Educators That Rock!: Robert H. Mayer

Photo by Jan Muzyczka.

At the National Council for the Social Studies conference in November 2009, the Carter G. Woodson Book Awards honored Dr. Robert H. Mayer for his book, “When the Children Marched: The Birmingham Civil Rights Movement.” Mayer was recognized for “accurately and sensitively” portraying an issue related to ethnic minorities.

FindingEducation spoke to Mayer about locating primary documents, understanding “historical thinking” and examining the civil rights movement.

Images of the African-American children that were marched to jail, decades earlier, still resonate for Mayer. “They experienced the degradation of segregation as much as their parents. So to see in their faces the lack of fear—it just says a lot,” he explained.

A social studies teacher for 12 years and a professor at Moravian University since 1987, Mayer also authored “The Civil Rights Act of 1964,” and numerous essays on teaching.

fE: What sparked your interest in history?

RHM: I’ve always had some kind of interest in history. As a child, I always enjoyed reading about things in the past. I grew up in Cincinnati, OH, and I remember reading about William Henry Harrison, the ninth U.S. president, and being fascinated, because his statue was downtown by the library.

fE: Can you describe the process of writing “When the Children Marched” and “The Civil Rights Act of 1964”?

RHM: The process was different for the two books. For the civil rights book, I edited it. I found primary statements from the time about the Civil Rights Act and then wrote introductions for various articles. And for ”When the Children Marched,” I wrote the entire thing. I used oral histories and also newspapers, because I wanted to get a stronger sense of the time, and what the events in Birmingham were before I began actually organizing the book.

The similarity is that before I start writing, I really read as much as I can, and I study as hard as I can. For both books, I read deeply in primary documents.

fE: Could you see something like the children’s march happening today?

RHM: The closest thing is the Obama campaign. Young people got involved with the Obama campaign and I think that made a real difference—not just in the numbers, but in the overall spirit of the campaign. So I think that if young people see something that’s meaningful to them, then I think they would respond.

But the question is: How many of us would do the things the people in Birmingham did, where they actually put their lives in jeopardy? I’m not sure. I don’t see people moved by any issues as strongly today, but certainly the spirit is there.

fE: Was there any one child that stood out when you were reading the oral histories and writing your book?

RHM: There’s no one child that leaps out. I think of them more collectively. There’s a wonderful book called “Freedom’s Children” by Ellen Levine. It’s a collection of oral histories from young people involved with the civil rights movement.

When you read the accounts of what they did, individual actions and behaviors, you see them as very brave. And Enslow, my publisher, did a wonderful job with the images in “When the Children Marched.” On the cover, the picture of young kids marching off to jail without any fear is powerful. They experienced the degradation of segregation as much as their parents. So to see in their faces the lack of fear—it just says a lot.

fE: How would a good student examine your books and consider your point of view?

RHM: I don’t put forth my interpretation as forthrightly as maybe a historian writing a monograph would, but interpretations are there.

In terms of “When the Children Marched,” the thing that I wanted to come through was how it was the community that caused things to happen. And I mean the African-American community in Birmingham. Local people laid the groundwork, and then national organizations, such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King, came in. I think that the lesson of Birmingham is how democracy works. How people speak up and work to change things.

fE: How do you think teaching about the events and the people portrayed in your book affects students’ character development? What role do historians have to give as clear a portrait of the truth as possible?

RHM: The words you use are important in terms of presenting people. In “When the Children Marched,” one of the people I hope makes an impression is Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. He was a very important figure in the civil rights movement, but most people don’t know him. He had such a forceful personality, and he spoke out as an African-American minister in what basically was a white-dominated society.

Diane Nash, one of the founders of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is another important figure like Shuttlesworth. At 22, she confronted the mayor of Nashville in front of a crowd of 3,000 and asked him if he felt it was morally proper that segregation existed in Nashville. And the mayor said, “No.” There are a lot of women that have been involved with civil rights that are under the radar, and she’s a good example.

fE: In a teaching article you published in 1999, you used Anne Hutchinson as your example. Who was Anne Hutchinson?  (This article can be accessed for free through certain library database services, some of which require a library card.)

RHM: Anne Hutchinson [a woman living in New England in the early 1600s] was on trial because she held meetings in her house where religious ideas were discussed; both men and women attended. Women in Puritan society traditionally held meetings, but they only repeated the sermons that were given on Sundays. Hutchinson repeated the sermon but then gave her views about it. She also suggested that she spoke God’s word … so much of her behavior was seen, within the eyes of the Puritan leaders, as heresy.

fE: In this same article, you wrote about “historical thinking.” Can you explain what the term means?

RHM: Historical thinking involves analyzing primary documents to try to reconstruct or reimagine what some event in the past was like. Reading very brief quotes from people who knew Anne Hutchinson—mainly her adversaries—you get a sense of this very brilliant, very clever woman who takes no guff from the leaders of Puritan society.

I learned from secondary sources—paintings that were done in the 19th century—that Anne was seven or eight months pregnant during the trial, and she was forced to stand, while the judges sat. What I want students to be able to do is look at those documents, including her own words, and then try to imagine what that time was like, and what the people were like.

fE: Do you have any tips for teachers and students on locating primary documents?

RHM: There are the traditional sources for documents, but history teachers today are lucky. The Web is alive with primary documents. I find the Library of Congress’ American Memory project explores the discipline of history and explains how historians go about doing their work. Another site, History Matters, from CUNY and George Mason University, explores the discipline of history and explains how historians go about doing their work.

The National Archives’ “Teaching With Documents” series is constructed specifically for teachers and includes lesson suggestions. The site includes copies of original documents so you can see things like the original copy of the “Day of Infamy” speech where FDR crosses out “world history” and replaces it with “infamy.” That allows us to see history in the moment.

Off the web, I depend a great deal on those spools of New York Times stored as microfilm. When writing about the Civil Rights Act, I used Congressional Record in book form (CR is online through 1994), and found some great pro and con magazine articles on the impending Civil Rights Act, for instance. And Smithsonian has the entire Folkways collection for sale.

fE: What are you working on now?

RHM: I actually completed a book that I’m doing on the Selma marches and I’m trying to shop that book around right now. In terms of a new project, I want to stick with the civil rights movement for a while. I can’t study it enough! Right now I’m trying to decide where I’m going to focus.

Robert Mayer’s Favorite Sites:

The New York Times
The Library of Congress: American Memory
Wolfgang’s Vault
History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web
Washington University: Eyes on the Prize Interviews
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Related Link Resources
Anne Hutchinson
Library of Congress
History Matters
The National Archives