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Mississippi mandates civil rights classes in schools

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

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"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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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."