Frederick Douglas: 1845 and the Struggle for Civil Rights: 1963-1966

CRN 21252
MW 1200-1350
475 MCK
Professor William Rossi

Frederick Douglass, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Constitution: 1845

The Frederick Douglass game introduces students to a time and place almost unimaginable today, when advocating an end to slavery was far more controversial than supporting its perpetuation: the United States in 1845.   Class debates focus on the intellectual and cultural clashes between the “Defenders of the Constitution”—the entrenched, respectable defenders of American slavery—and the Abolitionists—a small but dedicated movement calling for slavery’s immediate and universal abolition. Many characters are independent of both factions.

The question facing the country in 1845 was not a civil war—which was then unimaginable—but whether abolitionist critics of slavery were legitimate. Can the abolitionists be suppressed outright? The many violent anti-abolitionist mobs in the North showed that this was hardly just a “southern” demand. Thus, in the first part of the game, all characters “review” the newly published “The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself” at a literary forum hosted by the illustrious English author Charles Dickens in New York.  (This forum brings together a range of people whose ideas and interests, while actually engaged with one another, never actually meet face to face.)  Later, characters address the U.S. Constitution and its clear protection of slaveholders’ power, such as its assertion that fugitive slaves must be returned. Are Americans accountable to the Constitution or to a “higher law”?

The Defenders of the Constitution faction includes John C. Calhoun; the Auld family of Maryland (who legally own the fugitive slave Douglass); Henry Clay; a Virginia planter devoted to Thomas Jefferson’s teachings; and the inventor of the telegraph.  Abolitionists include Frederick Douglass; William Lloyd Garrison; the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet; Sojourner Truth; and the Grimke sisters, who scandalously spoke in public to “mixed” (male and female) audiences, which was previously unknown in America.   Indeterminate characters include Edgar Poe; Horace Greeley;, Daniel Webster; John Quincy Adams; Fanny Kemble; a slave woman; a whiskey dealer; and other ambitious Americans.

The Struggle for Civil Rights: Birmingham to Memphis, 1963-1966

The Struggle for Civil Rights plunges students into two of the many important moments of creative tension in the civil rights movement, in which key debates and decisions about the goals and means were being addressed. The first is based on the Dorchester Retreat (Dorchester, Georgia; 1963) and the second is based on the Meredith March (Mississippi; 1966). Taking on roles in Civil Rights organizations including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), students discuss and debate the worth and cost of nonviolent action, in the context of previous and upcoming protests. They contend with the question of whether nonviolent protest is one means to achieving civil rights, or the only means: In what circumstance can violence be allowed, if at all? To what extent should nonviolent protest parallel the NAACP’s legal challenges to Jim Crow laws? Should labor unions and European-Americans be involved with the effort? Which forms of nonviolent action should organizations of limited means pursue: sit-ins, voter registration drives, boycotts, freedom rides, marches? They also consider whether civil rights is the only goal of nonviolent protest, or whether it can and should be applied to other issues that society was facing at the time: e.g., poverty in America, the Vietnam war. Key texts include the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Franz Fannon, and Malcolm X.