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)

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Want a meaningful “conversation about race”? That conversation, to be effective and to last, to become part of the fabric of the national American narrative, must start in elementary school, and continue all the way through graduation from high school. It must do this in the same way that the story of the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, the Puritans, the “City Upon a Hill” and the key, shaping stories and myths about ourselves that each American shares at the deepest level about what America is, was and continues to mean, was formulated for us through the school curriculum — from classroom content to participation in rituals such as reciting daily the Pledge of Allegiance and singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Unless our story becomes part and parcel of the common content of these rituals and teaching lessons, the stories of black ancestors’ sacrifices and accomplishments will not become part of the national narrative, not part of that “more perfect union.” 

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.