How Can We Change the Future without Knowing the Past?

I grew up below the Mason Dixon line. In Baltimore, we have Frederick Douglass High School (named for the escaped slave become statesman and abolitionist) and Robert E. Lee Memorial Park (named for the Confederate General from Virginia).

I grew up below the Mason Dixon line. In Baltimore, we have Frederick Douglass High School (named for the escaped slave become statesman and abolitionist) and Robert E. Lee Memorial Park (named for the Confederate General from Virginia). They were not that far away from one another... less than seven miles.

I thought of that strange proximity when I read Wednesday's New York Times article on how little U.S. students know about the civil rights movement.

All throughout my schooling, February was devoted to memorizing interesting facts about influential and important African Americans. Matthew Henson (explorer), Benjamin Banneker (mathematician, inventor and Baltimore hometown hero who--among other things--made the first American clock), Crispus Attucks (first to die in the American Revolution), Madam C.J. Walker (entrepreneur), George Washington Carver... and of course Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. But this learning was scattershot and somewhat random--not a comprehensive look at a movement that shaped the city in which I was growing up--a city that could celebrate a former slave and a Southern army general.

The inventor of peanut butter, the inventor-ess of the scalp treatments for women and many others all squeezed into the shortest month of the year. All these years later, I find it easy to recall their names (and dozens more) but hard to sum up their accomplishments or explain the when, why and hows of their struggles. I would get an F (or at least a D) on whatever test the Southern Poverty Law Center gave to schools.

The Center documents their findings in a report entitled Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States 2011, which was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of highlights of the Civil Rights Movement--like the freedom rides that involved thousands of young people in desegregating the trans-state bus routes.

Who is Medgar Evers? Emmett Till? Or women like Septima Poinsette Clark? Fannie Lou Hamer?

But this report is not a trivia contest or a "name that civil rights luminary" quiz. Instead it looks at how the civil rights movement is taught in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. It took on a huge and difficult task in that there are no common standards or widely accepted curricula. The SPLC examined:

all current and available state standards, frameworks, model curricula and related documents archived on the websites of the departments of education of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It focuses on standards for social studies, social science, history and related subjects like civics or geography.

It looked at how the history of the civil rights movement is taught across a variety of grade levels and through more than a dozen commonly assigned American history textbooks and tried to "set out an approachable span of core knowledge that a competent citizen needs to gain a reasonably full understanding of the civil rights movement."

In other words, the Southern Poverty Law Center would love it if all kids graduated from high school conversant in the ups and downs of relations between the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X or a granular understanding of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Poor People's Campaign but that is not the curve they are grading on in their sweeping and comprehensive study. They are looking for coverage of basic historical information and opportunities for young people to get excited and inspired... And they did not find it.

Alabama, Florida and New York were the only states to receive an A (but A does not mean 100% though; it means that these three states include at least 60% of the recommended content). Georgia, Illinois and South Carolina received B grades. These states received high marks for requiring instruction, but the majority of states (35) failed with Fs for either not requiring any instruction on the civil rights movement or having only minimal coverage.

My home state--Maryland received a C grade with SPLC noting that:

Maryland's civil rights movement requirements cover several major areas but are weak overall... [But] The state does an admirable job of covering diverse tactics, and is one of only a handful of states to include the urban uprisings of the 1960s in its required curriculum.

Whoo hoo for the C grade. Only five other states got a C.

My adopted state of Connecticut failed, with the SPLC concluding that:

Connecticut's failure to require students to learn about the civil rights movement is disappointing, but not especially surprising given the overall lack of rigor and content in the state's history standards. Still, it is a shame that a state whose rich history includes the Amistad case and a long tradition of abolitionism does not require students to learn about the civil rights movement at all, let alone its substantial and important history.

Hmm, The Amistad? I did not know there was a Connecticut connection (it is almost like I went through CT public schools).

I was fascinated by these assessments and remembered my own shock and excitement when I was invited to dig more deeply into the story of Rosa Parks--who I learned about in school and from the Neville Brothers song "Thank you, Sister Rosa." Paul Loeb was the person who introduced me to the trained activist Rosa Parks, the one with a long history in the movement. His writings also opened a window on the long struggle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott--the thousands of men and women who walked to and from work for months and the tens of thousands who supported them throughout the nation.

Yep, I was well into my twenties before I learned about this (despite having activist parents and being encouraged to read books like People's History of the United States. I was too busy trying to sneak a peek at Miami Vice and the Dukes of Hazard).

In The Impossible Will Take a Little While, which first exposed me to this fuller picture of Rosa Parks, Paul Loeb quotes an African American activist from Atlanta who commented that:

when people who work for social change are presented as saints--so much more noble than the rest of us... it does us all a disservice...We get a false sense that from the moment they were born they were called to act, never had doubts, were bathed in a circle of light.

Looking at the movement as a whole, learning about its successes and failures and its commitment to continue on in experiments in truth after evaluation and trial and error, means that she (and we) have a "shot at changing things" even if we are not Rosa Parks.

Teaching the Movement makes the same point.

Parks is justly venerated for her activism in triggering the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Yet too many depictions of her portray a lone woman who was simply tired and did not want to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. In reality, she was a trained participant in a well-organized social movement.

This should be cause for alarm. The reduction of the movement into simple fables obscures both the personal sacrifices of those who engaged in the struggle and the breadth of the social and institutional changes they wrought.... Students deserve to learn that individuals, acting collectively, can move powerful institutions to change.

There is a library full of new books (or e-books) on the civil rights movement and the big personalities that labored in it fields and lunch counters and street corners. The one I am most excited to read is the late Manning Marable'sA Life of Reinvention: Malcolm X. (I know, I know, it came out months ago).

But before sitting down to the thousands of pages of prose, I should have a series of conversations with the young people in my life (and with the young person who still lives inside of me) and ask a lot of questions (and be ready for a lot of answers). Questions like: "What do you know?" "Who are your heroes and she-roes?" "What are you taught?" "What do you want to learn?" "What kind of world do you want to live in?" and "What skills do you need to hone and lessons do you need learn in order to make that world?" I invite you to do the same so that the civil rights movement of half a century ago can inform and inspire and ground the many movements for civil, social and human rights that are needed (and those that are underway) today and tomorrow.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.