As Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday approaches, many American youth lack adequate knowledge of his role, and that of many others, in the civil rights movement.
According to a 2011 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., on civil rights educational standards and curriculum, most states earned a D or F, with 35 states receiving an F because their standards required little or no mention of the civil rights movement.
Only three states earned an A: Alabama, Florida and New York.
Georgia, Illinois and South Carolina were the only states to earn a B, along with the District of Columbia, and six states received a C.
The study found that the farther a state is from the South, and the smaller that state’s black population, the less attention paid to the civil rights movement. Most states viewed the civil rights movement as a regional matter or a topic of interest for black students rather than significant events in national history. Only 34 states and the District of Columbia required study of the civil rights movement as part of the state-mandated standards or curriculum.
The Georgia Performance Standards require coverage of the civil rights movement in the fifth and eighth grades and U.S. history classes in the 11th grade, said Andre Mountain, the social studies professional learning specialist for the Richmond County school system.
In fifth grade, pupils study U.S. history from 1865 to the present.
“That is the first grade level that they really get a broad overview of history as it relates to the period in which Dr. King lived,” Mountain said. “Even though, in many cases, they won’t understand the context until much later, it’s good for them to have a foundation of who these people were.”
Teachers spend considerable time talking about the environment that led to the civil rights movement and the movement itself. Pupils learn about Rosa Parks, King, the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act and Brown v. Board of Education, he said.
“The unfortunate thing about the curriculum in Georgia is that after that fifth grade year, in terms of social studies, in sixth and seventh grade you don’t get any U.S. history,” Mountain said.
IN EIGHTH GRADE, pupils learn about Georgia history, so they are able to revisit the civil rights movement, he said.
“We ask teachers to bring in as much as they can, not just about Dr. King, but the movement itself and all the other people who played a role in it. Being that we’re here in Georgia, it’s very important that students understand all of the things that went on, even locally,” Mountain said.
For example, Dr. King spoke at Tabernacle Baptist Church on Laney-Walker Boulevard and Paine College students participated in sit-ins on Broad Street. Mountain’s office sends out booklets about Augusta history to supplement the textbook.
To help bring the lessons alive, each eighth grade teacher receives a copy of PBS’s award-winning documentary Eyes on the Prize, he said.
Students don’t get this type of coverage of the civil rights movement again until high school. Many students are most familiar with King, so Mountain said that he tries to remind them that King was one of many people involved in the midst of a larger movement.
“It just gives me a hint there’s so much more they need to learn about that period of time,” he said.
THE GEORGIA Performance standards were revised in 2008, adding more depth to the standards. The Georgia Department of Education is currently implementing Common Core Georgia Performance Standards to help students achieve a deeper understanding of the material, requiring them to perform certain skills such as explaining or analyzing concepts.
Genevieve Williams, an eighth-grade Georgia history teacher at John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School, said that when pupils reach her class, regardless of race, most readily remember only King and Parks. They might recall other key figures later when she begins to discuss them in class.
“I think they’ve read the stories … but I don’t think they see the larger picture of what these people were putting at risk,” Williams said. “I usually get a lot more wealth of knowledge from those students who have a lot of family interaction time.”
When seven pupils from one of Williams’ classes were polled about their knowledge of the civil rights movement, all were able to speak in detail about Dr. King, including his I Have a Dream speech, upbringing in Georgia, and role as a civil rights activist in marches and sit-ins. A few recalled Parks and could explain the impact of the civil rights movement.
Tatum A. Torchia, 14, said she didn’t know much about the civil rights movement until she moved here in the third grade from Fort Myers, Fla.
“We didn’t get out of school for the (King) holiday, and we never really learned anything about him,” Tatum said. “When I moved to Augusta, I learned more about him and realized how horrible people were back then, about judging people … When he gave his I Have a Dream speech, it was the start of something new, but nowadays people are still kind of the same, which I don’t think is cool at all.”
TO MAKE LESSONS relevant, Diane Collier, an eighth grade Georgia history teacher at Tutt Middle School, tries to help her pupils identify with King and other civil rights leaders.
“I try to go back to when he was a child. I try to allow the students to relate to someone around their age and what happened during that time period,” she said.
Collier finds ways to teach about leaders throughout the school year. She encourages pupils to ask their grandparents about significant people studied in class and invites them to share their experiences.
She also tries to get students think critically.
With King’s I Have a Dream speech, she asks pupils why he wrote the speech, who he was addressing and why the speech was delivered from the Lincoln Memorial.
EVEN AT THE college level, students lack adequate knowledge of civil rights history, said Robert L. Jones, an assistant history professor at Paine College who teaches African-American history.
“Students come to college lacking a lot of basic fundamental knowledge about who Martin Luther King was, the significance of the ’60s movement and how it radicalized the face of American society,” Jones said. “They have no conceptualization of it. They’re not being exposed to it. They know very little about the role that blacks played in American history. It’s almost like Greek to them.”
Still, Dr. Charles Smith, the president of the Augusta branch of the NAACP, said the situation isn’t bleak.
“I think that young people of today are aware of a lot about Dr. King and other civil rights leaders,” Smith said. “It’s a possibility that they might not be as well-versed as the adults because it’s not in their era and time, but I think the churches and schools are doing a good job of educating our young people and preparing them to be knowledgeable of these great and historic leaders.”