Civil Rights Education in America

August 14th, 2013

With the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington approaching, professor and historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. asks what American students know about the Civil Rights Movement. His answer? Not much. 

In surveying America’s schools, Gates finds huge shortcomings in students’ knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement. For instance, in 2010, only 2 percent of 12th grade students taking NAEP’s U.S. History exam earned full credit for identifying the famous quote from Brown v. Board of Education: “Separate education facilities are inherently unequal.”

While Gates acknowledges the importance of teaching math and science, he argues that our shared cultural history is also critical and schools are the perfect place to teach that history:

Why are the schools so important in preserving the historical memory of crucial events in black history, such as the march? Because it is in our schools that we shape, almost unconsciously, the shared sense of identity that makes us all citizens of a common republic. It is in the schools, from kindergarten on, that students imbibe the stories that the country tells itself about itself, about its history, its purpose, its raison d’être.  

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.” 

For ideas on how to incorporate the Civil Rights Movement into your curricula, check out our ebook, “The Meaning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” which is full of resources on the Civil Rights Movement and the African American experience.

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