Why The Civil Rights Movement Matters

The civil rights movement is one of the defining events in American history, providing a bracing example of Americans fighting for the ideals of justice and equality. When students learn about the movement, they learn what it means to be an active American citizen. They learn how to recognize injustice. They learn about the role of individuals, as well as the importance of organization. And they see that people can come together to stand against oppression.

We are concerned that the movement, when it is given classroom time, is reduced to lessons about a handful of heroic figures and the four words, “I have a dream.” Students need to know that the movement existed independently of its most notable leaders, and that thousands of people mustered the courage to join the struggle, very often risking their lives. They need to know that the dream to which Dr. King gave voice was not realized simply by the election of a black president in 2008. They need to know that as long as race is a barrier to access and opportunity, and as long as poverty is commonplace for people of color, the dream has not been achieved.

We are also concerned about the historical narrative promoted by some pundits and political figures who would deny the nation’s legacy of institutionalized oppression. There is tremendous pressure from the political right to teach a wholly false history that ignores our blemishes and misrepresents struggles for social justice. In this revisionist version, the framers worked tirelessly to end slavery, the nation was perfect at birth, and states’ rights—not slavery—was the motivation behind Southern secession. Together, these interpretations deny the everyday reality of millions of today’s students—that the nation is not yet perfect and that racism and injustice still exist. This narrative also ignores the agency of minorities and denies the need for group action to promote social justice.

The narratives being promulgated are not only false. Simply put, they are no longer persuasive to the majority of our students. Teaching the civil rights movement is essential to ensuring that American history is relevant to students in an increasingly diverse nation. History educator Terrie Epstein’s research has shown that students enter classrooms with pre-existing worldviews that differ, often dramatically, depending on race, ethnicity, class and other demographic factors.11 Students whose real-life experience suggests that history is being “white-washed” are unlikely to learn. These worldviews are very difficult to dislodge, especially when the standard narrative used to teach the civil rights movement is simplistic or distorted.

What little we know about civil rights movement instruction is not promising. We know that textbooks and core materials too often strip out context and richness to present a limited account of the movement.12 We know that no comprehensive content standards exist for teaching about the movement. We know that even the most experienced teachers of U.S. history tend to rush to the finish line once the course passes World War II.

This report is a first step in a call for change. The United States has a civic and moral imperative to ensure that all children learn about the history of the civil rights movement. As Jeremy Stern notes, “Today’s students need to actively learn what older generations either lived through or experienced as a strong part of their cultural surroundings: Even basic knowledge of the civil rights movement cannot be taken for granted among today’s children.” As the movement recedes from recent memory into history, it is more important than ever to assess the state of learning and teaching about these essentially American events.

11 Terrie Epstein, Interpreting National History; Race, Identity, and Pedagogy in Classrooms and Communities, (New York: Routledge, 2009).
12 Derrick P Alridge, “The Limits of Master Narratives in History Textbooks: An Analysis of Representations of Martin Luther King Jr.,” Teachers College Record 108 (2006): 662-686.