Coverage of the Civil Rights Movement—A Closer Look

Although most states fared poorly in the strict grading used in The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States 2011, there is still much to commend among state educational requirements. Many of these standards hold promising elements for states working to make their own standards better. 

Our first report involved comparing and evaluating state standards, using a rubric that helped us see similarities and differences across the dramatically different state standards. The rubric identified specified core content in five areas: leaders, groups, events, history and opposition. States were scored on their inclusion of this core content in each area and assigned a score for their coverage. Content was 80 percent of a state’s grade. In addition, the rubric graded states based on the context in which their standards presented the civil rights movement. States received a high context grade (20 percent of the total score) if they connected the civil rights movement to other social movements, required coverage across grade levels, included movement-related instruction in their civics curriculum and made connections to current events. The standardized rubric allowed us to compute scores, rank the states and award grades. 

Moving beyond our narrow rubric and the single letter grade allows a more nuanced analysis of state standards and brings promising items to light. Many states whose grades indicated low expectations overall nevertheless displayed some good practices that other states might be well served by adopting. In this section, we take a closer look at state standards to identify eight best practices in coverage of the civil rights movement. 

States disagree about the level of specificity necessary for covering the civil rights movement. Here are three very different requirements from Hawaii, Indiana and California: 

“Analyze the key factors, including legislation and acts of civil disobedience, that brought on the African American Civil Rights movement after World War II.”

“Describe political, economic and social conditions that led to the civil rights movement. Identify federal, state and civil rights leaders who played a central role in the movement and describe their methods. Give examples of actions and events that characterized the movement as well as the legislative and judicial responses.”“Students should analyze how events during and after Reconstruction raised and then dashed the hopes of black Americans for full equality. They should understand how the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution were undermined by the courts and political interests. They should learn how slavery was replaced by black peonage, segregation, Jim Crow laws, and other legal restrictions on the rights of blacks, capped by the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 (“separate but equal”). Racism prevailed, enforced by lynch mobs, the Ku Klux Klan, and popular sentiment. Students also should understand the connection between these amendments and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Although undermined by the courts a century ago, these amendments became the basis for all civil rights progress in the twentieth century.”

The Fordham Institute has compared requirements written like Hawaii’s to the Peanuts cartoon in which Peppermint Patty takes a test asking her to “Explain World War II. Use both sides of the paper, if necessary.” Hawaii’s standard provides no detail for the classroom teacher or test developer and thus fails to set clear expectations for student learning. Indiana’s standard is slightly better. It offers additional detail, identifying categories of relevant knowledge and specific student performance expectations. California’s requirement is the best of the three. Longer than the others, it sets out detailed requirements and gives guidance to teachers about connecting content across eras and topics. 

Effective standards set a floor of core knowledge, allowing teachers to set their own ceilings. Instead of suggesting a variety of content prefaced by “e.g.,” these standards from Alabama and Illinois clearly state what knowledge is essential for comprehension: 

“Tracing the federal government’s involvement in the modern Civil Rights Movement, including the abolition of the poll tax, the desegregation of the armed forces, the nationalization of state militias, Brown versus Board of Education, the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

“Identify the roles played by federal, state and local political leaders—as well as individual American citizens—in the civil rights movement, including: federal intervention in Little Rock; Rosa Parks and the Montgomery boycotts; Martin Luther King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the 1963 march on Washington; Freedom Riders; Jackie Robinson and the desegregation of baseball; the work of Cesar Chavez and the development of the United Farmworkers; Robert Kennedy and the civil rights movement; Lyndon Johnson and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Alabama’s standard is more directed–it focuses on federal involvement–while Illinois’ is broader. Though they address disparate events and individuals, both standards achieve clarity by using the word “including” to signify required content. 

Some state standards take content beyond individuals, groups and events by referring to activities or documents. In the case of the civil rights movement, many states require students to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham City Jail”: 

“Examine how the Letter from a Birmingham Jail promotes equality as one of the goals of our nation.” 6 (Washington) 

“Read ‘Letter from Birmingham City Jail’ by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and discuss civil disobedience.”7 (Kansas) 

“Read Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (1963) and “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963) and summarize the main ideas in each.”8 (Indiana) 

Washington, Kansas and Indiana stand out for their unusual recommendation that students read specific primary source documents. These standards follow the consensus recommendations of history educators and literacy experts about the value of using primary source documents in classrooms. 

Some standards demonstrate exceptional creativity, as in this example from Vermont: 

“Students connect the past with the present by… investigating how events, people, and ideas have shaped the United States and/or the world; and hypothesizing how different influences could have led to different consequences (e.g., How did the civil rights movement change the U.S., and how might the U.S. be different if it had never happened?).”

