Mississippi mandates civil rights classes in schools

All students will study the nation's racial troubles and progress in US history courses.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Vines and warning signs hang on the exterior walls of the two-story, brick building that was Bryant's Grocery & Meat Market in Money, Miss., Aug. 12, 2005.
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    Civil rights stories such as that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old lynched in 1955 at Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in Money, Miss., will be required public school subjects in Mississippi.
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    The canon of civil rights literature will be part of Mississippi’s new requirements for its US history curriculum.
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    Vickie Malone has pioneered that curriculum in her classes at McComb High School.
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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.

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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. 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.)

It's painful, this exploration of history, but then, nothing has been easy since Malone developed the class. Because it's new, and not a critical course like math or reading, it's often left off the master schedule by accident, forcing her to recruit students. Even then, it's not a quick sell. They don't need it for a diploma. It won't get them into college.

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."

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.

"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."

The Southern Poverty Law Center cites a 50 percent increase in hate groups and extremism in the US since 2000. As part of the Klanwatch project, the nonprofit monitors more than 900 such currently active groups, 22 of them in Mississippi, and nearly 400 concentrated in the remaining secession states: Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Virginia, and the Carolinas.

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."

Glisson agrees: "Mississippi owes this to the nation, because so often we have led negatively. With better understanding, we can make the state better."

That may come from the younger generation of Mississippians like Delisa Magee, a black student in Malone's class.

"We're not bad people; it's just our past," says Delisa, as she puts away her notebook and heads to a pep rally. "There's still so much racism down here on both sides. It needs to change."

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