Friday, June 29, 2012

Reclaiming the history of social justice activism

This story of social justice advocacy is a reminder of the ways that the contribution of radical and progressive social justice activists and campaigners is censored by so called "official narratives" and traditional bodies of knowledge.

Ken Giles* is an elementary school music teacher in Washington DC who uses music to teach his students the link between songs and social justice movements. He uses civil rights songs, peace songs and union songs to make the connection between music and movements for social justice and peace.

Giles is spearheading a campaign to have the acclaimed singer, actor, political activist Paul Robeson inluded in the music textbooks used in schools. Decades ago Robeson was censored from most school books because of his political activism and fierce critcism of US treatment of African Americans and US foreign policies.

As Ken Giles points out even though Robeson is experiencing something of a renaissance in the US, it is still difficult to find his recordings and films, and his work and contribution is not included in many school textbooks.

Giles argues that Robeson's exclusion is an example of the censorship that occurs in the educational textbook industry. In his own campaigning Giles is encouraging his students and other professionals to challenge such censorship.

For those of us who believe in and campaign for social and economic justice Ken Giles's actions show that it is important that we reclaim the history and contributions of social movements and individuals who fought for social and economic justice.

*Ken Giles is the music teacher at Shepherd Elementary School in Washington, DC. He teaches violin at the DC Youth Orchestra and sings with the DC Labor Chorus. He is a longtime member of Jewish Peace Fellowship and was a Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War. You can read about his "150 years of Songs of Freedom and Justice” music history program at the Labor Heritage Foundation.

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