"It's Not Steps Anymore, but More like Shuffling": Student Perceptions of the Civil Rights Movement and Ethnic Identity

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The bus lumbered along a back road of rural Mississippi, and out of our windows we saw fields of cotton broken by small homes and gardens that old men were hoeing. The narrow, winding road followed the contours of the Tallahatchie River, its waters muddy and opaque. The journey led 35 high school sophomores and 15 adults, mostly African American and Mexican American, into an often forgotten era in the early stages of the civil rights movement. We had come South for two weeks to talk with and interview people who had participated in the movement and to visit the sites of the struggle. We were seeking deeper understanding about the movement than could be gleaned from the three or four pages generally offered in most school history texts.

After interviewing residents of Greenwood about the voter rights issues of the 1960s, we rode to Money, a small town 12 miles from Greenwood, to see if the Bryant Grocery store was still standing. This was the store in which, in 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American Chicago youth who was visiting relatives in the area, talked "smart" to a local White woman. Young Till did not understand the violent system of segregation that existed in the South in the 1950s and was murdered by the woman's husband and brother-in-law. He was dragged from his Uncle Mose Wright's rural home in the middle of the night, beaten until one side of his head was crushed, shot in the head, weighted with a heavy cotton gin fan, and dumped into the Tallahatchie River. The brutality of the murder, the facade of justice erected during the trial, the acquittal, and the later confession by the two men in an interview with a journalist (Huie, 1956) made the case nationally famous.

The store, now abandoned, still resembled the pictures in reference books. Gazing at this symbol of racial oppression, our normally boisterous 15-year-olds were silent. After a while, several students wandered over to a newer grocery located next door to buy something to drink. The cashier, an elderly White woman, asked why the bus had stopped in this isolated part of the state. Told that the students were studying about the civil rights movement and the Emmett Till murder, the woman became indignant and exclaimed that the White men were found innocent and that the students should not be pursuing this topic. Our students were shocked at the obvious vexation of the elderly woman and her defense of the two confessed murderers. They told the story of this encounter several times over several days to other youth and adults who were incredulous and then angry at the incident's implications.

The Emmett Till incident and the emotions it evoked had a powerful impact on our students' sense of history and how they perceived themselves as members of disparaged ethnic and racial groups in the United States. We had the opportunity to investigate these issues while we were creating curriculum for these high-achieving African American and Mexican American youth, who were participants in a special scholarship program called TOLEDO EXCEL. We wanted to know whether our curriculum and trip affected how our students viewed their ethnic identity--that is, their relationship to their own ethnic group as well as to the dominant majority group.

ETHNIC IDENTITY

Due to the changing demographics of urban schools as well as the failure of many of these schools to adequately educate disenfranchised ethnic groups, a focus on ethnic identity issues has arisen with regard to curriculum. Underlying much of the literature on ethnic identity is the often implicit and sometimes explicit assumption that immersing marginalized ethnic students in studies of their own culture enhances their psychological well-being (Grossman, Wirt, & Davids, 1985). Indeed, some researchers see this area of study as one response to reversing the school failure of these ethnic populations. For example, Gay (1985) makes the following claim:

Students' levels of ethnic identity development influence their sense of reality and psychological dispositions, thereby affecting how they respond to school environments and instructional processes. …