Over the past several weeks, my 3rd and 4th grade students have embarked on a study of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, largely guided by student interests. In this unit, students have examined racism as a heart issue that has the power to affect systems. In discussions, I have explicitly framed racism as a sin issue and a threat to the public welfare. Ultimately, my goal is that students will understand that as Christians and/or Catholics, we cannot be neutral to racism. While some individuals may argue that neutrality to racism is a thing of the past, current events in the United States say otherwise.
We a 3rd and 4th grade class have focused on the following sequence of ideas from the Bible. I have intentionally phrased these ideas in accessible language.
Therefore, racism is ultimately a sin against God.
Discrimination and sin are not just a Caucasian versus African American issue. Speaking from personal experience, I have seen discrimination between Asians and Latinos, Latinos and Asians, Asians and African Americans, African Americans and Latinos, African Americans and Asians, etc. This does not include the discrimination that happens between nations. In general, all have sinned and fallen short of glory of God.
NEVERTHELESS, like Jesus, we should still surrender our entire lives to God to be transformed, regardless of the cost.
As we’ve reflected on these themes, we have prayed:
- For God to cleans our own hearts from any sin or hidden racism still there
- For the Holy Spirit to change our hearts so that we would be equipped to change the world around us
- For God to cleanse places of wounding and brokenness in people’s hearts so that we United States citizens would be less racist
- Solemnly asking God for forgiveness for times we’ve excluded others, and acknowledging how hurtful it is when we have been excluded or treated unfairly
- For wisdom and discernment to know how to love others the way Jesus loves
Examining racism as a heart issue has allowed my 3rd and 4th graders to develop great sincerity in praying for their enemies. They legitimately long to see staunchly racist individuals restored and healed of any pain they are carrying.
With my 4th grade students I’ve also introduced the concept of micro-agressions, which I labeled as “a kind of sneaky racism that people can commit even without realizing it, in ways that they think might even be kind.” I shared an example with students of a time where I had to repent of this kind of sneaky racism, how the Holy Spirit convicted me of a habit I had been doing wrongly, and showed me a solution. In explaining to them that it is up to us as individuals to overcome any internalized racism we have developed from the world, students were shocked and grieved that micro-agressions are so common. They were frustrated by the fact that as individuals, doing the right thing takes so much extra effort. I explained to them that the narrow way Jesus gives us is harder, but the Holy Spirit helps us do the right thing.
The Subtlety of Racism
In order to understand the subtlety of racism, I created an activity featuring the thoughts of several lesser known individuals. I intentionally found quotes and pictures from primary sources in the Civil Rights era, so that my 4th grade students could practice their discernment. For each of the individuals featured, students had to decide whether or not they would consider them racist. Due to the large differences in maturity within my 3rd and 4th grade students, I decided to wait until next year (or later) to do this activity with my 3rd graders, because they are not yet ready for it. As teachers, parents, or youth leaders of any kind, discernment is important. After completing this exercise, my 4th graders were very engaged and had a lot to say on the topic.
For this activity, I intentionally made each of the 3 individuals white men, but not because I believe White men are at their core any more likely to be racist than other individuals. By featuring white men only, my goal was to make appearance one less variable to influence students’ decisions, and to encourage students to reflect on who had power and who did not during the Civil Rights era.
I also included a Bible verse that each individual used to defend their position on Segregation vs. Integration (from primary sources). Here is a summary of each individual’s opinion:
L. Nelson Bell: Follow the law, regardless of if it is just
Rev. Robert Graetz: “Maturity of Love leads to Antiracism”
Famously, 8 Alabama clergy members from various denominations wrote Dr. King a cease and desist letter, which they titled “A Call to Unity”. They make 7 key points within the letter, but their argument is a lot like Bell, “follow the law, regardless of if it is just”. These individuals assert that instead of using non-violent Direct Action tactics, the Civil Rights leaders should instead use the judicial system (which they did).
Dr. King, who was in prison for protesting at the time, wrote his famous response, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In the letter, King decries the lukewarm response of “the White Moderate”, characterizing it as a perspective that says
“I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”, “paternalistically sets a timetable for another man’s freedom”, lives with a “mythical concept of time”, and focuses on what is most convenient for oneself and the white majority over the human rights of African Americans.
Regardless of one’s politics, it is hard not to see Dr. King’s words looming large over the last 12 months of protesting in the United States, whether in the January 6th attacks at the Capitol or through Black Lives Matter protests this year. As individuals, Christians must reflect on King’s words, discern the will of the Holy Trinity in social and personal affairs, and discern for themselves the right tactics to take. Even as members of a society, we as individuals set on obeying Jesus are not our own but are bound to obey Jesus, whatever that may look like. For me as a teacher, teaching these topics has continued to refine my perspective, but I haven’t settled on an easy solution to every instance of protest or cause. I believe that these issues are not easily simplified, and that Christians must use their discernment (good judgement) day by day, humbling ourselves before God. Like individual people’s actions, I do think that it is important to discern the root of a protest. Is it bitterness? Is it pride? Even the same non-violent tactics used in a protest whose desire is to see Godly justice vs. a protest that is full of bitterness or self-inflation will have wildly different outcomes. For that reason, it is important for Christians who want to be reformers in their societies to truly love righteousness, forgive their enemies, and seek purity of heart through intimacy with our Lord Jesus.
