What Was the Civil Rights Movement?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: A report shows too few U.S. high schoolers know the answer.

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The Southern Poverty Law Center's Report 

Sensing the urgency of this crisis, the SPLC took a three-step approach in reviewing all 50 states' standards for the school year 2011-2012. Through its Teaching Tolerance project, it established a benchmark for the "generally accepted core knowledge" any student should have about the civil rights movement, based on leading textbooks and historians. It scored each state with a letter grade, A through F. And it compared them. Let's just say that the students who missed the Brown quote in 2010 weren't alone. 

While I hope all concerned will read the report's thorough breakdown (especially of your state), here's a top view: A whopping 35 states received an F grade, which, according to the report, means they cover "less than 20 percent -- or, in many cases none -- of the recommended content." In fact, 16 states require nothing "at all." Check out the report (pdf) to see which ones.

It gets better, though, right? Actually, only three states in the report earned an A grade -- Alabama (70 percent), New York (65 percent) and Florida (64 percent). Three other states, Georgia, Illinois and South Carolina, received B's. And there were six C's handed out (Lousiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia) and three D's (Arizona, Arkansas, Massachusetts), which was also the score Washington, D.C., the site of the March, received. Want an even bigger shock? Nine out of the 12 highest scorers were former Confederate states; the other three, Illinois, New York and Maryland, have large black populations.

Going behind the numbers, we learn that, as of 2011-2012, only 19 states specifically require teaching Brown v. Board of Education, while 18 states require coverage of MLK; 12, Rosa Parks; 11, the March on Washington; and six, Jim Crow segregation policies. Only one, Arkansas, covers one of the chief obstacles to the civil rights movement: the Ku Klux Klan. Yet open up a recent American newspaper and you'll see that some states are actually clamoring for change in the opposite direction. In 2010, according to the New York Times, the Texas Board of Education voted in edits to its history textbooks that promoted a decidedly more Christian view of the nation's founders (none of whom owned slaves, right?) while playing up the Black Panthers' "violent philosophy" and emphasizing Republicans' role in voting for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If it gets its way, the Tea Party in Tennessee will do much of the same, apparently, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Whatever the reason for the SPLC's findings -- not enough instructional time because of No Child Left Behind, poor teacher preparation in schools of education or too low expectations -- the civil rights movement and, more generally, African-American history, are being left out, and it's not only black students who are suffering. You can't have a "conversation about race" only among black people! This is American history, after all. 

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While I commend states like New Jersey, New York and Illinois for passing legislation establishing Amistad Commissions to ensure the interweaving of black history throughout their social studies curriculums, I must also note that other cities, like Philadelphia (pdf) and Chicago, feel they have no better option than to mandate stand-alone courses for their high school students. I wish more school systems would offer the same, just as we do in college.

And while these are very positive steps -- most of us, after all, learned African-American history in these sort of classes -- not even separate stand-alone courses can have the larger and more lasting effect of integrating and interweaving our ancestors' stories into the common core of knowledge that every school child imbibes from the very first day of kindergarten. Teaching naturalizes history; the content that is taught in our schools makes knowledge second nature. And until the contributions of African Americans become second-nature to all American school children, desperate calls for one more "conversation about race" are destined to repeat themselves, in an endless cycle, following the next race-based hate crime.

"This will be the day," Dr. King dreamed 50 years ago this August, "when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, 'My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.' " Dr. King was a careful student of history, keenly aware of the presence of the past in the present. (I think part of his strength as a leader of the movement was the depth of the historical knowledge he brought to the task of slaying Jim Crow.) Yet how many school students today could even name the tune to which he was referring, or sing its words, let alone place it in context or communicate the power behind Marian Anderson's decision to change "of thee I sing" to "of thee we sing," when she sang it so defiantly during her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, after the Daughters of the American Revolution had refused her manager's request to have her perform at Constitution Hall?