By Grahame Anderson
Newly published research coming out of Northumbria University has both examined and offered practical solutions as to how the US civil rights movement is taught in UK schools. What’s more, it seeks to balance engagement with Britain’s own racial and imperial histories.
Led by Brian Ward, Professor in American studies at the university, the study looked at how Martin Luther King for example was portrayed offering practical suggestions for how teachers can connect the unfinished story of the struggle for racial justice in the US to similar historic, equally incomplete, struggles for racial equality in Britain.
Mr Ward is internationally recognised as a leading authority on the African American freedom struggle and its links to the history of British race relations. His book Martin Luther King in Newcastle upon Tyne provided the foundations for the Freedom City 2017 celebrations of racial diversity in the North East.
The research, entitled “He was shot because America will not give up on racism”: Martin Luther King, J. and the African American civil rights movement in British schools, has been published by The Journal of American Studies.
Currently the UK history curriculum pays little attention to Black British history, but students often study Martin Luther King and the US civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
The research explains how history teachers in UK schools are hampered in what they can teach about the history of Britain’s BAME communities and British race relations by the narrow, overwhelmingly white, “island story” focus of the national history curriculum.
Discussing their findings, Professor Ward explained: “We found that in UK schools the African American freedom struggle often serves as a kind of surrogate for serious engagement with Britain’s own racial and imperial histories. There needs to be more Black British history taught in UK schools.
“Equally problematic are simplistic ‘feel good’ tales of how ‘back in the day’ the heroic Martin Luther King single-handedly overcame a type of racism and discrimination ‘over there’ in the US that was unknown in Britain.
“This was always a bad historical take. Now it is indefensible amid an international Black Lives Matter campaign and widespread calls to engage more honestly with the racist legacies of Britain’s own imperial past.”
It seems with limited time and resources available, many teachers also struggle to keep up with the latest scholarship when teaching about King and the US civil rights movement for GCSEs, A Levels, or Scottish Highers.
Over in Yorkshire Funmilola Stewart, head of history, Dixons Trinity academy, Bradford, recently told the Guardian: “We have a responsibility to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum and I don’t believe that is possible in the absence of teaching black history.
“At the moment, studying the British empire is compulsory, but learning about slavery is not. It is impossible for young people to truly understand why the world is the way it is without studying the slave trade and the civil rights movement. Students need to be exposed to the harrowing truths.
“But it’s not enough to teach black history through those matters alone. When we teach the Tudors, rather than focusing solely on Henry VIII and his six wives, we should be exploring the fact that some black people survived and thrived in Tudor society. Currently, the curriculum reinforces the idea that black people were latecomers to British society and were positioned outside it.”
Overstretched History Teachers
Professor Ward adds: “UK history teachers generally do a great job. But they are sorely over-stretched. So we wanted to point them towards some themes, online resources, and lesson plans that can help them to teach King and the African American freedom struggle with a little more nuance and in ways that better meet the needs of British children in the twenty-first century.”
The research is a collaboration between Professor Ward, Dr Benjamin Houston and Professor Nick Megoran of Newcastle University, and Dr Megan Hunt, a former Northumbria PhD student who now teaches at Edinburgh University.
Thanks to funding from Northumbria University it’s now freely available for teachers to use, reproduce and distribute. It’s hoped this valuable resource will shape how Black British history and the story of King and the US civil rights movement are taught in schools in future.
Northumbria University has one of the largest and most active centres for American Studies in Europe bringing together academics with expertise in the history, literature and culture of the United States.