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The Struggle (against) Civil Rights: From the Civil War to Now

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Course Description

The history of race in America is often told as a linear story of progress, beginning with the emancipation of slaves during the Civil War, continuing with the expansion of civil rights in the twentieth century, and culminating with the election (and re-election) of Barack Obama. After his two-term presidency, when many imagined, briefly, that we had entered a post-racial period in American history, the rise in white nationalistic rhetoric (and not only rhetoric) and the election of Donald Trump was a surprise for many.

The long struggle for civil rights for Black Americans was and still is a struggle precisely because there was – and still is – much opposition in America to the goals of this struggle. In order to gain a full understanding of the struggle for civil rights, an understanding of the history of resistance to racial equity in the U.S is essential. In this course, we will explore this resistance, from the end of the Civil War to the hotly contested debates over Civil War monuments in our contemporary moment. As we study the struggle for Black freedom in this country in the long twentieth-century and into the present day, we will encounter and discuss the logics and tactics of white opposition.

We will begin by focusing on four foundational developments in race relations in the U.S. that generated enduring political legacies: 1) the promise of Reconstruction after the Civil War; 2) the subsequent establishment of Jim Crow regimes in the South and the North; 3) the surge of Civil Rights activism after World War II; 4) and the rise of mass incarceration in the 1970s. Then, we will explore white “massive resistance” to Black equity in thematic topics, including education, housing, voting, and the workplace. We will also study the “Southernization” of U.S. culture in the twentieth-century. Students will have the opportunity to engage with important American thinkers, including W.E.B. DuBois; crucial texts including Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow; cutting-edge scholars of race in the U.S. including Ibram X. Kendi; as well as primary source documents, oral histories, and testimonials.

Students in this course will gain a toolkit of critical methods of inquiry and communication that is readily transferable to their everyday lives and future collegiate careers. We will develop our historical habits of mind: considering context; identifying causality; testing comparisons; and most importantly, cultivating a sense of curiosity. Students will practice these habits in three ways: first, we will draw on a rich trove of primary sources to experience the texture and complexity of historical materials. Second, we weigh the interpretations of historical actors and scholars. And third, students will learn to harness evidence and situate their own claims within ongoing intellectual debates.

Students can expect a highly interactive and rigorous classroom. In addition to daily critical reflections and weekly quizzes, students should be prepared to participate in role-playing historical debates, group work, and peer-review exercises. Each class, one student will lead the discussion of the readings. For a final project, students will deliver a multimedia presentation on a topic of their own choosing related to the course materials. For at least one class, we will visit Brown University’s John Hay Library and conduct archival research in the library’s extensive Hall-Hoag collection of extremist print material. After we have learned the process and practice of archival research, students are encouraged to continue this historical method to prepare their in-class presentation.

By the close of the course, students will be fluent in the major terms, concepts, and debates in the U.S. history of race relations. Students will also be familiar with historical methods of research and inquiry which will prepare them for college-level courses in history, and courses in the humanities and social sciences more broadly. Finally, the skills students build in this course will equip them to be critical thinkers in their everyday lives.

Prerequisites: This course assumes that students have a basic familiarity with major turning points in U.S. history since the Civil War (e.g., Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement). Students who have taken one high school-level U.S. history course will be best prepared for this course. Students should also be aware that the material in this course may be politically or emotionally unsettling. Students are asked to bring a spirit of generous curiosity, good faith, and mutual respect in order to co-create an inclusive space of shared inquiry.