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Modern Racism
Ane Lintvedt
McDonogh School
Owings Mills, Maryland
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View Primary Source(s):
The Rivonia Trial Speech
Letter from a Birmingham Jail

This assignment was for a world history course I teach to sophomores and is part of the larger post-World War II unit in the course. It comes after I teach the decolonization of Africa and Asia and is part of a small unit on modern global issues. I wanted students to take a look at the roots of “modern” racism and to make the connection between the status of blacks in the United States and blacks in South Africa. I wanted to get a discussion going on American “exceptionalism,” in particular that U.S. history is also rooted in colonial and imperial relations, exchanges and forced migrations. The students have not studied U.S. history in high school yet, so this idea is often new to them.

I set up the assignment by giving each student copies of two documents: Nelson Mandela, “The Rivonia Trial Speech” and Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”1 I present a brief introduction on the contexts within which both documents were produced—the apartheid system in South Africa and the American civil rights movement. My students have little trouble reading the documents because they are in modern English, so I don’t “translate” anything up front. Students begin reading the documents in class, and as homework, finish up the reading and write answers to a series of questions that accompany the documents.

The questions posed about the Mandela source include such things as why Mandela decided that the ANC had to resort to violence to achieve its goals, what distinctions he draws between sabotage and terrorism, why he and other ANC leaders were attracted to communism, and which aspects of apartheid Mandela found most degrading? On the King source, the questions include what King’s responses were to the specific criticisms of his civil rights campaign in Birmingham, how King responds to these criticisms, how he describes his “nonviolent direct action” and what this term means, and what similarities King sees between the American Civil Rights movement and the efforts of Asians and Africans to end imperialism?

Students came to class with answers to the various questions, and I began by asking if there were specific questions that were difficult to answer. In the most recent iteration of this assignment, some needed help with the questions dealing with sabotage and terrorism and with “nonviolent direct action.” Trying to answer these two questions generated a very interesting discussion on the morality of violence in a global context, the circumstances that lead to guerrilla warfare, and the influence of Gandhi’s satyagraha2 on Mandela and King.

Once we answered these questions, I turned the discussion to the question of comparing Asian, African, and American imperialism. Many of my students were unwilling to see the comparison as legitimate, because the United States was not “colonized” in the 19th century. We talked about how blacks had been brought to the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries and then discussed the disenfranchisement of southern black Americans after the Civil War. As the bell rang, they were pondering the idea that the southern states were “settler colonies” of the northern states! The following day, I showed a 38-minute video called America’s Civil Rights Movement to help students understand the violence connected with southern white resistance to blacks gaining voting rights, as well as the nonviolent attempts to change the status quo.3

Later in the week, a short-answer test covered the documents, discussion, and video. The test repeated the homework questions, discussed in class, and students were asked to answer two out of the three. The homework responses were not very thoughtful. I wanted to see whether their ideas were expanded, rethought, and explained more clearly through participation in class discussions.

Students grasped the notion of comparing African, Asian, and American groups fighting for equality. Many noted the issues of violence versus nonviolence and the influence of Gandhian thought. With rare exceptions, the students did not engage the question of colonial/imperial legacies at all, much less in any comparative fashion. I expect this was because the discussion on this point ran out of time, and I chose not to continue it the next day. I chose to show the video instead, hoping that the visual, visceral images would bring home the similarities. That obviously did not work.

Next year, I will use the same assignment and make sure that I allow ample time for discussion and reflection on the larger, more theoretical issue of the roots of modern racism in the colonialist/imperialist histories of various societies we examine. This turned out to be too big an issue for high school sophomores to access by themselves, and it is too important to let go.

These sources and the questions posed about them in the text offer an accessible assignment for any teaching environment. My students were regular sophomores, as opposed to AP students, and their performance was respectable. If I had a longer class period (longer than 40 minutes), the whole exercise could have taken place at once and I suspect the results would have been even better.

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1 Both appear in Alfred J. Andrea and James H. Overfield, The Human Record: Sources of Global History, Volume 2, 4th edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001)
2 satyagraha: the form of nonviolent resistance initiated in India by Mahatma Gandhi in order to oppose British rule and to hasten political reforms; Gandhi said: “Satyagraha literally means insistence on truth. This insistence arms the votary with matchless power. This power or force is connoted by the word satyagraha. Satyagraha, to be genuine, may be offered against parents, against one’s wife or one’s children, against rulers, against fellow-citizens, even against the whole world.” “There is in it no room for violence. The only force of universal application can, therefore, be that of ahimsa or love. In other words, it is soul-force.” “Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatever; and it ever insists upon truth.”
3 A Time for Justice: Amerca’s Civil Rights Movement, produced by Southern Poverty Law Center/Teaching Tolerance, Montgomery Alabama, 1991.

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