How Historical Movies like Selma can be Used to Teach History

Movies like Lincoln, The King’s Speech, and most recently, Selma generate very different reactions depending on their audience. The Academy of Motion Pictures often gives Oscar nominations to these films, but they also annoy some historians.

If there is a factual error in a film, historians need to point that out to the public. For example, in the movie Lincoln the Congressmen from Connecticut voted against the constitutional amendment which abolished slavery. In reality Connecticut voted in favor of the amendment. Yet those who study history should not be surprised that Hollywood is not run by historians. Producing and directing films are skills that most historians do not possess. Most people who make films also do not possess in-depth historical knowledge.

Historians often like to point out the details that historical films did not address. Complaints about a movie’s failure to include certain aspects of history are often unfair. A movie cannot possibly cover every detail of a historical event because of time constraints. Even my college American history professor, gifted though she was, couldn’t possibly cover everything in an introductory course on American history. There was simply too much material.

Picture of books from Basking Ridge Historical Society taken by William Hoiles.

Picture of books from Basking Ridge Historical Society taken by William Hoiles.

The other complaint often voiced by historians is that young people get their history from movies and therefore the movies have to get every detail right. This begs the question: why are young people more likely to watch a film than pick up a history book? If students think their textbooks are boring that is not Hollywood’s fault. Authors who write history books for young people need to find a way to keep their audience’s attention. Even though I majored in history in college, I wasn’t always so fascinated with the subject. As a young student I was drawn to historical fiction novels, but my textbooks bored me. My favorite author of historical fiction always included a list of sources in the back of her novels, so I started reading biographies about some of the historical figures in her books.

Historians and teachers could do something similar with movies about historical topics.  For example, students who watch Selma could read Martin Luther King Junior’s writings.

Sparking a young person’s interest in history is valuable regardless of the medium used. Authors who write history for young people should view films like Selma as an opportunity to write books that are interesting and explain historical events in more detail.

Ida B. Wells: African American Activist

Before Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., other African-Americans fought for black rights in the South. One of these activists was a young woman named Ida B. Wells.

Photo of Ida B. Wells

Photo of Ida B. Wells

Although she was born a slave in 1862, Ida B. Wells had advantages that other slave children did not. Unlike most slaves, both of Ida’s parents could read. They taught their oldest daughter Ida to read when she was very young. After the Civil War ended and slaves were freed, Ida’s parents got involved in the politics of the Republication Party, which promoted the rights of free blacks. Her parents died from yellow fever when Ida was just a teenager, but she inherited their interest in education and equal rights for blacks.

Ida went to college and became a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. One day, she purchased a first-class ticket on the train and went to sit in her seat. A white conductor came up to her and told her to move to the black section, which didn’t have first-class accomodations. Ida refused and was removed from the train. She sued the railroad company and won her case in a lower court, but the railroad won in an appeal.

Although she didn’t make much money at first, Ida had a passion for writing. Eventually, she edited her own newspaper, which she named Free Speech. She wrote about the poor quality of schools for blacks and the need for black people to stand up for their rights. One incident, the lynching of a good friend Tom Moss, changed Ida’s life.

Moss owned a grocery store on the edge of the white and black parts of the town. In 1892, he and two other black men were shot when they tried to defend Moss’ store from a white mob.

After Moss’ death, Ida changed her position on black self-defense and told her readers to save their money so they could leave Memphis. Her articles were so effective that the city’s economy started to suffer because of the lack of black customers. Blacks who remained in Memphis started walking to work instead of paying to ride the streetcars that were owned by whites. The owners of the streetcar company asked Ida to tell her readers to start riding the cars again. Instead, she wrote an article calling for a black boycott of the streetcars.

Her friend’s death inspired Ida to expose the evils of lynching through writing and speeches. In one pamphlet, called “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases,” Ida wrote, “The mob spirit has increased with alarming frequency and violence. Over a thousand black men, women and children have been thus sacrificed the past ten years. Masks have long been thrown aside and the lynchings of the present day take place in broad daylight.”

During a trip to the Northeast, the offices of her paper were destroyed by a mob. While in New York, she learned that some whites threatened to kill her if she returned to Memphis. As she encouraged her former readers to do, Ida settled in the North. She continued to write and give speeches about the injustice of lynching. She traveled extensively throughout the North and even brought her anti-lynching campaign to England.

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Martin Luther King Jr.’s Childhood and Education

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Childhood and Education

Surprising Facts about Martin Luther King Jr.’s Childhood
and Education

Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, 1964

Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, 1964

  • King’s birth name was not Martin Luther. When he was born in 1929, King was named after his father, Michael King. When King’s father attended a conference for Baptist ministers in Germany, he decided to legally change his name to Martin Luther, and his son’s name was changed to Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Despite growing up during the Depression, King said that his family had enough money. His father, Martin Luther King Sr. was a pastor and his congregation respected him so much that they refused to see their leader’s family go hungry.
  • Although he grew up in the South, King didn’t experience violent racial prejudice. Atlanta offered education for African Americans through black colleges. There were also social bonds formed at church where his father preached. Though blacks and whites didn’t attend the same schools or share seats on buses, Atlanta was one of the few places in the South where both blacks and whites could dream about a better life.
  • King’s father taught him to talk back to whites. One day when the two of them were walking in the street, a policeman called King’s father “boy.” His father turned to the policeman, pointed at his son and said “No, that’s a boy.”
  • Martin Luther King Jr. was smart but didn’t get good grades in school. Even in college, King preferred going parties and dances instead of doing homework.
  • King worried about what white people thought of him. When he decided to attend a seminary in the North, King had white classmates. King admitted that “I was well aware of the typical white stereotype, and for a while I was terribly conscious of trying to avoid identification with it.” The stereotype said that blacks were lazy, stupid, and unclean. At the seminary King’s grades improved and he dressed well. Some people said he was vain.
  • Though he was ahead of his time in other ways, King thought a woman’s place was in the home. When he met his future wife Coretta Scott at school, he made it clear that he wanted her to raise their kids and keep house even though she was smart and politically active in college.