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Students, teachers and advocates fight against censorship in Alabama schools

Jamiyah Brown and about 30 other Black students at Hillcrest High School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, were excited about a Black History Month program they were planning last winter.

They wanted to use dance, song and the spoken word to present a timeline of Black history – from enslavement to the Jim Crow era to the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the present.

The program was to open with several performers portraying enslaved people in shackles and rags going about typical daily chores – washing clothing, cooking and picking cotton – while singing spirituals. An audio recording of shackles dropping to the ground was to signify freedom.

As the timeline moved into segregation, a “Colored Only” water fountain and enactment of Ruby Bridges’ integration of a Louisiana school were to have appeared on stage, followed by the March on Washington, narration of Martin Luther King’s credo of peaceful resistance and then his assassination.

The students were to reenact the Black Panther movement followed by a rap artist such as Tupac Shakur or Ice Cube talking about police brutality and poverty. The program was to end on a hopeful note, highlighting the founding of Black Greek-letter societies and ending with all the performers holding hands on stage as one strong unit.

School administrators nixed the plan.

The assistant principal told the students that the topic of slavery “made people uncomfortable” and that the Black Panthers section had “traumatized” her, according to Brown. Instead, she instructed the students to perform “happy songs” by Beyoncé and the Jackson 5, Brown said, quoting her.

On Feb. 8, Brown, who was then a senior at the school, led a walkout of more than 200, mostly Black, fellow students. While they were exasperated by the gutting of the Black History Month program, they were more indignant about the frequent racist comments directed at them by the school’s white administration and teaching staff. Moreover, they were sure that the school disciplined Black students, who comprise about 55% of the student body, for so-called offenses while giving white students a pass for the same violations.

“The walkout wasn’t about the program but about racism in the school,” Brown said. “The students caught wind of what was going on. We knew it was bigger than Black History Month. The principal had burst into my classroom and said he’d make an example of me and would expel me so that I couldn’t graduate if I participated in Black History Month.”

The kind of censorship taking place in Tuscaloosa is not an isolated incident, but rather part of a pattern across the state and the result, in part, of Alabama’s state-sanctioned goal of whitewashing Black history and culture.

In 2021, Gov. Kay Ivey signed a state board of education resolution banning the teaching of concepts that promote so-called critical race theory (CRT) – although the resolution never mentions CRT, and Ivey admitted at the time that CRT wasn’t being taught in schools.

In addition, this spring, for the third year in a row, conservative lawmakers tried to pass HB 7, which calls for censorship of open class discussion of race, religion, gender and sexual orientation – so-called “divisive concepts” – and authorizes punishment for public school teachers. Though it was defeated due to a concerted effort by Democratic leaders and pushback from students, parents, teachers and community leaders, the bill is expected to be reintroduced in 2024.

“The state will end up shooting itself in the foot by trying to keep ‘divisive concepts’ out of state-funded and higher education,” said Katie Glenn, Southern Poverty Law Center senior policy associate. Glenn and Project Say Something have been opposing legislation like HB 7 since 2021.

Glenn noted Ivey’s firing of the state’s early childhood education director in April over the distribution of a training book for pre-kindergarten teachers that Ivey condemned for using “woke concepts.”

“The most powerful thing that can happen is resistance by youth,” Glenn said. “As they [conservative legislators] make moves to implement HB 7, you will see more public outrage and involvement. It takes something horrible, like the firing, to make people see that this is serious.”

‘Looming threat’

Seventeen U.S. states have laws similar to HB 7 that have deprived students of the educational freedom they and most of their parents want for them. These laws have caused teachers to fear being disciplined or fired for unwittingly violating the law.

“Diane,” who asked that her real name not be used, teaches in an upscale, majority-white Birmingham-area school. She first noticed parents’ “unspecific” criticisms aimed at teachers in community Facebook posts as COVID-19 waned in 2022.

“Anything we talk about in class that falls under buzzwords like ‘race, gender, sexuality, equity’ that are usually associated with positive ideals draws red flags up in the community,” she said. “Teachers fear that they will get in trouble for something innocent. It’s just this looming threat.

