Course syllabus





Course Convener: Jennifer Frost
Humanities Building, Office 721 (206-721)
373-7599, ext. 88322
Office Hours: Wednesdays 12-2 pm & by appointment

Class Representatives: for Kyra for Murray



‘The arc of the moral universe is long.  But it bends toward justice’.

--Abolitionist Theodore Parker, 1850s

‘For these Americans, civil rights activism was not a “movement”.  It was not an exceptional moment in time.  It was instead a way of life, an act of faith, a lifelong mission’.

--Historian Douglas Flamming, 2005


Course Description

This course examines African American struggles for freedom in the United States, beginning, briefly, with the transition from slavery to freedom in the 19th century.  We will then focus on Black activism during the ‘long’ Civil Rights Movement, which lasted over the entire 20th century, from protests against segregation and disenfranchisement in the Jim Crow South, Ida B. Wells’ antilynching campaign, the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Great Migration of African Americans north where they also encountered racism and discrimination, gains and setbacks during the eras of World War I and II, through the emergence of the modern Civil Rights Movement in 1954 and its evolution over the 1960s toward Black Power, to the legacy and fate of the Movement in the last quarter of the 20th century. 

The course will emphasize the depth and breadth of African American oppositional spirit and political activity, including culture and religion, as well as the important achievements and remaining challenges of the struggle for Black equality in the USA.  This course is taught concurrently with History 308, and students share a lecture time.  However, History 208 differs from History 308 in that students have fewer readings, separate tutorial, and different assessment.


Course Objectives

Although chronological in orientation, this course approaches the history of African American struggles for freedom thematically.  Thus, the lecture and reading for each week illuminates a historical era and key questions or issues in the study of the Civil Rights Movement.  These include:

(1) the ‘master narrative’ of the Civil Rights Movement
(2) the ‘long’ Civil Rights Movement across and between generations
(3) white violence and resistance
(4) legal, political, and direct action protest
(5) organization-building locally and nationally
(6) black experience in the North and South & ‘de facto’ (actual) v. ‘de jure’ (in law) inequalities
(7) different locations and perspectives: local, state, federal, national, global
(8) culture and community as a mobilizing or movement resource
(9) top-down v. bottom-up momentum and organizing: leadership, membership, gender, class
(10) interracialism and separatism in the Movement
(11) non-violence and self-defense as a Movement tactic
(12) expanded definitions of ‘civil rights’
(13) successes and failures of the Movement
(14) the post-Civil Rights Movement era
(15) memory and the Movement

As a consequence, successful tutorial participation, assignments, and exam in this course requires engagement with these questions and issues in the field as well as familiarity with the relevant historical content. 

Upon completion of this course, students should have

  • a broad knowledge of African-American struggles for freedom across the 20th-century
  • an awareness of the major historical debates in the field of Civil Rights Movement Studies
  • familiarity with using and analyzing a range of sources—primary and secondary—to understand historical questions in the field of Civil Rights Movement Studies
  • enhanced critical and historical thinking, writing, and oral presentation skills



Course Expectations

Course expectations are threefold.  First, students in the course will regularly attend lectures and tutorials; attendance will be taken at tutorials.  Second, students in the course will complete the course assessment, including required tutorial readings, assignments, and exam; students must pass the exam to pass the course.  Plussage is not available in this course, as the exam is a 40% exam.  Third, students in the course must adhere to basic standards of classroom etiquette.  Violations of these standards are considered rude and unacceptable, and the instructor reserves the right to ask students violating these standards to leave the classroom.


Lecture  Schedule

Monday and Thursdays 11-1

Week 1

7 January:        Introduction & The Long Civil Rights Movement, 19th Century-1920
10 January:      American Apartheid, North and South, 1900-1930

Week 2

14 January:      Culture and Community as Mobilizing Resources, 1900-1930
17 January:      Local—National—Global Politics, 1920-1945

Week 3

21 January:      Top-Down/Bottom-Up Momentum: The ‘Classic’ Movement, 1945-1955
24 January:      Top-Down/Bottom-Up Organising: The ‘Classic’ Movement, 1955-1965

Week 4

28 January:      No Lecture—Auckland Anniversary Day
31 January:      Non-Violence/Self-Defense: Black Power, 1955-1970

Week 5

4 February:      Interracialism/Separatism: Black Power, 1955-1970
7 February:      Expanding ‘Civil Rights’, 1965-1975

Week 6

11 February:    Success and Failure, 1975-2008
14 February:    Remembering the Freedom Movement, 1980-2016



Assessment is as follows:30762091328_ae4d5b2232_m.jpg

  • Tutorial Participation: 10%
  • Assignments, 2500 words: 50%
  • Final Examination, 2 hours: 40%



Tutorial Programme


Key Course Text

Charles Payne, ‘Debating the Civil Rights Movement: The View From the Trenches’, in Steven F. Lawson and Charles Payne, Debating the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1968, Lanham, Md., 1998, pp. 99-136.

 Week 1—The ‘Long’ Civil Rights Movement

Required Reading:

  • Adam Fairclough, ‘Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching’, in Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890-2000, New York, 2001, pp. 1-39
  • Eric Arnesen, ‘Introduction’, Black Protest and the Great Migration: A Brief History with Documents, Boston, 2003, pp. 1-43.

