One of the interesting things about the protests of the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York is how they are understood and interpreted. TV news or the headlines tend to focus and report on them as responses to the grand jury decisions themselves, which they certainly are. But a long history is also at play here that can get missed or overlooked. Reading the signs or listening to protesters, one can hear calls for the end to systemic injustice and impunity—impunity that has affected African American victims of white violence for centuries. Underlying the protests is the belief that the justice system has never worked the same way for all of us.
This short clip of Dave Dennis giving the eulogy at the funeral of the murdered civil rights worker James Chaney in the summer of 1964 is a painfully apt illustration of this doubt about the justice system.
The clip omits his conclusion to “You see, I know what is going to happen. I feel it deep in my heart – when they find the people who killed those guys in Neshoba County….” What didn’t make into the clip was what Dave Dennis said next… “they [will] come back to the state of Mississippi and have a jury of all their cousins and aunts and uncles. And I know what they are going to say: Not guilty.”
As protests continue, there is an opportunity to add historical perspective to the debates that are playing out around all of us. Race and the history of relations between white and black people in the United States remains a charged and challenging topic. Tackling this challenge can bring the reward of new understanding of the past as well the present for students. The Choices Program has curriculum resources that engage students with this historical context and provide a foundation to consider what’s happening right now.
Freedom Now: The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi can be used as a springboard for explorations of current race relations in the United States. It gives students a good understanding of the historical underpinnings of racial inequality, drawing clear connections between inequalities of the past and inequalities that exist today.
There are free videos of scholars answering fundamental questions about this history as well as free activities and resources.
A Forgotten History: The Slave Trade and Slavery in New England seeks to inform students of the economic and social impact of slavery and the slave trade in the North. Historians comment that New England has “forgotten” its slave-owning past, and that such a narrative—one that remembers abolition but not enslavement—has had far-reaching consequences for black-white relations and the nature of race in the United States.