Civil Rights Education Still Lacking in U.S. Classrooms


Three years after the Southern Poverty Law Center (SLPC) published its unprecedented barometer of how civil rights history is taught in U.S. classrooms, a follow-up report on March 5 found education about the movement remains “woefully inadequate.”

“Ignorance remains the operative word when it comes to the civil rights movement and much of African-American history,” venerable civil rights activist and former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond wrote in the report.

A product of the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance project, 2011’s “Teaching the Movement” study found that more than half of the nation’s 50 states and the District of Columbia failed to teach students about this integral aspect of U.S. history, or promoted revisionist and diluted accounts.

“Most students don’t know much about the Civil Rights Movement beyond two names and four words: Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and ‘I have a dream,’” Maureen Costello, director of the Teaching Tolerance project, told the AFRO. “We certainly feel that not only is the Civil Rights Movement important historically, but it is important moving forward. Injustice continues in the world today and it is important for students to know that regular people can band together and make a difference, and the Civil Rights Movement best illustrates that.”

This year’s study, “Teaching the Movement 2014: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States” expanded the previous scope to include state standards and school curriculum resources related to the study of the modern Civil Rights Movement, and compared them to what civil rights experts consider core information about the movement.

The new study found slightly better educational practices—but adequate coverage of the subject still remains scanty.

In the newest report, only three states—Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina—received a grade of “A,” and 17 states improved by one letter grade since the 2011 survey. However, 20 states received a grade of “F,” including five—Alaska, Iowa, Maine, Oregon and Wyoming—that neither cover the movement as part of state standards nor provide resources to teach it. Another 14 states received grades of “D.”

The results also revealed geographic differences in the intensity of instruction on the Civil Rights Movement. The farther away states were from the South, and the smaller their African-American populations, the less dedication was given to the subject in schools, reflecting the misguided belief that the movement is a subject of only regional importance, or of interest only to African-American students.

Those beliefs belie the significance of the movement to the entire American society and the nation’s history, experts say.

“Black history…should not be relegated to one week or one month in the calendar but taught as it was lived within the larger American story,” said Harvard University historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., who wrote the study’s introduction.

“Want to have a meaningful ‘conversation about race?’ That conversation, to be effective and to last, to become part of the fabric of the national American narrative, must start in elementary school, and continue all the way through graduation from high school,” he continued. “It must do this in the same way that the story of the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, the Puritans, the ‘City Upon a Hill’ and the key, shaping stories and myths about ourselves were formulated for us through the school curriculum.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice, issued the report as part of its efforts to promote understanding and tolerance. Among its recommendations, the report encouraged states to take a comprehensive approach to civil rights education and to integrate it into their K-12 history and social studies standards. The report called for schools and other organizations to ensure that educators have the necessary preparation, tools and resources to teach about the movement.

“The civil rights movement isn’t just sit-ins and bus boycotts; it is a long, long struggle for equality that has lasted years and years and will last years more,” Bond said. “That’s why Teaching Tolerance's study of what is and is not taught about civil rights is so important—to convince Americans of the importance of learning about American history, particularly, the history of our many struggles for freedom. If we do not learn these stories, we cannot understand how important they have been and how necessary they are.”

Civil Rights Education Still Lacking in U.S. Classrooms

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