Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Teach-Ins: Then & Now

Heretofore, I knew of the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins largely by way of his tempestuous debate several decades ago with Gananath Obeyesekere. I was pleased to learn of his intellectual engagement and activism during the Vietnam War in David L. Schalk’s War and the Ivory Tower: Algeria and Vietnam (2005 ed.) (which, in turn, cites a 1970 article from the New York Review of Books). In 1968, he signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. And it was Sahlins who invented the “teach-in as a method of conveying information about the Vietnam War and related issues.” The Wikipedia entry on “teach-in” does not mention this, although it does state, sans any citation, that a “teach-in at the University of Michigan [where Sahlins taught at the time] in May 1965 began with a discussion of the Vietnam war draft and ended with the logistics of a takeover of the University.” It was at the University of Michigan where the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) organized the first major teach-in against the Vietnam War on March 24-25, 1965. In some respects, this specific tactic had strategic pedagogic and philosophical roots in the civil rights movement, in particular with with the Highlander Folk School. As Charles Payne notes in I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggles (1995),

“Many people who were to become well-known civil rights leaders—E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks of Montgomery, James Bevel, Fred Shuttlesworth, C.T. Vivian, Bernard Lafayette, Bernard Lee, Dorothy Cotton, Andy Young, Hosea Williams of SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference], John Lewis, Bob Zellner, Marion Barry, and Diane Nash of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]—attended Highlander workshops.”

It was also Highlander that pioneered “Citizenship Schools,” in 1954, in the first place through the courageous and creative efforts of Esau Jenkins and Septima Clark on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Citizenship Schools flourished, and it was Highlander that was responsible for their subsequent spread across the South, although in 1961 it turned over their administration to the SCLC.

In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement attempted to resuscitate the “teach-in,” especially with regard to the nature of neoliberal capitalism. In varying degrees of formality it seems, these were led by both individuals and groups (a few examples of the latter: the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Bowdoin College students, The New School, Center for Women’s Global Leadership)

Image: Ann Lockwood Romasco, Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, and others at the Highlander Folk School [Photo: Highlander Folk School Collection, Emory University]

Please note: For a wonderful collection of photographs associated with Highlander, please see the collection maintained by Wisconsin Historical Images of the Wisconsin Historical Society. One picture I would have used here had I the time to acquire permission, was from a 25th anniversary event at Highlander and included Rosa Parks, Myles Horton, Aubrey Williams, and Martin Luther King, Jr. among others.


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