<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="1252"%> Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching



The Commercial Appeal

Civil Rights Movement's History One of Hit and Myth
By Wendi C. Thomas
February 17, 2005

For too long we've reduced our study of the civil rights movement to the 28 days of Black History Month and an overworked and short list of names, dates and places.

Rosa Parks sparks the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1955. The Little Rock Nine integrates Central High School in Arkansas in 1957. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is gunned down at the Lorraine Motel, here in Memphis, in 1968.

This is what's known as the heroes approach to teaching history. Using it to learn about the nation's greatest human rights campaign belittles the grass-roots campaigns begun by those whose names will never be known.

Instead of absorbing the movement's lessons in a way that spurs us to take action against social injustices today, we're left with pithy myths easily filed away until next February.

Like the myth that King was the leader of the civil rights movement, and that when he died the movement died. The myth that men were responsible for most of its achievements. The myth that the federal government championed civil rights. The myth that racism existed only in the South.

"Too often, the teaching of the Civil Rights Movement -- as a spontaneous, emotional eruption of angry but saintly African-Americans led by two or three inspired orators -- discounts the origins, the intellect, and the breadth that guided this complex social movement," writes Jenice L. View, a co-author of "Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching: A Resource Guide for Classrooms and Communities," a new book designed to destroy those myths.

View says it's time to tell the story completely, with its moments of "strategic brilliance, logistical messiness, exalted joy, heart-gouging sorrow, sharp tactical conflicts, and near-religious personal transformations."

That telling, View says, is often absent in classrooms, and it's not the educators' fault.
"Teachers are under incredible pressure these days" to make sure their students pass standardized tests, she says, leaving them with no time to use the movement to spur deeper discussions about citizenship and self-determination.

For example, View says, many of us were taught that the first successful school desegregation case was the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

But in the early 1930s Mexican-American parents in the Lemon Grove community near San Diego, Calif., sued to keep their children from being sent to segregated schools and they won.

"That's one story you wouldn't find in a textbook," View says.

The story of the civil rights movement in America isn't a black-white story. It's not a story that ended when King was killed. It's a story that has relevance today, a movement whose lessons can be applied globally.

To learn more about this book or to test your knowledge of the civil rights movement, go to civilrightsteaching.org.


Press Contact

Ilana Sabban
(202) 588-7206

Putting the Movement into Civil Rights Teaching is in schools in 44 states and the momentum is growing.


Published by Teaching for Change and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council (PRRAC).
Copyright © 2005 by Teaching for Change. All rights reserved.