I began teaching civil rights history some years ago at some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities. Fearful that I might be ‘speaking down’ to my students, I gave them a brief quiz when the first class gathered. The results showed me that my fears were misplaced.
None could tell me who George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, was. One thought he was a CBS newsman who had covered the Vietnam War. They knew sanitized versions of the lives and struggles of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but nothing of their real stories.
Mrs. Parks was still alive and the civil rights movement was closer in time to these young people’s lives then, but the stories of bravery and sacrifice in the movement for civil rights were absent from their memories and their high school curricula. “My teacher didn’t have time to get to it,” they told me. “The semester ended too soon.”
During my long teaching career, little has changed.
Part of the problem is revealed in this report. The civil rights movement is given short shrift in the educational standards that guide what students learn. Although Southern states generally do a better job teaching the movement than the rest of the country, they have little to brag about. At the University of Virginia, my students are often outraged to learn that they have never been taught about events in their own hometowns.
An educated populace must be taught basics about American history. One of these basics is the civil rights movement, a nonviolent revolution as important as the first American Revolution. It is a history that continues to shape the America we all live in today.
As James Baldwin taught us, “History does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it with us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many wanys, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
Julian Bond chaired the NAACP Board of Directors from 1998–2010 and is now Chairman Emeritus. He is a Distinguished Scholar in the School of Government at American University in Washington, D.C., and a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Virginia. He is also a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center Board of Directors.