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A part of us that needs telling

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Esther Cepeda
January 16, 2012
— It’s been 26 years since the first federal holiday observation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and about time to expand the annual homage to year-round teaching of one of the most important episodes in American history.

The societal changes emerging from the civil rights movement—roughly the period from the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to King’s death in 1968—are reflected in nearly every part of daily life, yet it’s a little-understood part of the historical record.


How could it be otherwise when, according to “Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States 2011,” a report released last September by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 16 states don’t require any public school instruction at all about the movement and another 19 address it only minimally?


According to this research, many states believe it’s a topic of interest only to black students, an assumption that was easy to spot on the 2010 Nation’s Report Card U.S. History assessment—shamefully, only 2 percent of 12th-graders could identify the two defining facts in the Brown case that yielded the ruling to desegregate public schools.


“When we looked at data, we saw that virtually in every state that teaches about civil rights, it starts in kindergarten or first grade and begins in the same way: as a unit on national holidays. It’s introduced very early and gets repeated and repeated every year, sometimes getting expanded into Black History Month, but never going beyond that,” said Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, the project of the Southern Poverty Law Center which surveyed all 50 states and the District of Columbia on their civil rights movement instruction.


“Teaching the civil rights movement in an episodic, ‘heroes and holidays,’ out-of-context manner is not authentic in a lot of ways. But states are fearful about including it in the regular history curriculum because they don’t require strong history standards and because everybody’s most concerned with being career and college ready, which means emphasizing reading and math.”


No one would argue against those goals receiving the bulk of schools’ attention. But if the aim of a well-rounded public school education is to create informed citizens ready to participate in our democracy, it should be possible to integrate the lessons of the civil rights movement—the thousands of individual acts of courage, exercising freedoms of speech and assembly, how laws are fought for and enforced—into reading, literature and social studies classes.


In a country where we still live very racially aware lives and the promise of equal opportunity under the law continues to be elusive for many, every public school student deserves to understand this chapter of history as well as they understand the American Revolution and the terrorist attacks of 9/11.


For that, the civil rights movement must be a constant, cross-curricular facet of K-12 public education and not a mere February mention. After all, as Costello so beautifully put it: All black history, all civil rights history, is American history.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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