Check out these links if you’re interested in learning more about the diversity of responses of White Church Leaders during the Civil Rights Era, and the lessons their responses can teach us for today:
L Nelson Bell, Founder of Christianity Today Magazine
As a final component of this activity, students were challenged to reflect on the purposes of the law and form their own opinions about the suitability of protest methods. Again, I saw this as an exercise in discernment, with outcomes that may depend on the specific protest, which students will ideally return to year after year. Here are some of their thoughts. Just like adults, they have a range of opinions about 1) Whether the gospel is meant to change just hearts or also laws, 2) What protest strategies are the most effective/appropriate for Christians, 3) Whether Christians should practice Civil Disobedience.
Constructive Catholic Contributions
Both to celebrate students’ Catholic identities and push the level of rigor, my 3rd graders read some of President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 speech, “Report to the American People on Civil Rights.” Prior to the activity, I explained to students that at the time of Kennedy’s election, the United States had never had a Catholic president, and many Protestant Christians were afraid of him getting elected. As a Protestant, I addressed how that fear was unfounded. We spent some time talking about what makes a good President (in terms of character) and how Kennedy’s values from Catholic Social teaching provided a positive influence on his character and presidency. Students listened to Kennedy’s speech on Youtube, then read a simplified version of his speech at their reading levels from NewsELA.
Students then discerned the main idea of Kennedy’s speech, and answered critical thinking questions (with a fair amount of support, but hey, that’s what I’m here for).
Several students finished the activity early, and completed this thinking routine:
Understanding the Purposes of Direct Action Tactics
In order to understand the diversity of strategic thinking during the Civil Rights movement, both 3rd and 4th grade completed an activity on the Direct Action tactics Civil Rights leaders used. While each of these tactics was a form of Civil Disobedience, Civil Rights leaders felt that their cause was inspired by a biblical and godly desire for justice, and they practiced nonviolence.
In order to understand Direct Action, students needed to understand that there were a variety of tactics used during the Civil Rights movement, and just like today, people had very strong opinions about which tactics were the most effective. We have already spent a lot of time this year discussing the importance of praying for our enemies, praying for people we don’t understand, and asking that God would soften our own hearts. To me, prayer is a kind of extremely powerful from of Indirect Action, because it focuses on changing people’s hearts relationally (through the Holy Spirit). Another example of Indirect action would be helping people register to vote, in the style of Stacey Abrahms.
It is important to note that Direct action tactics are specifically designed to change outcomes within a particular context. The goal of public demonstrations, on the other hand, is largely to 1) build public awareness, and 2) create constructive tension. Public demonstrations can be nonviolent or violent, depending on the intentions of their facilitators and attendants.
We also briefly discussed the Black Panther movement and the controversy regarding some of the tactics certain leaders used. With past students, I’ve also gone into deeper conversations about the FBI’s involvement in targeting the Black Panthers, but for the sake of time we focused on what would be most important for students to learn about, specifically Direct action tactics.
Learning the Stories of Civil Rights Leaders
Finally, students had the freedom to explore short video biographies on key Civil Rights leaders and movements. I did my best to select videos that were as impartial as possible so that students would be able to think prayerfully with as few barriers as possible. In compiling this information, it was interesting to see how César Chavez’ faith inspired him to use distinctly Catholic protest strategies (fasting, prayer vigils, and masses). His use of these tactics in the United Farm Workers movement is very reminiscent of the liberation theology of Saint Oscar Romero, a Salvadoran Archbishop whose life and martyrdom during the Salvadoran Civil War is very important to my school’s spirituality.
Contributions of my Colleagues
Thanks to my colleagues, students were able to continue having anti-racist conversations with one another through Book Clubs, and with their families through a Collaborative Learning assignment.
As our first week of book club, students read the same book in both Spanish and English, and discussed one question daily with a small group of peers in Zoom Breakout Rooms. The book they read was differentiated (harder or easier) based on their reading level, so all students could confidently participate.
With family: Collaborative Learning Conversation
With a partner from home, students were able to complete an assignment that challenged them to think critically about an image. In this activity, students and their partners separately completed a “Message, Choice, Impact” thinking routine about an image from the National Gallery of Art’s resources, Uncovering America. As a team, we decided to use an image that shows two African American men sitting on the steps of a church, to potentially prompt students thinking about the connection between their faith and Civil Rights. As a bilingual school, students and their families could complete this activity in English or Spanish.
Overall, it was very satisfying to explore these themes alongside my students. As we prayed and studied, I felt the Holy Spirit guiding our conversations in such a way that students learned whatever it is that they needed to learn from the topic. Especially given that students have been personally affected by recent protests (including the Black Lives Matter movement), I am very grateful that they could anchor their understanding of anti-racism work firmly in the Bible and could see themselves and their own questions reflected in the stories of Civil Rights leaders.
Next week, we will continue to learn about discernment! Specifically, we will discuss the differences between shame and conviction, how Jesus seeks not just to reform our actions but restore our identities, and how identity change can result in a change of heart and actions. Stay tuned!