Don’t know much about (civil rights) history

By Alan Bean

Most American students know nothing of substance about the civil rights movement.  When Julian Bond talked to school kids twenty years ago, no one could even tell him who George Wallace was (see article below).  For much the same reason, younger readers may not realize that my title was inspired by an old Sam Cooke song.  George Wallace was Governor of Alabama in the early 60s.  Sam Cooke released his famous song in the late 50s.  But I bet students know much more about the evolution of pop music than they know about civil rights history.

How can Americans have a conversation about race relations when most of us know next to nothing about Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, the evolution of the urban ghetto or any other matter germane to the subject?

Although Black Americans probably know a bit more about the civil rights era than white Americans, ignorance abounds on every square of the American crazy quilt.  We won’t get anywhere until these depressing trends change, but first we must ask how much we want to learn about an era that makes white America look really, really bad?

Southern states, a new study by the Southern Poverty Law Center finds, actually do a better job of teaching civil rights history than their northern and western counterparts.  In Mississippi, for instance, the trauma of the civil rights era was far too intense to be forgotten.  The movie The Help is a step in the right direction, but if any person, white or black, had tried to publish a book about black domestics and their white employers in the real Mississippi of 1962, the White Citizens Councils and the State Sovereignty Commission would have kept the book from appearing on book shelves.  A book that incendiary would have been delivered in a plain brown wrapper, in the dead of night.  There were things that simply could not be discussed back then; how much has changed?

Mississippi has mandated a K-12 civil rights curriculum.  If you don’t know about Jim Crow and the civil rights struggle, you can’t possibly understand present conditions in the Magnolia State.  The subject could be ignored for a while, but not forever.  In Colorado, it seems, the issue is far less pressing.

Students’ Knowledge of Civil Rights History Has Deteriorated, Study Finds

Published: September 28, 2011

When Julian Bond, the former Georgia lawmaker and civil rights activist, turned to teaching two decades ago, he often quizzed his college students to gauge their awareness of the civil rights movement. He did not want to underestimate their grasp of the topic or talk down to them, he said.

“My fears were misplaced,” Mr. Bond said. No student had heard of George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, he said. One student guessed that Mr. Wallace might have been a CBS newsman.

That ignorance by American students of the basic history of the civil rights movement has not changed — in fact, it has worsened, according to a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, on whose board Mr. Bond sits. The report says that states’ academic standards for public schools are one major cause of the problem.

“Across the country, state educational standards virtually ignore our civil rights history,” concludes the report, which is to be released on Wednesday.

The report assigns letter grades to each state based on how extensively its academic standards address the civil rights movement. Thirty-five states got an F because their standards require little or no mention of the movement, it says.

Eight of the 12 states earning A, B or C grades for their treatment of civil rights history are Southern states where there were major protests, boycotts or violence during the movement’s peak years in the 1950s and ’60s.

“Generally speaking, the farther away from the South — and the smaller the African-American population — the less attention paid to the civil rights movement,” the report says.

Alabama, Florida and New York were given A grades. Those states require relatively detailed teaching about the decade and a half of historic events, roughly bookended by the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation ruling and the April 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the enactment of the federal Civil Rights Act a week later.

Many states have turned Dr. King’s life into a fable, said Mr. Bond, who now teaches at American University and the University of Virginia. He said his students knew that “there used to be segregation until Martin Luther King came along, that he marched and protested, that he was killed, and that then everything was all right.”

Alabama, Florida and New York require teaching not only about Dr. King but also about others like James Meredith, who in 1962 became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi; Medgar Evers, the rights organizer murdered the following year in Jackson, Miss.; and Malcolm X, the Muslim minister who challenged the movement’s predominantly integrationist goals.

Some experts in history education criticized the report’s methodology. Fritz Fischer, a professor at the University of Northern Colorado who is chairman of the National Council for History Education, said it was unfair to give Colorado and some other states an F because of vague state history standards, when they are required by state constitutions or laws to leave curriculum up to local districts.

“The grading system they came up with does a disservice in putting the focus on requirements that certain states are unable to meet and will never be able to meet,” Dr. Fischer said.

Even though Colorado’s standards barely mention the civil rights movement, some Colorado schools teach the civil rights movement thoroughly, he said. “I’ve been in classrooms and watched them teach about the sit-ins and about the controversies between Martin Luther King and Malcolm,” he said.

The report is by no means the first to sound an alarm about nationwide weaknesses in the teaching of American history.

Over the past decade, students have performed worse on federal history tests administered by the Department of Education than on tests in any other subject. On the history test last year, only 12 percent of high school seniors showed proficiency.

The law center’s report noted that on that federal test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, seniors were asked to read a brief excerpt from the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, including the phrase, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Only 2 percent of the seniors were able to state that the ruling had been prompted by a school segregation case.

“I appreciate that they are shining a light on this,” said Kathleen Porter-Magee, a senior director at the Fordham Institute, a conservative Washington research group that produced its own report card on states’ American history standards this year. “We found that U.S. history standards were generally mediocre to awful, and this report finds the same thing.”

Even in schools that try to teach history rigorously, the civil rights movement may get short shrift because in the traditional chronological presentation of United States history, teachers often run out of time to cover post-World War II America, said Maureen Costello, a director at the poverty law center who oversaw and edited the report, titled “Teaching the Movement: the State of Civil Rights Education in the United States 2011.”

One reason the center decided to produce the report now is that 2011 is the 50th anniversary of crucial 1961 events, including the freedom rides.

One thought on “Don’t know much about (civil rights) history

  1. Ignorance of Civil Rights history is nothing new, and it cuts across racial divides. I’ve been watching reruns of “In the Heat of the Night”–an excellent series, notwithstanding unlikely attitudes in the Mississippi of the era, that ran from about 1989-1993. Virgil Tibbs is the black police detective in the fictional small town of Sparta, MS. Virgil’s aunt is caretaker for the Tibbs’ toddler twins. She is talking to her bright granddaughter, and comments regarding that generation: “They knows everthin’ bout everthin’ ‘cept they own history.” When we worked with the black children in Tulia we discovered they sho’ didn know much bout they own history. Some of them had never even heard of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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