McCOMB, Miss.—It wasn’t until his senior year of high school that Zachary Schilling learned of the racist violence that had transpired in his south Mississippi city during the 1960’s. In a civil rights elective course at McComb High School, he and his classmates were stunned by stories of bombings, lynchings and a student walkout. “Everybody was like, ‘There’s no way that happened here,’ ” Schilling said on a recent spring morning.
Yet McComb was known as ‘the bombing capital of the world’ during the so-called Freedom Summer of 1964, as scores of white northerners arrived to launch a black voter registration drive and establish schools.
And the town had already seen years of conflict. In 1961, black students walked out of their high school to protest a student’s expulsion for participation in civil rights efforts. The same year, Herbert Lee, a black farmer and father of nine, was murdered just outside McComb for helping blacks register to vote.
Today’s McComb students say they welcome the jarring history lessons, finding they offer important context for life today. But their experience is unusual. While state law requires that civil rights lessons be taught in every grade, teachers and students across Mississippi say that lessons on the state’s past are uneven at best and sometimes nonexistent.
Although Mississippi became one of the first states to make civil rights education mandatory in schools, starting in 2011, the state offers no specific training in it for teachers, and doesn’t track how much or how little civil rights education is being taught.
Teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade are required to teach various civil rights and human rights topics, including lessons about national leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and cases likeBrown v. Board of Education. Part of the requirement is a secondary-level Mississippi Studies class, which is based on state standards that delve into historical figures like voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers and events like the death of three young civil rights workers in Neshoba County during Freedom Summer.
But the state’s locally-controlled districts have autonomy to choose their own methods of teaching the standards, and there’s no way to know whether students have learned the material, except for a few questions on the state’s high school history exam.
“There really are mixed messages there,” said Maureen Costello from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an Alabama-based research and advocacy organization that focuses on combating racism and discrimination. “On one hand, the state department of education is saying ‘we want you to teach about civil rights;’ on the other hand, ‘we have local control so we can’t really make you do it.’ ”
This spring, the SPLC published a study that rated the subject matter in Mississippi’s standards as poorer than that of all southern states except Arkansas. “More work should be done to set appropriate and high expectations in a state whose progress in education has repeatedly attracted national attention,’’ the SLPC report stated.
Why civil rights education matters
Decades of segregation and second-class citizenship for the state’s blacks left their mark in the poverty and educational woes that still plague Mississippi.
More than 50 percent of black children live in poverty, compared to 19 percent of white children. For years, the state has posted some of the lowest scores in the country on national standardized exams.
In the 20 years following the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared it unconstitutional to have separate public schools for black and white students, many white families fled to newly created private schools that became known as “segregation academies.” Today, at least thirty-five of those schools still exist with student populations that are at least 98 percent white. According to federal data, nearly 34,000 white students attended private schools in Mississippi in the 2011-12 school year, compared to about 3,600 black students.
Scattered attempts to teach about the civil rights movement did emerge, over the decades. In 2006, the bill requiring civil rights classes in all grades was signed into law — but even then, the chairman of the House Education Committee, John Moore (R-Brandon), proposed legislation to repeal it every year until 2011.
Now, most Mississippi educators agree that the civil rights movement holds important lessons for all students – not only in local history, but also in civics.
“The civil rights movement is our greatest case study of using the strategies of citizenship to achieve rights and to address wrongs,” said Costello, director of the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance project, which provides resources to teachers. “It’s not just history, it’s essentially civic education.”
Indeed, the state standards call for students to “acquire a working knowledge of tactics engaged by civil rights activists to achieve social change.”
Jacqueline Byrd Martin, a McComb civil rights activist who, in 2007, helped create the elective for seniors at the predominantly black high school, said she sees another important value in teaching McComb’s children about that era.
“If these children knew their history and the things that people in their families have truly accomplished, it would give them a sense of pride,” Martin said. “It would help their self-esteem and self -confidence.”
Civil rights lessons not widely taught
Whatever the merits of learning about the civil rights movement, teachers across the state say they often feel inadequately prepared to teach this. The state provides some resources but not a complete curriculum, leaving it up to the individual school districts. In recent years, teacher training on the topic has been hit-or-miss, with the state relying on educational groups and nonprofits to fill the gap.
And the state doesn’t track whether schools are teaching anything beyond the few topics covered on the high school history exam. In previous years, questions about civil rights have made up less than 15 percent of the 70-question history exam, said Chauncey Spears, who oversees social studies instruction for the state.
The local control and lack of accountability are the reasons Mississippi’s standards were rated poorly by the SPLC, said Susan Glisson, executive director of the William Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation, a non-profit based at the University of Mississippi that wrote the bill that made civil rights education mandatory. “I don’t agree with [the score],” Glisson said. “But I understand their reasoning.”
There’s no shortage of lessons to teach on the civil rights era in Mississippi, which in the early 1960s was the most “racially restrictive state,” according to historian Neil McMillen. Gov. Ross Barnett, a staunch segregationist, vowed to keep blacks and whites separate. Ku Klux Klansmen relied on lynchings, bombings, and assaults to retaliate against blacks in McComb and elsewhere who were part of the movement.
