Mississippi Mandates Civil Rights Classes in Schools

Carmen K. Sisson, Christian Science Monitor, October 4, 2009

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Most Mississippi children have never heard of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black child whose 1955 lynching in Mississippi by a white mob galvanized the civil rights movement. They haven’t heard of the 1964 “Freedom Summer,” when 1,000 volunteers swept into this area to register black voters. They don’t know about ordinary citizens who faced extraordinary odds to bring change.

But they’re going to know all about it soon. In a groundbreaking reform–believed to be the first in the nation–Mississippi will require civil rights as part of its US history curriculum. McComb schools made that move in 2006; but starting next fall, the stories of the civil rights era will be taught–and tested–in all public schools.

In many places, it will end a decades-old culture of silence. People here don’t like to remember the nights of church bombings and explosions; the sound of rifles being loaded in the dark as citizens patrolled sidewalks and sanctuaries, trying to stem the violence. They don’t like to remember the fear and distrust–between blacks and whites, but also among themselves.

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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.

Mr. Spears says the new curriculum is being taught this year in 10 pilot programs. Teacher workshops begin this month, taught by the state Department of Education in conjunction with the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy at Jackson State University, Teaching for Change in Washington, and the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.

Mandating the new curriculum was the only way to ensure it would be taught, says Spears. It’s not that teachers haven’t wanted to teach civil rights, though he admits that’s probably the case in some places. It’s more a symptom of a nationwide problem, an educational stricture some say is an unwelcome byproduct of the No Child Left Behind Act: Teaching to the test. As the stakes become higher, the curriculum narrows.

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WHEN EDUCATORS BEGAN ASKING these questions, they sought inspiration in the McComb High School classroom of teacher Vickie Malone. Three years ago, when she began teaching “Local Cultures” as an elective to seniors, she had no idea what the course would become. She just wanted her students to hear all the voices of history, both black and white, taught in an open way that promoted understanding, not fear.

“I wanted them to understand choices, and how profoundly they can affect the rest of your life,” Ms. Malone says. “A lot of kids today are just numbed out, but back then, the kids were the movers and the shakers.”

(Indeed, in 1961, 300 students walked out of Burglund High School to the McComb City Hall in support of voting rights–116 of them were jailed.)

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The class is fashioned more like a college seminar than a high school elective. There are no rigid rows of desks, multiple-choice tests, or rote memorization. Instead, students gather at a table to talk about issues that even their grandparents and parents–some of whom were participants on both sides of the civil rights battles–may have difficulty discussing.

In one class last month, they examined dual perspectives, and each student wrote a poem from two angles, examining life through the eyes of another. There were the expected combinations: Popular/unpopular, rich/poor, white/black. But there were surprises as well, and as they read their work to their peers, there was occasional muffled admiration.

“Whoa,” a student said, after one reading. “That’s deep.”

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And ultimately, say proponents of the curriculum changes, that’s the goal: Making Mississippi’s future better, even if it means dredging muddy waters.

DR. SUSAN GLISSON, director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi, spends a lot of time thinking about this, analyzing where the state has been and where it’s going. Pockets of progress are punctuated by serious challenges.

“Kids are practically being funneled from school to prison,” Ms. Glisson says. “When you throw in a failing economy, terrorism, fears of wars abroad, and the first African-American president, you have a potentially dangerous situation. It requires us to be as vigilant as ever.”

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In McComb, the curriculum change has sparked a storm of controversy. In his Aug. 29 editorial, “A Relevant Subject,” McComb Enterprise-Journal editor and publisher Jack Ryan tried to allay fears that kids will be force-fed a message of “white people bad, black people good.”

He says the issue “cuts too close to the bone.” When officials began talking about teaching civil rights, they discussed omitting McComb church bombings. In 1984, when the newspaper published a 20-year anniversary “Freedom Summer” report, a white employee told him she wished they’d “just leave that stuff alone.”

Those feelings are echoed in public comments posted on the paper’s website below Mr. Ryan’s editorial.

“I can’t imagine what this course will accomplish other than to open old wounds, some of which aren’t healing well as it is,” says one poster.

But Spears says that’s why Mississippi should pioneer civil rights education: “It’s not over, and that says a lot about what this state can potentially become. We do struggle, and out of necessity, we can’t just stand pat with the challenges we face.”

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