Standards like this one encourage students to use higher-level thinking skills, such as applying concrete knowledge to answer a hypothetical question. Other standards, as in these examples from Ohio, Mississippi, Michigan and Connecticut, show an innovative bent by linking content across diverse eras: 

“Explain how civil disobedience differs from other forms of dissent and evaluate its application and consequences including: a. Women’s suffrage movement of the late 1800s; b. Civil rights movement of the 1960s; c. Student protests during the Vietnam War.”10 

“Explain Supreme Court rulings that have resulted in controversies over changing interpretations of civil rights, including those in Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, Miranda v. Arizona, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena, and United States v. Virginia (VMI).”11 

“Ideals of the Civil Rights Movement – Compare and contrast the ideas in Martin Luther King’s March on Washington speech to the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Seneca Falls Resolution, and the Gettysburg Address.”12 

“Trace the evolution of citizens’ rights (e.g., Palmer Raids, struggle for civil rights, women’s rights movements, Patriot Act).”13 

While these standards address different ideas, including the role of the Supreme Court and the uses of civil disobedience, they have in common an interest in encouraging students to deduce themes and recurring concepts–even if that interest is not explicitly stated. 

Still other standards make an explicit connection between the civil rights movement and current events—a category that we singled out for scoring in the evaluation rubric for The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States 2011

“Why is education so important in the life chances of an individual? What happens to people who are not educated in America today? What kinds of jobs can they get? How does mass illiteracy affect an entire society? (Here students should review what they learned in the tenth-grade unit “Nationalism in the Contemporary World.”) What would life in the United States be like if there were no public schools? Interviews and case studies can be made of successful men and women from minority groups whose lives have changed because of their education.”14 

This paragraph from California’s curriculum framework is a perfect example of how to write standards in an educationally and practically meaningful way for both students and teachers: it makes the connection between the Brown decision, students’ lived experiences and information they learned in previous years. 

Mississippi’s grade in The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States 2011 would have been considerably improved if its suggested content had been required instead. The state is leading in other areas, however– Mississippi’s recent adoption of a Civil Rights/Human Rights strand across all grade levels should be a model for other states: 

“Civil rights/humans rights education, as understood by the writers of this framework, is defined as the mastery of content, skills and values that are learned from a focused and meaningful exploration of civil rights/human rights issues (both past and present), locally, nationally and globally. This education should lead learners to understand and appreciate issues such as social justice, power relations, diversity, mutual respect, and civic engagement. Students should acquire a working knowledge of tactics engaged by civil rights activists to achieve social change. Among these are: demonstrations, resistance, organizing, and collective action/unity.”15 

While this requirement is not specific to the civil rights movement (nor should it be, as it has the potential to bring together diverse and global content for thematic understanding), it drives the state’s new movement-related standards, ensuring that content is taught across multiple grade levels–essential for securing lasting and deep understanding. 

Some of the most outstanding and useful state requirements appear outside of the normal, abbreviated lists of standards. South Carolina’s State Department of Education provides official advice on teaching the content standards, including a U.S. history support document with several pages of information per standard. As this paragraph shows, the document uses a narrative style to identify what students need and do not need to know about the civil rights movement: 

“Students should understand how changes in African American leadership affected the support given for civil rights legislation. The goals, actions and leadership of the black power movement [Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers] among northern, urban African Americans were significantly different from those of southern African Americans. Students should understand the difference between the terms ‘de jure’ and ‘de facto’ segregation. Televised reports of urban riots and the radical rhetoric of the black power movement alienated the general public and undermined support for further government action. Oversimplification of black power should be addressed by including discussion of efforts of black power advocates to protect and empower the African American community and promote ethnic pride. Opponents of the civil rights movement charged civil rights advocates as dangerous subversives.”16 

This is an extremely effective summary of aspects of the civil rights movement that are often oversimplified. It identifies essential facts, causal relationships and deeper connections. 

Some states have moved beyond their required curricula and sparse content standards to create rich partnerships with local, regional or national institutions to leverage resources for change. The Maryland State Department of Education has formed a partnership with the Reginald F. Lewis Museum to write a K-12 curriculum for the state. Florida has a Task Force on African American History with a dedicated website. This task force has produced African and African American History Curriculum Frameworks designed for infusion into all grades and levels. The civil rights movement is included in the fifth of seven curricular framework foci (“Post Slavery: Abolition, Civil Rights and Constitutional Rights”) and supported by a series of lesson plans. In addition, the Task Force has developed a set of criteria for identifying exemplary school districts. Teaching for Change is collaborating with a school district in Mississippi to set up a model program for teaching about the civil rights movement in multiple grades, emphasizing civic engagement and community involvement. 

Outstanding standards may vary tremendously in structure, format and content, but they embed best practices like the eight identified here. The following four sets of model standards try to do just that, showing how states can do an exceptional job of setting high expectations for learning about the civil rights movement within their own existing frameworks.