develop into individual thinkers — the goal educators have for students, said Martin.
“It’s important, especially as we come out of the pandemic and we’re talking about equality, there are other areas of equity that are great for young adults to consider,” Martin said. “Real educators are not trying to indoctrinate their students. They’re trying to make their students think, and part of that is talking about this history.”