Detroit Teachers Reflect on Spanish Civil War and Human Rights

September 13, 2015

When do we stand up for what we believe in? What are our obligations in the face of injustice? In July ALBA worked with a dozen public school teachers from Detroit.

2015-07-01 14.53.58

ALBA’s Aaron Retish with Lois Lofton-Doniver. Photos Sebastiaan Faber.

“The teachers are so engaged! You guys have really struck a chord,” said Lois Lofton-Doniver, who coordinates the professional development program for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Detroit. On July 1, ALBA’s Aaron Retish and Sebastiaan Faber spent a full day working along with Lofton-Doniver to help a dozen public school teachers develop lessons about human rights inspired by the legacy of the Lincoln Brigade and the Spanish Civil War.

ALBA’s institutes for teachers are framed around a series of essential questions that are as pertinent today as they were in the 1930s: Why should we care about events that happen far away, or that happened a long time ago? How do we decide who is on the right side of an armed conflict? When do we stand up for what we believe in? What are our obligations in the face of injustice? How do we resolve competing loyalties? When is it right, or necessary, for a powerful country like the U.S. to intervene in a conflict going on elsewhere? How do images and texts shape our view of the world—and how can we use them to shape others’ views? And, finally, what does fascism look like today?

Bill Bailey ripped the swastika flag off the S.S. Bremen in 1935; Bree Newsome did the same with the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Capitol.

2015-07-01 14.50.12After a general introduction to the Lincoln Brigade and the Spanish Civil War, the group screened the first 35 minutes of the documentary The Good Fight. In the discussion that followed, connections with the present promptly suggested themselves. One teacher pointed out the remarkable parallel between Lincoln vet Bill Bailey’s successful attempt to rip the swastika flag off the S.S. Bremen when it was docked at the New York harbor in July 1935, and the way in which activist Bree Newsome managed to take down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Capitol in late June this year.

2015-07-01 14.46.14Aaron Retish pointed to the many local links. “If you consult ALBA’s online database of the 2,800 U.S. volunteers who went to Spain, you’ll see the hundreds who had a connection with Detroit,” he said. “They came from the same neighborhoods where many of your students live. You might have taken your classes to see Diego Rivera’s murals of the Ford plant at the Detroit Institute of Arts. When you think about it, it was the very same workers depicted there who not much later joined the Lincoln Brigade.”

ALBA’s online database of the 2,800 U.S. volunteers who went to Spain lists hundreds who had a connection with Detroit.

2015-07-01 15.42.43In the second half of the workshop, teachers worked in groups to develop their own curriculum inspired by the more than 20 ready-made lesson plans that ALBA has posted on its teacher’s website, with topics ranging from children’s drawing of the war to propaganda posters and the Nuremberg Trials. One group built a compelling lesson around the letter that Canute Frankson, a Jamaican-born autoworker from Detroit, wrote from Spain to his friend. “I’m sure,” he writes, “that by this time you are still waiting for a detailed explanation of what has this international struggle to do with my being here”:

Since this is a war between whites who for centuries have held us in slavery, and have heaped every kind of insult and abuse upon us, segregated and jim-crowed us; why I, a Negro who have fought through these years for the rights of my people, am here in Spain today?

Because we are no longer an isolated minority group fighting hopelessly against an immense giant. Because, my dear, we have joined with, and become an active part of, a great progressive force on whose shoulders rests the responsibility of saving human civilization from the planned destruction of a small group of degenerates gone mad in their lust for power. Because if we crush Fascism here we’ll save our people in America, and in other parts of the world from the vicious persecution, wholesale imprisonment, and slaughter which the Jewish people suffered and are suffering under Hitler’s Fascist heels. All we have to do is to think of the lynching of our people. We can but look back at the pages of American history stained with the blood of Negroes; stink with the burning bodies of our people hanging from trees; bitter with the groans of our tortured loved ones from whose living bodies ears, fingers, toes have been cut for souvenirs—living bodies into which red-hot pokers have been thrust. All because of a hate created in the minds of men and women by their masters who keep us all under their heels while they suck our blood, while they live in their bed of ease by exploiting us….

…We will crush them. We will build us a new society – a society of peace and plenty. There will be no color line, no jim-crow trains, no lynching. That is why, my dear, I’m here in Spain.

“Excellent training,” one teacher wrote in their feedback form. “The true life situations aroused my emotions,” wrote another; yet another said: “I enjoyed every moment and learned a lot I can use in my classroom.”