Are Students Ignorant of the Civil Rights Movement?

This post is particularly relevant to me today as I write from Birmingham, Alabama.  Yesterday I visited 16th Street Baptist Church and toured the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Three weeks ago the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) concluded that students lack historical knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement.  Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education in 2011, a report endorsed by former NAACP director Julian Bond, claims that 35 states receive a grade of “F” in the way that they deal with the Civil Rights movement in their state history standards.

Sam Wineburg begs to differ with the SPLC’s report.  This morning he makes his case in an LA Times op-ed.  Here is a taste:

“Students’ Knowledge of Civil Rights History Has Deteriorated,” one headline announced. “Civil Rights Movement Education ‘Dismal’ in American Schools,” declared another.

The alarming headlines, which appeared in newspapers across the country, grew out of a report released three weeks ago by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Teaching the Movement,” which claims that the civil rights movement is widely ignored in history classrooms. By not teaching it, the report claims, American education is “failing in its responsibility to educate its citizens to be agents of change.” The study included a report card for individual states, and California got slapped with a big fat F.

But is it true? Are today’s students really not learning about such an important part of U.S. history? The Southern Poverty Law Center has done groundbreaking work in combating racism and prejudice. But its new study simply doesn’t stand up.

For starters, the report did not base its conclusions on any direct testing of student knowledge. Not a single student, not a single teacher, not a single principal answered a single question about their knowledge for this report. The closest we get to a live child — and even this is a stretch — comes from Julian Bond, who wrote the report’s forward. Bond recounts that “some years ago” he gave a quiz to college students and found that none could identify George Wallace.

The report’s writers turned to a proven recipe in our crisis-addicted society. First, they gathered up standards documents from all 50 states laying out what students at each grade level should study; then they conducted a “content analysis” to determine what’s in these documents; next they landed a marquee figure to endorse the report; and finally, they invoked terms of impending doom and handed the final report to the PR department.

Had the report’s writers bothered to talk to real kids, they might have found something closer to what we found in a national survey of 2,000 high school students, reported in the March 2008 Journal of American History. We gave students a blank sheet and asked them to write down the names of figures from “Columbus to the present day” who are the “most famous Americans in history, not including presidents or first ladies.”

Surprisingly, teens rarely put down rock stars or sports idols for top picks. Instead, they listed legitimate historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison and Amelia Earhart. Three names, however, dominated the lists, appearing more often than any other heroes in U.S. history. Each of these figures comes straight from the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr. (appearing on 67% of all lists), Rosa Parks (60%) and Harriet Tubman (44%).

Read the rest here.

11 thoughts on “Are Students Ignorant of the Civil Rights Movement?

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  2. Sounds like what they have learned are not so bad after all. Aside from knowing the important figures from the Civil Rights Movement, it is also important that they know the lessons that this part of history have taught us.

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  3. As it seems, only the black majority schools are the only ones who are teaching their students about the Civil Rights Movement. This should not be the case because all Americans should be aware of it, and the knowledge should start in school.

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  4. I find Bayard Rustin most intriguing, meself.

    Ah, what a rare moment of moral clarity is the CRM, a beautiful ice sculpture frozen in time, when the heroes and villains stood in high relief.

    To clarify my first comment so I don't seem too much of brute [too late, I know], it's that Black History seems to end in those glory days of 1964, before MLK's victories detour into “social justice” progressivism and irrelevancy, before the Watts and Detroit riots and the rise of radical chic like the Panthers. Before the Moynihan report.

    And certainly not to minimize the accomplishments of great men like Shuttlesworth, Rustin and almost countless others, but Dirksen's “An Idea Whose Time Has Come” speech, which broke the Dixiecrat filibuster, certainly is minimized in the hagiography of the CRM. You can't swing a cat these days without the CRM being enlisted as a socio-political brickbat, but it's often the easy version.


  5. I take Wineburg's point about the SPLC's report being perhaps hyperbolic, but at the same time it seems a bit ridiculous to me to suggest that students identifying Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman as important Americans is somehow an accurate barometer of their knowledge of the civil rights movement.
    I find students in my classes to be woefully ignorant of the civil rights movement. Yes, they know that Martin Luther King had a dream and Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, but beyond that…
    John, tell your students tomorrow that you were at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and see what kind of response you get. If your students are like mine, I bet they'll just stare at you blankly. Kind of the same way they did when I told them that Fred Shuttlesworth died the same day as Steve Jobs.


  6. Predictable. The CRM is front and center as a triumph of right-thinking “liberalism.” [Altho more GOPers voted for the Civil Rights Act and Everett Dirksen…, oh what's the use?]

    As soon as I saw SPLC, I knew it was a bogus bogosity, since their survival depends on crises, and they've been forced to take to manufacturing them.

    As you well note, John, MLK and Rosa Parks are very familiar to our young. I'd like to see the figures on them being able to name the Axis powers, or even what it means.


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