Students? Knowledge of Civil Rights History Has Deteriorated, Study Finds

Thursday, September 29, 2011

When Julian Bond, the former Georgia lawmaker and civil rights activist, turned to teaching two decades ago, he often quizzed his college students to gauge their awareness of the civil rights movement. He did not want to underestimate their grasp of the topic or talk down to them, he said.

?My fears were misplaced,? Mr. Bond said. No student had heard of George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, he said. One student guessed that Mr. Wallace might have been a CBS newsman.

That ignorance by American students of the basic history of the civil rights movement has not changed ? in fact, it has worsened, according to a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, on whose board Mr. Bond sits. The report says that states? academic standards for public schools are one major cause of the problem.

?Across the country, state educational standards virtually ignore our civil rights history,? concludes the report, which is to be released on Wednesday.

The report assigns letter grades to each state based on how extensively its academic standards address the civil rights movement. Thirty-five states got an F because their standards require little or no mention of the movement, it says.

Eight of the 12 states earning A, B or C grades for their treatment of civil rights history are Southern states where there were major protests, boycotts or violence during the movement?s peak years in the 1950s and ?60s.

?Generally speaking, the farther away from the South ? and the smaller the African-American population ? the less attention paid to the civil rights movement,? the report says.

Alabama, Florida and New York were given A grades. Those states require relatively detailed teaching about the decade and a half of historic events, roughly bookended by the Supreme Court?s 1954 school desegregation ruling and the April 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the enactment of the federal Civil Rights Act a week later.

Many states have turned Dr. King?s life into a fable, said Mr. Bond, who now teaches at American University and the University of Virginia. He said his students knew that ?there used to be segregation until Martin Luther King came along, that he marched and protested, that he was killed, and that then everything was all right.?

Alabama, Florida and New York require teaching not only about Dr. King but also about others like James Meredith, who in 1962 became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi; Medgar Evers, the rights organizer murdered the following year in Jackson, Miss.; and Malcolm X, the Muslim minister who challenged the movement?s predominantly integrationist goals.

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