Civil Rights and Its Opponents, from the Civil War to Now

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Course DatesMeeting TimesStatusInstructor(s)CRNRegistration
July 15, 2019 - August 02, 20197/15 - 8/02M-F 3:30P-6:20POpenDaniel Platt

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Course Description

The story of race in America is often told as a tale of slow but steady progress. It begins in slavery, runs through emancipation and the gradual expansion of citizenship, and culminates in the election of black political leaders like Barack Obama. This tale, of course, has never been faithful to actual history. Recent events like the violence in Charlottesville, however, make it especially clear that the advance of civil rights has never been straight-forward or assured. Further, they illuminate that the fight has always been waged against active opponents with an exclusionary vision of the boundaries of American belonging.

This course examines the long struggle to promote and resist racial equality in the United States from the Civil War to the present. Over the term, students will encounter black movement leaders and white allies who organized against institutions of racial disenfranchisement, from voting restrictions and labor coercion to urban divestment and police violence. They will also meet the figures who stood on the other side of these battles: the states’ rights and color-blind conservatives; the homeowners, union leaders, and businessmen guarding their share; and the ardent segregationists and militant Klansmen. Together, we will delve deeply into the strategies and tactics used by these different people, as well as the ideas and attitudes that motivated their positions. Our goal will be not simply to judge but to use this history to better understand the halting, circuitous, and rarely settled path of racial equality in modern America.

The course will focus on five formative moments in the history of civil rights in the United States: the age of Reconstruction following the Civil War; the consolidation of Jim Crow around the turn of the twentieth century; the nationalization of Jim Crow during the Great Depression; the surge of civil rights activism following World War II; and the era of urban divestment and mass incarceration, beginning in the 1970s. Students will engage with important progressive thinkers and activists, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Ella Baker, and with opponents of civil rights, such as Ben Tillman and George Wallace. They will examine key original sources, including legal texts, political essays, and oral histories, and supplementary secondary studies, such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2008) and Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK (2017).

Students will leave this course with a deep understanding of the struggle for racial equality in America since the Civil War – of the achievements of its proponents and the successful challenges of its antagonists. They will also possess the tools to interpret contemporary issues, from police violence to voting rights restrictions, from a historical perspective. In addition to learning essential content, students will acquire research and analytical skills that will serve them in Advanced Placement and college-level history course, such as learning how to locate primary sources and how to interpret them through a variety of lenses and contexts.

Prerequisites: This course is ideal for students interested in U.S. history; race and civil rights; law and government; social activism; and current events. There are no prerequisites for this course. Students are asked only to bring a spirit of generous curiosity, good faith, and mutual respect, in order to contribute to an inclusive space of shared inquiry.


Course Information

  • Course Code: CEHI0965
  • Length: 3 weeks

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences, offering over 200 non-credit courses, one- to four-weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2019.

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