Mississippi Mandates Civil Rights Classes in Schools

Article excerpt

The boxwoods are perfectly trimmed to spell out McComb. It's a warm, Mississippi welcome from "The Camellia City of America," where streets are named for states, and flowers spill from planters accenting century-old architecture.

Only when you stroll beyond downtown, into older neighborhoods, do you catch a faint whiff of another time, a summer when the air seemed to always be filled with smoke, the streets stained with blood - a time when McComb had a darker moniker: "The Bombing Capital of the World."

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.

"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.

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.

In some schools, Spears says, there's such intense pressure to rectify faltering math and reading scores that everything else is "pretty much ignored."

But how do you chart such relatively new territory in a state where the history is still so fresh?

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. …