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A Letter to a Colorado School Board member who wants to change AP History curriculum

Melissa Harris-Perry's open letter goes out to Colorado School Board member Julie Williams, who wants to remove civil disobedience from an AP History curriculum

Last Sunday hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched through the heart of New York City to affect change on an issue that impacts each and every living thing -- our planet! These activists marched to demand global policy makers take seriously the imminent threat to human survival posed by drastic and documented changes in climate.

The response of those of us in media was a resounding…. "meh" 

Because the climate change march didn't have quite the right combination of factors that garner breathless, captivating 24 hour coverage. Yes, the police were present, but they were just managing traffic, not lobbing tear gas at the crowds. Yes, the issue is important, but because we are all implicated in climate change there isn't any *one* villain to focus on defeating. And yes, we must do *something*, but there are so many things that need to be done by so many different people, the whole effort can feel exhausting and confusing.

The success of the global environmental movement -- like all mass social movements -- will depend on how well it learns, adjusts and innovates. Which is part of the argument for robust intellectual engagement with the histories of protest and the strategies of collective action. And why that history belongs in our school curriculum. But that's *not* how one Colorado School Board member sees it. And that's why my letter this week goes to her.


Dear Julie Williams,

It's me, Melissa.

It seems you want to revert to an older model of A.P. United States history for high school that has, as you say, been “...essential to the understanding of American history for generations..." instead of the current course with its "emphasis on race, gender, class, ethnicity, grievance and American-bashing."

If you were alone on the fringe of a far flung school district, your Facebook angst about the AP History curriculum would not warrant a response. But, you are part of an entire **ahem** movement. As the school year kicked off in August, the Republican National Committee made the same argument, calling the AP curriculum quote:

"a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation's history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects."

So Ms. Williams, you are in good company with conservative law makers in your desire to make sure the curriculum promotes "citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights" while discouraging the study of "civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law."

You're kidding right? You plan to teach United States History without mentioning civil disorder, social strife and disregard of the law! So what exactly are you planning to do to explain that turbulent decade of massive resistance to law, collective organizing against authority, and armed civil disorder. No, not during the 1960s. I mean the 1770s! You do know that the 1773 Boston Tea Party was an act of civil disobedience and disrespect for the law, right?

And surely you have not forgotten that in 1775 Patrick Henry was so unpatriotic to the British crown, so determined to break the law and resist authority that he declared, Give me Liberty or Give me Death!

And how will you account for that little document penned in 1776 that very clearly states this *responsibility* of a people to challenge authority:

"…that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government"

You see Ms. Williams, it is impossible to teach American History without teaching civil disobedience, because civil disobedience is the very foundation on which our nation is built. To dissent is to be an American patriot, steeped in a deep understanding of our history and emboldened by our yet unrealized ideals.

Happily, Ms. Williams, your students understand this even if you don't. This week, they walked out by the hundreds to protest the proposed curriculum changes.

So congratulations. Because as it turns out, the biggest lesson the students learned this year about the importance of civil disorder was taught to them by you.