What Was the Civil Rights Movement?

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

An integrated classroom in Washington, D.C., 1954 (Getty Images)
An integrated classroom in Washington, D.C., 1954 (Getty Images)

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 43: How could integrating information about the fight for civil rights into K-12 curricula better educate our children and foster a real conversation on race?

A silly question, right? I thought so, too, until I learned that in the year 2010, only 2 percent of 12th graders received full credit in identifying the following quote on the National Assessment of Educational Progress U.S. History Exam: ” … Separate education facilities are inherently unequal.” The 12,000 students tested didn’t need to come up with the name Brown v. Board of Education, mind you — just know it had something to do with 1.) segregation 2.) in the nation’s schools — yet a stunning 73 percent either skipped it or received an “inappropriate” score. 

“What’s going on?” I asked myself, thinking about the refrain of Marvin Gaye’s canonical song that captured so brilliantly the sense of frustration and angst that so many of us felt in those years following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the Black Panthers and the Cultural Nationalists seemed to be doing their best to annihilate each other, while the FBI was doing its best to annihilate them both! 

Brown v. Board of Education was not only a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case for black people; it’s arguably the most important case in American legal history and one that, more than any other, affected all Americans by making de jure segregation illegal, and integration the goal of our ever more multicultural society.

Like I said, I had no idea (or had I wished it away?), until Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, reminded an audience on Martha’s Vineyard two weeks ago of a report that the Southern Poverty Law Center had issued in 2011. Its title: Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States Since 2011. I can boil its 108 pages of solid facts down to one sentence: The situation is “dismal.” The American school system is inexcusably treating the civil rights movement, essentially, as if it never happened, part of a collective, general amnesia about African-American history as a whole. And we cannot allow this to continue.

This month, countless Americans will gather in front of televisions and computer screens across the land — or even go to the Mall — to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the emotional highpoint of the civil rights movement, the March on Washington. Yet as the SPLC’s report reveals, where it really matters, where it counts most, in our nation’s public schools, far too many educators (and curriculum writers) view the movement “mainly as African-American or regional history.” In other words, while we may pause — some of us even weep — in claiming the “I Have a Dream” speech (pdf) Martin Luther King Jr. delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 as our speech, one of the greatest in our history, what’s really going on is that those overseeing the education of the next generation of dreamers conceive of the civil rights movement as niche history. They see it as being for and about black people, who, for the most part, reside in cities and/or in the South. As some of them might say: Aren’t MLK Day and Black History Month enough?

Why are the schools so important in preserving the historical memory of crucial events in black history, such as the march? Because it is in our schools that we shape, almost unconsciously, the shared sense of identity that makes us all citizens of a common republic. It is in the schools, from kindergarten on, that students imbibe the stories that the country tells itself about itself, about its history, its purpose, its raison d’être.