Mississippi mandates civil rights classes in schools
All students will study the nation's racial troubles and progress in US history courses.
(Page 3 of 4)
"Whoa," a student said, after one reading. "That's deep."Skip to next paragraph
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Sometimes, discussions get heated, like the day a white student became incensed by a black classmate's seeming nonchalance to learn that one of McComb's top black athletes had been recruited by an exclusive, all-white academy.
"I thought she was going to leap across the table," Malone recalled. "She kept saying, 'Doesn't it make you mad that you can't go there?' "
Some days there are tears. For Sarah Rowley, 17, the class has been a watershed. Initially she saw it as "an easy grade," but quickly realized she was wrong. Much of the class centers on gathering oral narratives from residents who grew up in a radically different McComb, a place where inequality and violence was a part of life. In the middle of one interview at the home of Lillie Mae Cartstarphen, Sarah asked an innocent question about the role of law enforcement during that time.
Sarah's grandfather had been a McComb policeman and, later, chief of police during the 1960s. In her family's eyes, he was a hero. But, says Sarah, her voice trembling as she recounts the answer: "[Ms. Cartstarphen] said you couldn't trust policemen, that they were just as involved as the KKK. Even now, it makes me want to cry. I thought, 'I have to regain my composure. I can't let this interfere with what I'm here to do.' But I felt like I was in a tug of war. Here is this woman telling me this, but my family … they're such good people. What do I do?"
She talked to Malone and to her father. She prayed. Eventually, Sarah says, she made peace with the legacy of a man struggling to keep his job, feed his family, and survive in a troubled era. She's certain he'd make different choices if he were alive today.
It's more difficult to talk about things with her boyfriend, who attends Parklane Academy, which is 99 percent white. When Sarah reads books like "The Mississippi Trials, 1955" she's overwhelmed by sadness. But he doesn't want to hear about it, she says. "He thinks it's over with and in the past. He gets up and walks out.... He's growing up in this mind-set that's so sheltered. It breaks my heart."
Malone's emphasis on seeing all perspectives makes it easier for Sarah to cope. "I have to remember that if I was in his shoes, I'd be the same way," Sarah says. "In the South, it's a very, very touchy subject."
But Sarah believes passionately in the class – she took it twice and returned this year as a teacher's aide: "Stories like Emmett Till's – that should tear everybody up. People need to know ... like they know the Civil War.... Being in your little bubble isn't going to help you at all."
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.