“Model” Mississippi Curriculum Leaving Civil Rights Movement Out of School Textbooks

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

In October 2017, Sierra Mannie wrote an article for the Hechinger Report highlighting the inadequate textbooks in the Mississippi school system and how they are affecting civil rights education.

In 2011 Mississippi adopted new social studies standards. Before then, schools in Mississippi were not required to teach the Civil Rights Movement; and the words “civil rights” were mentioned just three times in the previous standards, as specified in a 305-page document. 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 depth, the state was heralded as a model for other states by the Southern Poverty Law Center. 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” (p. 9). However, as Mannie reported, although Mississippi was 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 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 the Civil Rights-era Freedom Riders and the laws that these young activists challenged. By contrast, the textbook references Mississippi’s governor from 1904-08, James K. Vardaman, over sixty 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 this as a problem for children, especially those in school districts closely tied to these historic events. Mannie’s report quoted first-grade teacher Camille Lesseig: “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 Mississippi’s public education undergoing significant budget cuts in the past two decades, which make it harder to implement the new standards, dozens of teachers have participated 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 other resources like archived documents to enhance students’ learning experiences in the classroom.

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 MLK; 12, Rosa Parks; 11, the March on Washington; and six, Jim Crow segregation policies.”

As of November 2017, 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 the Hechinger Report partners with corporate media such as CNN, NBC, and the Washington Post; however, these outlets did not republish Mannie’s story. Although these partnerships exist, the diminished coverage suggests that this story did not coincide with the values, agendas, and missions of these large media corporations. Because this story is so under-reported, it is critical for state legislatures across the country to address these issues surrounding school textbooks in order to contribute to a more well-informed society.

Source: Sierra Mannie, “Mississippi Textbooks Are Keeping Students Ignorant of 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)