Wednesday Reading List: Civil Rights and Honesty in Teaching History

Ta-Nehisi Coates is in The Atlantic, with a reminder that Civil Rights protests have always been unpopular:

As The Washington Post noted last year, only 22 percent of all Americans approved of the Freedom Rides, and only 28 percent approved of the sit-ins. The vast majority of Americans—60 percent—had “unfavorable” feelings about the March on Washington. As FiveThirtyEight notes, in 1966, 63 percent of Americans had a negative opinion of Martin Luther King. The popular hostility toward King extended to the very government he tried to embrace—King was bugged and harassed by the FBI until the end of his life. His assassination sprang from the deep hostility with which he was viewed, not by a fringe radical minority, but by the majority of the American citizenry.

Coates makes the appropriate comparison between those popularity statistics, and the scorn for contemporary protestors. It's important to remember that our current perspective on the Civil Rights movement has been sanitized in myriad ways.

One of the mechanisms for that revision of history is education. For example, as Sierra Mannie of The Hechinger Report finds, most Mississippi textbooks barely mention Civil Rights:

In Mississippi Studies, a required high school course, “Mississippi: The Magnolia State” is commonly used. Published in 2005, it describes ardent segregationist John C. Stennis as “politically moderate.” The Freedom Riders, scores of mostly young activists who traveled by bus across the South to challenge Jim Crow laws – who appear prominently in the state standards – aren’t mentioned at all. Neither are the laws they challenged, Mississippi civil rights activist T.R.M. Howard, or the Congress of Racial Equality, an organizer of the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign to register black voters. In contrast, James K. Vardaman, Mississippi’s governor from 1904 to 1908, who supported lynching African-Americans, is mentioned 69 times, according to a Hechinger/Reveal text analysis of the textbook. The state standards don’t mention him once.
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Ah yes, James K. Vardaman, who was a pioneer in running for office on post-bellum White supremacy, and whose nickname was LITERALLY "The Great White Chief."

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The Mississippi textbook is a good reminder that there no such thing as avoiding politics when teaching civics and history. Sharif El-Mekki, writing at Education Post, encourages fellow principals to embrace the political nature of their work:

Many of the lessons I have learned and continue to learn, are no different than any leadership advice that I have read in countless articles and books about leadership: Be curious. Be humble. Read. Read some more. Use data to decide what’s the best course of action. Listen. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Set a high bar of expectations and be flexible in your approach. As a tribute to National Principals Month, and a reminder to myself, I wanted to share several of these messages with you ...
4. Be political. I often hear that schools should be devoid of political statements. But, proponents of such misguidance fail to realize that everything an educator does, from choosing materials, books, and curriculum, delivering instruction, or remaining silent on issues of oppression are political decisions. Being apolitical doesn’t mean remaining silent, silence is often the most political of all statements and actions.

El-Mekki is right to remind us that neutrality is, in itself, a political choice. This message is particularly important for educators whose students come from backgrounds that are dissimilar from their own. It's possible to make authentic connections across difference, but educators must work hard to understand the social and political context in which their students are living.

One person who is trying to do just that is actress Quvenzhané Wallis, who is releasing a series of children's books. Blavity has the story:

It was just five short years ago when Wallis stole our hearts with her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, which earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress ... In 2015, Wallis made the big announcement that she will be releasing a series of children's books with publisher Simon and Schuster. Two years later, the first two books, A Night Out With Mama and Shai and Emmie Star in Break An Egg!, are here! A Night Out With Mama is a glitz and glam-filled story loosely based on Wallis' night at the Oscars. Shai and Emmie Star in Break An Egg! is a tale about best friends who find themselves in a dance competition that becomes a must-win situation for bragging rights and cupcakes.

Ok, so maybe not everyone can relate to a night at the Oscars.

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But there is a huge demand for children's books featuring Black girls, and it's good to see new offerings in the marketplace.

Have a great day!