This professor is recording the civil rights movement (and it’s not just black and white)

TCU Pettus bridge SELMA

Understanding the past isn’t always about what’s written. Sometimes, it’s about what’s spoken, according to Max Krochmal, assistant professor of history at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

Krochmal has created a class at TCU in which students hear civil rights history from those who lived it. Through the Texas Communities Oral History Project course, TCU students interview community activists from the Fort Worth area.

“Most people don’t leave behind written records and that means our history is biased to the wealthy and privileged people who can,” he said. “Written sources will tell us what happened. But to understand the significance of an event and why it mattered, one needs oral sources to shed light on that.”

These sources, Krochmal said, are the men and women who lived through the events. Their voices are a unique addition to a written history.

“We talk with African Americans and Mexican Americans about their struggles, as well as to white participants, to better understand how those movements intersect,” Krochmal said.

The results are added to a collected narrative that extends beyond the classroom. As part of the project, students helped to collect interviews with local residents. These interviews will be archived in the city of Fort Worth’s new Latino Americans Collection.

This semester, Krochmal’s students will create oral histories around the rise of mass incarceration rates and its effects locally, a Fort Worth aerospace plant that featured strong labor unions that helped to the city’s middle class, and the LGBT movement in Fort Worth. “As far as I can tell, it’s completely undocumented,” Krochmal said of the latter.

Krochmal also serves as the director of an inter-institutional research initiative, the Civil Rights and Black and Brown Oral History Project, a collaboration among TCU and several nearby universities. A statewide study of liberation struggles in Texas, the project builds on Krochmal’s classes and extends the research across the state. Last summer, faculty and graduate students conducted 115 interviews from North Texas to the border, and west to El Paso. With a recent grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the project will expand to gather 300 more interviews over the next three years.

For the past few years, Krochmal has also taken learning on the road. The TCU Civil Rights Bus Tour, a three-credit course, immerses students in African American history and issues related to diversity, and then takes them on a weeklong bus tour of civil rights landmarks. The trip itself is co-sponsored by TCU’s Student Affairs division.

“It’s been widely successful. Many students say it was life-changing, which, as a professor, is the best thing you can ever hear,” Krochmal said.

During their road trip, students stop at civil rights landmarks across Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee and hear from local activists who lived through the events of the 1950s and 60s and helped give faces and voices to the movement.

“We focus on the nuts and bolts of how the movement was organized as experienced by these people who became activists and leaders in their youth,” Krochmal said. “Our hope is that our students can take what they learn and apply it to the present.”

We study the past to change the future.

Students take tours or listen to panel discussions alongside activists once involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the pivotal freedom rides of the 1960s. Some share stories of organization marches for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; others recall run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan.

“Students see a great amount of diversity in perspectives since many of the panelists don’t agree with each other,” Krochmal said. “They have different ways that they’ve coped with the wounds they’ve incurred and survived — almost the PTSD of having fought in the movement for all these years.”

In spring 2017, Krochmal and his collaborators on campus plan to launch a similar experiential learning class focused on Latino and Chicano history, as well as immigrant rights and other justice issues along the U.S./Mexico border.

“I’m very interested in sharing the history of the Chicano movement because it’s a national story that students often know nothing about,” Krochmal said.

Krochmal hopes to partner with La Unión del Pueblo Entero, a community union that grew out of the United Farm Workers led by Cesar Chavez. The group has transitioned from uniting farmworkers to organizing residents of colonias, unregulated settlements in south Texas where 400,000 people live in poverty without services like electricity or running water.

“The same people who were part of Chavez’s organization are applying a similar model to a new problem, which is what we want to teach,” Krochmal said. “How to take old ideas about justice, organization, youth involvement and community empowerment and apply them to a new situation.”

Students from diverse backgrounds also come together through Krochmal’s classes.

“They form a bond unlike anything I’ve experienced as a teacher,” he said. “They describe their relationship with each other as being a family, a beloved community, which was something that the movement was trying to create.”