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Byron Williams

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Schools Must Teach the Civil Rights Movement

Posted: 11/11/11 03:00 PM ET

According to a study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, only 2 percent of high school seniors in 2010 "could answer a simple question about the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision." The report also finds the history of the civil rights movement is largely ignored by high schools across the country.

According to the report, "A score of 100 percent would mean that a state requires all of the movement's content to be taught; 50 percent means that half of the content is covered. Based on the scores, letter grades were assigned on a scale that recognizes the best state efforts.

Only three states -- Alabama, Florida, and New York -- earned a grade of A." Sixteen states, including California, earned an F, based on a failure to require any instruction about the movement.

Overall, Southern states fared better than their Northern counterparts, but there is room for improvement across the board.

Though tragic in my view, the results are hardly surprising. The civil rights movement remains one of the most misrepresented and misunderstood events in American history. Too often the movement is wrongly portrayed as an event that helped improve conditions solely for African-Americans, when in fact it was a movement that made the nation better.

A number of individuals ignorantly conclude that attempts by gay and lesbian movements to associate their inequalities with the civil rights movement is somehow an infringement on a hallowed legacy. The reason any movement vying for civil rights seeks to align with the civil rights movement is simple: It worked!

It was a movement that held the mirror of moral self-reflection to strongly suggest there could be no qualifiers to the Jeffersonian notion that all are, indeed, created equal.

The iconic photos of police dogs and high-powered fire hoses being unleashed on nonviolent civil rights protesters were abhorrent for many in the nation. Before the photos, 4 percent felt civil rights was the nation's most pressing issue, but after viewing the photos 52 percent felt it was the nation's most pressing issue.

We even do a disservice to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. For all of our myriad commemorations, in many ways he has been reduced to a paper icon whose major achievements have been condensed to a single speech at the National Mall on Aug. 28, 1963.

How can we consider ourselves to be an educated populace if key aspects of American history are ignored? This is how rhetorical mantras such as "Take the country back" can have standing without anyone asking: "What exactly does that mean?"

We would be outraged, and rightfully so, if states no longer required the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention, or the Civil War to be taught in high schools. Doesn't the same hold true in our failure to teach the civil rights movement?

The failure to require that the movement be taught in high schools robs students of the opportunity to see for themselves how this was not only the 20th century's greatest public demonstration in the belief in American democracy, but part of a grand tradition that is linked to the country's inception.

Any discussion of the civil rights movement must include Brown v. Board of Education. There can be no discussion of Brown without addressing Plessy v. Ferguson, which for 58 years held that Jim Crow segregation did not violate the 14th Amendment.

Plessy takes us to the 14th Amendment and the Civil War. The Civil War takes us past the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision and the Missouri Compromise. From there we are a hop skip and a jump from the Compromise of 1787, which made African slaves count as three-fifths for census purposes as the only way to keep the Southern states in the Union and ratify the Constitution, making us roughly 11 years from the Declaration of Independence.

As the writer James Baldwin opined, "History does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it with us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do."

The civil rights movement is a historical narrative that made the country better. It cannot be something that is optional in our high schools -- it must be part of a required curriculum.

Are we not all direct beneficiaries of their valor?

 

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