17 “Model” Mississippi Curriculum Omits Civil Rights Movement from School Textbooks

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Inadequate textbooks used in the Mississippi school system are affecting civil rights education, Sierra Mannie reported for the Hechinger Report in October 2017.

In 2011, Mississippi adopted new social studies standards. Before then, public schools in the state were not required to teach the Civil Rights Movement, and the phrase “civil rights” was mentioned only three times in the 305-page document that outlined the previous standards. As Mannie wrote, “The Civil Rights Movement was once a footnote in Mississippi social studies classrooms, if it was covered at all.”

With its 2011 adoption of social studies standards establishing an expectation that students learn civil rights in much greater depth, the state was heralded as a model for other states by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPCL): A March 2012 SPLC report stated, “Mississippi’s recent adoption of a Civil Rights/Human Rights strand across all grade levels should be a model for other states.” However, even as Mississippi’s new standards were intended to be a model system for other states to emulate, an investigation by the Hechinger Report and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting found, according to Mannie, that “all of the state’s 148 school districts rely on textbooks published before the model standards appeared as part of their social studies material.”

One textbook, titled Mississippi: The Magnolia State, was published in 2005 and is commonly used throughout the state. This text entirely omits mentioning the civil rights–era Freedom Riders and the laws that these young activists challenged. By contrast, the textbook refers to Mississippi’s governor from 1904 to 1908, James K. Vardaman, more than 60 times. Vardaman, known as “the Great White Chief,” staunchly advocated the lynching of African Americans. The 2011 standards did not mention Vardaman once.

Some teachers see these textbooks as a problem for children, especially those in school districts closely tied to historic events the assigned readings do not cover. Mannie’s report quoted a high school teacher, Camille Lesseig, from a county in eastern Mississippi where a third of children live in poverty: “That first year I had maybe one or two white students, so it was overwhelmingly African-American, and here’s this book that doesn’t really acknowledge them at all.” Lesseig concluded, “It would be wrong for me to use that book given the context of where I taught.”

Despite the significant budget cuts Mississippi’s public education system has faced in the past two decades, which have made implementing the new standards more difficult, some teachers have still managed to participate in a week-long training program to educate themselves about civil rights history. Located at the state’s Department of Archives and History, this program helps teachers utilize archived documents and other resources to enhance students’ learning experiences.

Although Mannie’s report focused on Mississippi, the problem is not confined to that state. Drawing on SPLC data, in 2013 Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote that, as of 2011–2012, “only 19 states specifically require teaching Brown v. Board of Education, while 18 states require coverage of [Martin Luther King]; 12, Rosa Parks; 11, the March on Washington; and six, Jim Crow segregation policies.” Gates observed, “the civil rights movement and, more generally, African-American history, are being left out, and it’s not only black students who are suffering. You can’t have a ‘conversation about race’ only among black people! This is American history, after all.”

As of May 2018, major corporate news outlets have not covered this issue at all. Mannie’s story was reposted by independent news sources and blogs, most notably Truthout, Reveal, and the Clarion-Ledger. It is important to note that, while the Hechinger Report partners with corporate media such as CNN, NBC, and the Washington Post, these outlets did not republish Mannie’s story. The lack of coverage despite existing institutional partnerships suggests that this story did not coincide with the values, agendas, and missions of these large media corporations.

Sierra Mannie, “Why Students are Ignorant about the Civil Rights Movement,” Hechinger Report, October 1, 2017, http://hechingerreport.org/students-ignorant-civil-rights-movement/.

Student Researchers: Zander Manning, Jessica Picard, and Jared Yellin (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)