The civil rights movement is one of the defining events in U.S. history, but most states fail when it comes to teaching the movement to students, a first-of-its kind study by the Southern Poverty Law Center has found.
The study, Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education 2011, examined state standards and curriculum requirements related to the study of the modern civil rights movement in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. It includes a foreword by noted civil rights activist and historian Julian Bond. Click here to read the report.
In his foreword, Julian Bond writes that he feared he was “talking down” to students in civil rights history sessions at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities, so he created a simple quiz. He need not have worried. None of the students could tell him who George Wallace was. (Answer: the segregationist governor of Alabama who stood in the door of the University of Alabama to prevent it being integrated. He ran for president.) Students knew sanitized accounts of the lives of Dr. King and Rosa Parks.
The study compared the requirements in state standards to a body of knowledge that reflects what civil rights historians and educators consider core information about the civil rights movement.
> 35 states received grades of F
> Of those, 16 states, where local officials set specific policies and requirements for their school districts, have no requirements at all for teaching about the civil rights movement
> Only 3 states received an A—Alabama, New York, and Florida.
> Generally speaking, the farther from the South—and the smaller the African-American population—the less attention paid to the civil rights movement. Most states receiving a C or better are in the South—suggesting the civil rights movement is viewed as a regional concern rather than a national interest
> Civil rights lessons tend to focus on a few leaders—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, rather than obstacles civil rights activists faced, like racism and resistance.
“For too many students, their civil rights education boils down to two people and four words: Rosa Parks, Dr. King and ‘I have a dream,'” said Maureen Costello, the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance director.
My newest novel, Double Switched, has a strong civil rights theme and a funny scene that illustrates just how little most students know about the civil rights movement. I assure you that in my experience as a teacher, the scene is very realistic.
Background: Connor and his friends do a group project about the civil rights movement. Connor presents information he learned from interviewing his father, who grew up in the (recently) desegregated South and went on to play for the New York Yankees. Tyler presents a report about Dr. King. Connor accidentally interrupts Tyler’s report, and then both boys step on each other as they continue presenting.
The class is utterly confused. To the kids, Dr. King and Connor’s dad are switched. Sample questions from Connor’s classmates:
> What position did Dr. King play?
> What was his ERA?
> Why do you keep calling him Doctor if he didn’t finish college?
> Who got a C in public speaking?
> Whose mom worked for a white family?
> When was Dr. King a Yankee?
Prevent such a mix-up in your class. Teach the civil rights movement!