Retired teacher James Langford, the first African American teacher in Siskiyou County, reflects on his 31 years helping students understand implications of race in daily life and in history.
Retired history teacher James Langford has spent many years helping students understand how race impacts the daily lives and historical perspectives of all Americans.
A self-described “history person,” Langford minored in black history at San Francisco State University, where he graduated in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and an elementary school teaching credential.
That year he was hired to teach at Weed Elementary School, making him the first African American teacher in Siskiyou County.
Langford said American history is often taught with a focus on western civilization, giving short shrift to the accomplishments of other groups of people, including African Americans.
He taught social studies and language arts at WES for 31 years and said he integrated African American history into his other teaching.
“It’s something I’m interested in, and something I really wanted to expose people to. Our area is not known for emphasizing African American accomplishments,” Langford said.
He said he ran into some trouble when teaching social studies, which covered different cultures around the world.
“People would ask me why I was teaching their children about Islam... It’s a world religion! One of three major world religions that came out of the middle east,” Langford explained.
He was also challenged when one of his classes studied an article which talked about the California Highway Patrol using a “profiling” system to determine which cars to stop on the highway.
During the discussions, Langford said, he talked with the students about the high percentage of black and Mexican men arrested during those stops.
His students said, “But Mr. Langford, African Americans and Mexicans are the ones doing the drug crimes.”
Langford pointed out to the students that population numbers alone indicated there were more white people doing drugs than black or brown people.
When challenged about the article from which he was teaching, he showed the piece to the administration.
“Once they saw the article, it was OK. I guess if you touch on sensitive subjects you have to be prepared to take some flack,” Langford said.
Langford also taught U.S. History at College of the Siskiyous, where he discovered that some students believed affirmative action programs guaranteed black people jobs or places in school programs for which they weren’t qualified.
“I’d ask them, How do you think it works? An African American demands a job and threatens to protest if he or she doesn’t get it?” Langford said.
He said he pointed out that affirmative action programs ensure that college programs accept some minority students – but only if they are qualified to begin with.
Some students never understood, Langford reported. “They’d say, That’s just a gift, Mr. Langford; they just give that to black people.”
Another issue he remembers talking about with the COS students came up in part because of current events.
The class had been discussing how history affects white versus non-European people, and one day talk turned to the idea of a level playing field.
Langford said, “The COS students believed there is a level playing field out there, that race doesn’t affect your ability to succeed.”
It was during the O.J. Simpson trial, Langford recalled, and he told his class that the O.J. news really affected him as an African American man.
“In certain situations, people can be looking at me as representative of O.J. and at O.J. as representative of all African Americans,” Langford said.
The students were confused.
“They asked me if I meant that O.J.’s actions affected me personally, and I said yes – because in certain situations I could be seen as a criminal,” he said, simply because he was black.
Langford contrasted that with the white experience, asking his students to reflect on the fact that if a white man commits a crime, it doesn’t really affect the whole race.
“That’s the kind of battle I was fighting with those kids. I had nothing to prove, I was just trying to teach. And I wanted them to be aware that they were insulated in college,” he said.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Langford said he spent a lot of time teaching about the Civil Rights Movement and about Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in it.
Were King alive today, he said, “I think he’d be part of the Occupy Wall Street movement and he’d be working on the issue of incarcerations of young black men.”
But Langford speculates that King’s main focus would be economic injustice.
“I think income inequality would be the big one. He was always aware that there are people starving in one of the greatest countries on earth. He thought no one should be hungry or homeless in the United States,” he said.
It was in addressing poverty that King ran into trouble with both the federal government and black activists such as Stokely Carmichael, Langford reported.
King worked for years as a Civil Rights Movement leader trying to correct the tragedies of discrimination and racism through non-violent civil disobedience.
Ultimately that put him at odds with more militant black activists who thought he was too cautious and who were unhappy that King began to include other ethnic groups in his growing focus on poverty, Langford reported.
Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, whites, African Americans and Native Americans all participated in the Poor People’s Campaign organized by King in 1968.
King was planning to bring thousands of people to Washington D.C. to demand economic justice for all.
Meanwhile he had been pressuring president Lyndon Johnson to increase the funds for the administration’s war on poverty and criticizing Johnson for diverting funds from the war on poverty to the war in Vietnam.
“That’s really why he was getting into so much trouble with the government,” Langford said.
In April 1968, weeks before King was to lead the People’s March on Washington, he went to Memphis, Tenn. to support striking sanitary workers.
He addressed a mass meeting and gave his last speech, “The Mountaintop Speech.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death the next day.