Questions to Consider: What political and legal protests or actions did African Americans, such as Ida B. Wells, engage in to change the circumstances of their lives at the turn of the twentieth century? What was the impact of the Great Migration and World War I on the lives, aspirations, and problems of African Americans?

Tutorial/Lecture Listening: Robert Johnson, ‘Hellhound on My Trail’ and ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ (recorded 1936).

Week 2—Culture, Community, and Politics

Required Reading:

  • Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, ‘The Black Church: A Gender Perspective,’ in Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Black Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920, Cambridge, Mass., 1993, 1-18.
  • Robin D. G. Kelley, ‘The Riddle of the Zoot: Malcolm Little and Black Cultural Politics During World War II’, in Race Rebels: Culture Politics, and the Black Working Class, New York, 1994, pp. 161-181.

Questions to Consider: What do we learn about African American struggles for freedom by looking at religion and popular culture? What is ‘political’ about culture and community? What does Kelley mean when he uses the term ‘cultural politics’?

Tutorial/Lecture Listening: Scott Joplin, ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ (1916), Bessie Smith ‘Young Woman Blues’ (1926), Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, ‘Minnie the Moocher’ (1931), Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra, with Ella Fitzgerald, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ (1932), and Billie Holiday, ‘Strange Fruit’ (1939).


Week 3—Top-Down/Bottom-Up Momentum and Organising

Required Reading:

  • ‘Separate But Equal?’ in William Bruce Wheeler and Susan D. Becker, Discovering the Past: A Look at the Evidence, 4th ed., Boston, 1994, pp. 239-255.
  • Lisa Trei, ‘Black Children Might Have Been Better Off without Brown v. Board, Bell Says’, Stanford Report (April 21, 2004),
  • Clayborne Carson, ‘Martin Luther King, Jr.: Charismatic Leadership in a Mass Struggle,’ Journal of American History, 74, 2, 1987, pp. 448-454, available through Talis.

Questions to Consider: What sparked and sustained a mass movement for civil rights in the 1950s? Did the momentum, power, and success for the ‘classic’ Civil Rights Movement come from the top down—through the federal government, geopolitical forces, and leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—or from the bottom up—African Americans organizing in their own communities? Was the Brown decision a success for the Civil Rights Movement? Could the Movement have happened without Dr. King?

Tutorial/Lecture Listening: Charlie Parker’s Ri Bop Boys featuring Dizzy Gillespie, ‘Ko Ko’ (1946), Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaking in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963; Fannie Lou Hamer, ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’, Willie Peacock, ‘Calypso Freedom’, CORE Freedom Singers/Ray Charles, ‘Get Your Rights, Jack’ (all recorded in 1963)

Week 4—No Tutorial

Required Reading:

  • Timothy B. Tyson, ‘Robert F. Williams, “Black Power,” and the Roots of the African American Freedom Struggle’, Journal of American History, 85, 2, 1998, pp. 540-570


Week 5—Black Power

Required Reading:

  • Leilah Danielson, ‘The “Two-Ness” of the Movement: James Farmer, Nonviolence, and Black Nationalism’, Peace & Change, 29, 3&4, 2004, 431-452.
  • Robyn Ceanne Spencer, ‘Inside the Panther Revolution: The Black Freedom Movement and the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California’, in Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, eds., Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America, New York, 2005, pp. 300-317.

Questions to Consider: What benefits were gained by building an interracial, non-violent Civil Rights Movement, and what were the problems? What objections did advocates of separatism and self-defense have and why did they believe their approach was the way to achieve freedom and equality for African Americans? What was the relationship between the ‘classic’ Civil Rights Movement and Black Power?  

Tutorial/Lecture Listening: James Brown, ‘Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud’ (1968); Nina Simone, ‘Young, Gifted, and Black’ (1969), Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey’ (1969), Medgar Evers Speaking in Greenwood, Mississippi, 1963; Matthew Jones, ‘Ballad of Medgar Evers’ (1963), SNCC Freedom Singers, ‘In the Mississippi River’ (1964), and Otis Redding/Sam Cooke, ‘A Change Gonna Come’ (1964-65).


Week 6—Success, Failure, and Memory

Required Reading:

  • Renee C. Romano and Leigh Raiford, eds., ‘Introduction’, The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory, Athens, Ga., 2006, pp. xi-xxiv.
  • Ta-Nahesi Coates, ‘My President Was Black,’ The Atlantic, January-February 2017,

Questions to Consider: What goals and aims did African Americans articulate and pursue during the ‘classic’ civil rights era? Is ‘civil rights’ the best term to capture these goals and aims? What were the successes of the Civil Rights Movement and what were the failures? What significance does the memory of the Civil Rights Movement hold for contemporary U.S. society? Given the importance of memory, what do you want to remember from History 208?

Tutorial/Lecture Listening: The Temptations, ‘Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today)’ (1970), Marvin Gaye, ‘What’s Going On’ (1971), Gil Scott-Heron, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ (1971), Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, ‘Be Real Black for Me’ (1972), Run-D.M.C., ‘Proud to Be Black’ (1986), and Public Enemy, ‘Party for Your Right to Fight’ (1988) and ‘Fight the Power’ (1990).

Course summary:

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