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Many states don't require civil rights lessons in schools, study says

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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.

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Genevieve Williams, a Georgia history teacher at John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School, says most of her eighth-graders remember learning about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but not about other leaders in civil rights movement.  JACKIE RICCIARDI/STAFF
Genevieve Williams, a Georgia history teacher at John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School, says most of her eighth-graders remember learning about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but not about other leaders in 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.”


The highest possible score was 100 percent, meaning that a state requires all of the recommended content needed for a thorough grounding in the history of the civil rights movement. No state received a score higher than 70 percent.



Alabama A 70

New York A 65

Florida A 64

Georgia B 57

Illinois B 54

South Carolina B 52

Mississippi C 40

Louisiana C 43

Tennessee C 39

Texas C 35



Alaska F 0

Connecticut F 0

Delaware F 0

Iowa F 0

Kentucky F 0

Maine F 0

Montana F 0

New Hampshire F 0

North Dakota F 0

Oregon F 0

Pennsylvania F 0

South Dakota F 0

Vermont F 0

Wisconsin F 0

Wyoming F 0


GRADE A: The state includes at least 60 percent of the recommended content.

GRADE B: The state includes at least 50 percent of the recommended content.

GRADE C: The state includes at least 30 percent of the recommended content.

GRADE D: The state includes at least 20 percent of the recommended content.

GRADE F: The state includes less than 20 percent, or, in many cases, none of the recommended content.


• Only 19 states require students to learn about Brown v. Board of Education, while 18 include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

• Less than 25 percent of states include requirements to learn about key legislation, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

• Only four include studies of the 24th Amendment. Arkansas is the only state that requires students to learn about the Ku Klux Klan during their study of the civil rights movement.

Source: Southern Poverty Law Center

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Just My Opinion
Just My Opinion 01/14/12 - 07:59 pm
"The study found that the

"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." I think that about says it all. Look, much to the chagrin of the relatively small black national population (might be wrong, but I believe I read where blacks make up less than 12% of the US population, and Spanish-Americans out-number them now), the Civil Right's Movement just isn't as huge of an issue as the NAACP or the ACLU would have people believe...and I mean that it's not a BIGGER issue than other national events in our nation's history. This is a very good article and is worthy of much discussion. The NAACP's days are numbered, because the young adults and children of today have no "appreciation" for how their civil rights came to be, they just know that they have those rights now and there's no sense in rehashing that history. In other words, "Thanks Martin Luther King, but what have you done for me lately?"! Not trying to sound blunt or absurd here, but my point is that, unless it's relative to them NOW, they don't care how they got to this point. Sure, there is merit in looking at our past and learning from it, but there is also merit in moving on without being tethered by our history. Again, good article Latina Emerson.

leebraxjr 01/14/12 - 09:26 pm
Just My Opinion: It is sad to

Just My Opinion:
It is sad to say, but most other nationalities in the US know more about Dr. King, Frederick Douglas and others than American Blacks. I will not say it is because they are not taught, because there are many older people who still try to keep information out there. The problem seems to be get it now and all about me and most of all there is no ambition left in our younger generations.
These kids have books, so teaching them is no excuse. These generations have to want to know.

Tyler 01/14/12 - 10:47 pm
I'm sure that to recieve an

I'm sure that to recieve an one hundred percent the entire school year would have to be based off of the Civil Rights Movement. Back in eighth grade I honestly felt discriminated against because of the amount of Civil Rights stuff they threw onto us. I never learned about the strife of the Japanese or Asian Americans, not of the Native Americans of even of the Salem Witch trials. Only of the Civil Rights Movement, which was shoved down our throats. I am sure this grading scale has nothing to do with any of those other events. Hey, let me surprise you with some knowledge at the end of this: there are other months aside from African-American month! Who would've thought right?

Just My Opinion
Just My Opinion 01/15/12 - 10:07 am
I've got a good friend who is

I've got a good friend who is a teacher and she said they were REQUIRED to have each child watch a film on MLK this past Friday. It was inferred that they didn't want any child going home without seeing it for fear one of the "politically militant" parents think the school system is ignoring this holiday and who they are honoring! If you think about it, this will change and this pressure will pretty much be off the teaching system as the "new" parents will be the ones that are being taught now and they couldn't care less. Tyler great point that we NEVER, EVER hear about the plight of the Native Indians or the Japanese. I guess they never got a political movement behind them like the Black people did.