“It was a scary time; you knew that people were fighting for justice, but until I went to Mississippi [in 1966] I didn’t realize what that meant,’’ said Ron Walker, executive director of the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color, known as COSEBOC.
Walker recalls feeling terrified when, at the urging of his then teacher, the civil rights icon and Freedom Ride organizer James Farmer, he went with fellow students to “Bloody Belzoni,’’ in the Delta to distribute food to needy families.
By that time, Mississippi was becoming an example of how an intense media glare, combined with both local and national efforts, could foster positive change. Civil rights activists and workers used sit-ins, demonstrations, and protests to attain equal rights for black citizens and by 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.
Glisson from the William Winter Institute said that one of the goals of civil rights education is to ensure that“students understand the history of race and racism in our state and its continuing legacies, so that injustices like the  Neshoba murders never happen again.”
But three years after the launch of mandatory standards, teachers say students still have a largely cursory knowledge of civil rights events.
Seniors “don’t know a lot” about civil rights when they get to her class, said McComb High School teacher Vickie Malone, whose “Local Cultures” elective class examines McComb’s role in the civil rights movement. Despite learning about civil rights in middle school, she said, “they have no idea about the rich history they trample on every day when they walk through the neighborhoods.”
And classes like hers, focused specifically on local events and historical figures, are rare. Spears, from the department of education, said the state doesn’t know how many others may exist, since the flexibility of a “Local Cultures” course like McComb’s “makes it difficult to say how many districts are using this course to focus specifically on the civil rights history of their community.”
Students in Malone’s class say the course has been invaluable; it wasn’t until they took it that they realized how little they knew about their hometown and the movement.
Lajasmine Brooks, an 18-year-old senior, said she had “only learned things on Martin Luther King, Jr., and black history month,’’ growing up. “It wasn’t really a deep discussion.”
Brooks believes lessons need to start earlier, and go beyond Rosa Parks and Rev. King. “It should be taught early on, and not by just giving us crayons and a coloring book of the ‘big names,’” she said.
Uncomfortable racial discussions
Even with state-mandated standards, experts say, there are many reasons why civil rights may be taught poorly, or not at all.
Nationwide, during the 2011-12 school year, more than 87 percent of teachers in the nation’s public schools were white; fewer than 7 percent were black, according to federal data. In Mississippi, 73 percent of teachers are white and 25 percent are black.
The divide can create challenges in the classroom, Costello said, because “most white people have not been raised to talk about race comfortably,’’ and others want to protect black students from the ugly past.
Teaching civil rights sometimes “conflicts with that basic teacher directive, which is ‘only fill the bucket of confidence…build positive experiences,’ ” Costello said.
In the Neshoba County town of Philadelphia, where members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered three civil rights workers, curriculum coordinator Lee Ann Fulton said some lessons contain material that may not be suitable for younger students.
“We have to be real careful to make sure that the children have the capacity to understand,” Fulton said. “It’s a sensitive topic and you have to be very careful with how you handle it.”
Fulton said teachers submit lesson plans to their principals so schools can ensure the curriculum is being taught. By eighth grade, many students have heard a lot, Fulton said, but it may not all be factually correct.
“A lot of them have formed opinions based upon things they’ve heard, maybe from their family,” Fulton said. “We want to teach children the facts. So we have to make sure teachers are teaching the facts, not their opinion.”
In Mississippi, teacher training on civil rights education varies widely by district. Initially, non-profits and Jackson State University helped train teachers, but there is no continuing program, and the state does not do any of its own training. Glisson from the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation said that the lack of training and support for teachers severely limits the amount of instruction students receive in civil rights. “We need a much more comprehensive and continuing commitment to training,” Glisson said.
Malone, who has also helped create civil rights lessons for younger grades in McComb schools, said that in an era of standardized math and language arts testing, topics like civil rights and social studies can get lost.
“Those lessons have not consistently been able to be taught,” Malone said. “There’s a whole lot of other things that we have to teach.”
To help teachers, several groups, like the Mississippi Historical Society and the national non-profit Teaching For Change, have created and published online lesson plans or resources. McComb’s elective class regularly interviews civil rights figures and publishes the videos online for anyone to use.
Juantario Babon, one of Malone’s students, said those video interviews have been helpful in better understanding Mississippi’s past.
“In school, we’re going to learn what’s in the book and what the person who wrote the book put in the book,” Babon said. “It’s good to hear from people who have a first-person view, and the truth.”
Several of Malone’s students said that the class has been helpful in understanding racism they say is still common today.
On a recent morning, 11 of her students sat in a semi-circle, sharing experiences with racism. One black student, who works at a fast food restaurant, said when she holds her hand out to take money from customers, some older customers put the money on the counter instead of in her hand.
“Why do you think they do that?” Malone asked the student.
“I don’t know,” the student responded. “Maybe they think I’m dirty.”
“It’s not any more right, but they’re a product of their time period,” another student responded.
A third nodded in agreement. “You feel sorry for them.”
Some students say racial relations could be better in the first place if more kids learned about historic tensions between black and whites at an earlier age.
“I think we would have fewer racial issues if it were taught early on,” said 18-year-old Caira Ellis.
And in McComb, that could help lessen the racism that lives on in small, daily interactions. “It’s not anyone throwing a bomb at your house,” Ellis said. “But it’s there.”