Closer Readings Commentary

Unfinished Business and Enduring Legacies

Leslie Abbatiello, Project Director/John Gustafson, Project Coordinator.

In social studies classrooms and movie theaters alike, the civil rights movement appears to fit neatly into a short timeframe, from “Montgomery to Memphis.” It begins with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, followed by victories during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in 1955 and the March on Washington in 1963, and ends decisively with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.

However, the civil rights movement is much more than this concise narrative of heroes and holidays—a short story of African Americans fighting for their own liberty. We know the civil rights movement to be a long, unfinished story of a people-centered, messy, conflicted and complex struggle for justice. The movement’s origins reach back to the early 20th century and its legacy continues to this day. The civil rights movement is the story of everyday people doing extraordinary things to secure liberty for themselves and for their neighbors.

The Long Civil Rights Movement: Unfinished Business and Enduring Legacies is a two-week Institute designed for teachers of social studies, humanities, English language arts, and related subjects. It offers you, and in turn your students, opportunities to look beyond the common narratives, to connect past events to your own lives and times, and to see yourselves as makers of history and agents of change. NEH Summer Scholars will stay at the newly built Franklin and Murray Colleges at Yale University. The buildings are beautiful, and will provide plenty of space for NEH Summer Scholars to reflect, work, and relax a little. That is, when you are not out exploring New Haven, Yale University, and of course, weighing in on the perpetual debate about New Haven’s famous pizza!

Though this is the first NEH Summer Institute at ACES, we have our own long history of facilitating professional learning and guiding teachers through the complex past of the United States. From 2005 to 2013, ACES facilitated four federally funded Teaching American History grants. More than 100 Connecticut teachers strengthened their knowledge and understanding of American history while incorporating strategies into their teaching that brought history alive for their students. Grant participants explored the Gullah area of South Carolina and Georgia, followed immigration history in California, and visited landmarks of the Harlem Renaissance in field studies across America.

A large part of the success of these programs, and one that we are also bringing to The Long Civil Rights Movement, is our partnership with The Gilder Lehrman Center (GLC) for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. The GLC is a key component to providing historical context and artifacts, such as those available in the Yale University Manuscripts & Archives, to supplement the understanding of the civil rights movement as one of both progress and unfinished business. Thomas (Tom) Thurston, the Education Director at the GLC has collaborated with ACES for ten years to plan and lead workshops for K-12 teachers, and has extensive experience in developing multimedia resources for social studies instruction. Tom will be a daily face at the Institute, and will be leading NEH Summer Scholars on walking tours of the Black Panther sites in New Haven, and in New York City to explore local landmarks and culture of the Northern civil rights movement.

We welcome Dr. Yohuru Williams, Dean of the CAS and Professor of History at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, who will join us for the entire Institute. Dr. Williams will set the scene for participants by introducing them to “Life Under Jim Crow,” framed by Richard Wright’s “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” along with other accounts of the period. He will also drive thinking forward in the second half of the Institute by asking NEH Summer Scholars to consider the question, “What is the modern legacy of the civil rights movement in the North?” a reminder that the civil rights movement was not confined to the American South.

In addition, we are pleased to be joined by Charles Cobb, who was a Mississippi field secretary with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists. During the Institute, Cobb will facilitate a session called “Civil Rights Activism: Local and National.”

NEH Summer Scholars will also examine the modern challenges to equality and the civil rights movement’s enduring legacy, and consider its influence on the environmental movement, LGBTQ movement, and feminism in a presentation by Dr. Kimberly Dugan, Professor of Sociology at Eastern Connecticut State University, and author of The Struggle Over Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Rights.

We hope that you are as excited as we are to be embarking on this journey. For further information or to apply, visit