A Lesson Before Graduating: Civil Rights in the Contemporary Classroom

Kate Nienaber Scally holds a BA and an MEd from the University of Notre Dame, and has taught high school English in Alabama and Tennessee. As she heads north, she uses literature as a vehicle to make her students aware of their own American history, which, as Mark Twain says, “does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

My students cannot believe—cannot imagine—that things like this still happen. They read Ernest J. Gaines’ novel A Lesson Before Dying, with its 1940’s cars and WWII references and think, “That was a long time ago. I’m glad things are better now.”

In the novel, Jefferson, a poorly-educated descendent of former slaves, is sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. During the trial, his lawyer’s defense is that Jefferson is [genetically] dumb as a hog, and therefore should not be given the death penalty. His former teacher and the protagonist of the story, Grant, unwillingly accepts the job of “making him a man” before Jefferson goes to the electric chair.

The story is sad and gains an added level of meaning because of the date associated with Jefferson’s death—Easter—but my students are still able to hold it at arm’s length because of the 1940’s setting. Things aren’t like that anymore. Or are they?

When we read the article “A Town in Turmoil,” from the August 20-27, 2007 edition of Newsweek, the students start to question their certainty. The article describes the racially-fraught situation in Jena, LA, involving arson, nooses, criminal charges—and which began with a dispute over where African American students could congregate on a high school campus. The “Jena 6” are my students’ age, their contemporaries, and this is happening to them. Suddenly the situation is not so distant.

When we read “In Alabama, Execution Without Representation,” from the March 26, 2007, edition of The New York Times, my students go through a third change: from complacent disbelief, to concern for their contemporaries, to outrage: how can it be that death row inmates do not warrant the protection of a lawyer? And what can we do about it?

As a teacher, my role is not only to create cognitive conflict but also to provide opportunities for my students, as cliché as this may sound, to change the world. And so I give them information about the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to protect the Alabama inmates mentioned in the NYTimes article, and about the Prison Creative Arts Project, which offers art therapy as an outlet to the incarcerated. I don’t know if any of my students will become human rights lawyers, or volunteer art therapists, or even whether or not they will visit the CLTL website. But I do know that literature, in this case A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines, gives them a broader perspective on the world in which they live, even if that perspective only lasts for a few days or a few weeks. Someday, some of these students may hear the rhymes of a moment in history they wish had turned out differently, and decide to change it this time around. They can be the (hopefully more willing) Grant to the world’s Jefferson.


2 thoughts on “A Lesson Before Graduating: Civil Rights in the Contemporary Classroom

  1. Thanks Kate. Beautifully written. The essay resonates with the rhymes of history. I am sure they’ll be a lot of students emerging from your classes, ready to join the struggle for justice and equality. Keep the vision.

  2. Your students are so lucky to have you as a teacher! What a great way to blend literature with current issues. I’ve never read “A Lesson Before Dying” but am now putting it on my list.

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