JRC2024 01/15/12 - 03:09 pm
I just keep on working and

I just keep on working and earning my way.

specsta 01/15/12 - 03:26 pm
This is an excellent article

This is an excellent article and very timely.

I would hope that there is an even more concentrated effort to teach students about the Civil Rights Movement, because it affects every American. The history of America must guide us into our future. If we allow a generation to not understand the origins of this country, we open the door for more inequality and hatred to destroy us from within.

The "I Have a Dream" speech was a triumph and wake-up call to America - however, this country should just as heartily embrace Dr. King's speech on America as a military industrial complex, where he called the US government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today". Yes, that speech. The one that gets ignored by the media. A speech given exactly one year before his assassination. The one where Dr. King demanded accountability for the money this nation has spent to kill people in other countries. "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

Yes, we don't hear about that speech too much. There is too much truth in it, and even now, 43 years later, that speech still rings true - and many folks still don't want to confront the reality of what that speech laid out before this country.

These are the things we must teach our students.

JRC2024 01/15/12 - 11:22 pm
specsta, there are bad bad

specsta, there are bad bad people out there that would kill all of us if given the chance and would not think twice about it. The fact that we have a great military representation is all that keeps them from doing just that. They know the rebuttle would be devesating for them, just as it should be. Thank goodness for our brave soldiers. They have the utmost respect from me and I also think the soldiers that are being downgraded for urinating on the dead Taliban soldiers should not have anything done to them just like the Taliban did not do anything to those that hung the Blackwater contractors from the bridge. Not one of our soldiers lives is worth a thousand of theirs. Liberal social programs have ruined several generations of people and will continue to do so because they do not earn their living but are given it by the government. Nothing good comes from that.

specsta 01/16/12 - 02:39 am
JRC2024 - I have no problem

JRC2024 - I have no problem with making sure the US has military strength; I have a problem with the agenda that military strength is more important than providing folks in our society with the strength of equality, the strength of education, the strength of plentiful jobs and the strength of the ability to live a decent life.

I find it strange that the US can always find money for bombs and missiles; yet there is no money to provide a free college education for every student in this country. I find it strange that there is always money to imprison non-violent offenders, providing them with clothes, housing and food; yet there is no money to house the homeless and poverty-stricken, who must go through humiliating checklists to prove they are worthy of eating. I find it strange that there is always money to liberate people via violent intervention who live in other countries and rebuild their infrastructure; yet, there is no money to rebuild our own decaying inner cities and our roads and bridges.

This nation has become comfortable with the idea that the military industrial complex is a solution, that the prisons-for-profit agenda is a solution, that it's okay to ignore the plight of the homeless and poor folks in this country - all at the expense of our humanity and moral conscience to do what is right. Not what is popular, but what is right.

Nothing could benefit us more than to funnel money into our own people, to the ones in need, and stop killing other brown-skinned folks in other countries in a false campaign of "protecting" ourselves. Strength comes from within, not from without - not by who owns the biggest bomb, but by a nation of people that are educated, aware, healthy and wise. That is true strength.

Bruno 01/16/12 - 08:42 am
There is no such thing as a

There is no such thing as a free education in any country. That education is paid for in some way. You can't make people do the things necessary to make sure that they have a home. Look at the way section 8 housing is kept. I agree that we should spend a great deal less on other countries and more own our own as far as infrastructure etc. goes.
BTW, using the term "military industrial complex" makes you sound like you are wearing a tinfoil hat. Also, saying that we are "killing other brown-skinned folks" implies a racist agenda that simply isn't there.

jtra1n 01/21/12 - 01:25 am
Okay so it isn't taught in

Okay so it isn't taught in states that lack Black population density. Worse than that is that even in qualifying states, the quality of its education is incredibly diluted to make way for standards testing. We don't learn Black history. We look at it like we're paying attention for a month in those same southern states where we cant get the state govts to invest in our kids futures. Don't think by this piece that we are in any way preparing youth to appreciate their hard earned rights from text books written in Texas by a board we didn't elect who makes the civil rights MOVEMENT look like a couple parades in a couple paragraphs of chapter 7. smh

Riverman1 01/21/12 - 01:41 am
Jtra1n, keep in mind this is

Jtra1n, keep in mind this is not college. The level of instruction in public school only gives so much time for various sujects, plus all students are not great academics. If someone wants to study the civil rights movement or any other aspect of history he will have ample opportunity to specialize in college. It appears many states are making an attempt and that's what's important.

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