I have been following a surprising development that fills me with hope and, I confess, a measure of trepidation. Next year, Mississippi will become the first state in the nation to mandate the teaching of the civil rights movements in its public schools. This story in the Christian Science Monitor focuses on the town of McComb, one of a handful of communities selected for participation in a pilot program.
If the McComb experience is anything to go by Mississippi’s civil rights curriculum could be front page news when it is introduced state-wide next fall. White Mississippians don’t like being regarded as racists–an identity they have been fighting since Reconstruction. Mainstream America has been conditioned to think of the civil rights movement as the triumph of good over evil. White Mississippians have a different take. They have no problem with black people celebrating the fact that they can now vote and eat at the restaurant of their choice, so long as they can do it without dwelling on the past.
Unfortunately, you can’t teach children about the civil rights movement without making white people look really, really bad. We don’t like looking bad. We’re not used to it. We’ve spent half a century changing the subject when the conversation gets awkward and we’re very good at it.
The white reaction to the new civil rights curriculum in McComb, MS hasn’t always been positive:
“They just don’t talk about it,” says Jacquelyn Martin, a black civil rights organizer. “People don’t understand that part of the healing begins when you talk about it, so they just keep it to themselves.”
Making it a subject in school is “a pretty drastic change,” says state curriculum specialist Chauncey Spears. “But how can you have a strong education program when you have high-achieving grads who have such little understanding of their own history?”
Mississippi Senate Bill 2718, passed in 2006, mandates all kindergartners to 12th-graders to be exposed to civil rights education. In the younger grades, students will read books such as “I Love My Hair!” as a way to discuss concepts like racial differences in skin complexion and hair texture. Later grades will delve more deeply into how ordinary citizens shaped the civil rights movement and the long-term effects those changes had upon the nation.
This section is downright pignant:
Some days there are tears. For Sarah Rowley, 17, the class has been a watershed. Initially she saw it as “an easy grade,” but quickly realized she was wrong. Much of the class centers on gathering oral narratives from residents who grew up in a radically different McComb, a place where inequality and violence was a part of life. In the middle of one interview at the home of Lillie Mae Cartstarphen, Sarah asked an innocent question about the role of law enforcement during that time.
Sarah’s grandfather had been a McComb policeman and, later, chief of police during the 1960s. In her family’s eyes, he was a hero. But, says Sarah, her voice trembling as she recounts the answer: “[Ms. Cartstarphen] said you couldn’t trust policemen, that they were just as involved as the KKK. Even now, it makes me want to cry. I thought, ‘I have to regain my composure. I can’t let this interfere with what I’m here to do.’ But I felt like I was in a tug of war. Here is this woman telling me this, but my family … they’re such good people. What do I do?”
She talked to Malone and to her father. She prayed. Eventually, Sarah says, she made peace with the legacy of a man struggling to keep his job, feed his family, and survive in a troubled era. She’s certain he’d make different choices if he were alive today.
It’s more difficult to talk about things with her boyfriend, who attends Parklane Academy, which is 99 percent white. When Sarah reads books like “The Mississippi Trials, 1955” she’s overwhelmed by sadness. But he doesn’t want to hear about it, she says. “He thinks it’s over with and in the past. He gets up and walks out…. He’s growing up in this mind-set that’s so sheltered. It breaks my heart.”
Malone’s emphasis on seeing all perspectives makes it easier for Sarah to cope. “I have to remember that if I was in his shoes, I’d be the same way,” Sarah says. “In the South, it’s a very, very touchy subject.”
Congratulations to the Mississippi Legislature for passing this legislation; lets hope most of the civil rights resenters in the Magnolia State are attending Segregation Academies (now referred to, in many cases, as “Christian Schools”). In that case, they have nothing to fear. What they don’t know can’t hurt them.