“Race conflict is a ‘touchy’ subject in Alabama,” she said. “We teach the Holocaust and read Anne Frank’s autobiography because it’s not a subject close to home and so people are not uncomfortable talking about it. We’re talking about Germans, not Black Americans they face every day in the South. I’ve never gotten pushback when I teach To Kill a Mockingbird, but middle school kids don’t know their history yet – Jim Crow, racial stereotypes, inequality, which is what the book is about. So, without the teacher providing context, the book would be confusing.

“Many of the parents read To Kill a Mockingbird when they were in school. If they ever objected in light of recent laws, I would want to ask them, ‘Did the book shape your thinking? Did it change anything for you [that explains] the reason you are scared of your child reading it? So, what are you afraid of?’”

Early this school year, Diane and fellow teachers received an email from the school administration instructing them to call students by their government-documented birth name and pronouns based on their gender at birth, even if the child objects.

Diane pushed back against the name guidance but was told it was the law.

However, Alabama has not enacted any laws requiring teachers to refuse to use a student’s preferred name or pronouns consistent with their gender identity. The Legislature did pass comprehensive legislation in 2022 (SB 184 and HB 322) that prohibits gender-affirming medical care for children, mandates that children use bathrooms based on their sex at birth, and requires teachers to report to parents any gender identity issues concerning their child that may arise in school. The SPLC filed a lawsuit challenging provisions of SB 184 that make it a crime to provide transgender minors puberty blockers or hormone therapy. A federal judge has blocked enforcement of those provisions pending trial.

Still, these laws are clearly sending a warning message to public school administrators.

“The school is overcorrecting based on the mix of anti-trans laws,” said Diego Soto, SPLC senior staff attorney for the LGBTQ+ Rights and Special Litigation practice group.

‘Sanitized version of history’

Meanwhile, on the Gulf Coast in Mobile, high school teacher Mark Tenhundfeld joined the chorus objecting to HB 7 in a May 3 letter to his state legislators. Tenhundfeld, who later retired after teaching in Alabama schools for 11 years, taught Advanced Placement and honors classes in U.S. government and politics. In more recent years he added a class he designed called “Alabama in the Supreme Court.”

“I am a 63-year-old, white male schoolteacher who was born in Mobile and who currently teaches social studies in a private school in Mobile,” Tenhundfeld wrote.

“HB 7 should be rejected because it insists on a sanitized version of history by saying, in essence, ‘move along, there’s nothing to see here’ when it comes to past race relations,” Tenhundfeld wrote. “It prioritizes the appearance of harmony over the substance. And it places teachers on the frontline of a battle that need not be fought. Relationships are strengthened by honesty. … Acting as if the problems don’t exist may lead to a mirage of tranquility but real frustration on the part of those who feel aggrieved.”

Tenhundfeld listed a slew of important American history topics that HB 7 could possibly prohibit, including Reconstruction; Jim Crow laws; the Alabama Constitution of 1901, in which racial discrimination laws in areas such as voting and education were codified; redlining; and major Supreme Court decisions surrounding equal protection under the law, such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education.

For Carita Coen, a Black mother who also lives in Mobile, discussions of race in the South have never been easy. Coen’s son graduated from a Catholic school last May.

“There is a lot of censorship in class around Black history, national origin, gender and religion and what the authentic truth is,” Coen said. “Whether HB 7 is passed or not, I have always thought that there is a fine line between what you’re allowed to say about race and what you can’t. You can’t teach this or that because it may offend someone.”

‘Mental acrobatics’ 

Though they claim teaching the truth about race should not be allowed, HB 7’s sponsors don’t seem to mind offending Black people when making their pitch for the benefits of repressive education.

“You see them perform mental acrobatics to introduce such one-sided white supremacist legislation,” said Camille Bennett, founder and executive director of Project Say Something. “Their arguments are outlandish.”

She recalled one conversation with a legislator who told her that “‘slavery wasn’t that bad for everyone’ and that some enslaved people benefited because their education was paid for. He mentioned George Washington Carver.”

Bennett has been lobbying legislators to defeat the bill since 2021 and has organized a series of public hearings and press conferences outside the Capitol to raise awareness of the bill and its potential impacts. During public hearings, she has also pointed out the inherent hypocrisy of the state paying for maintenance of Confederate monuments on public land, when HB 7 has a provision that says the state cannot discuss ‘divisive concepts.’”

“We discussed the intersections of the Memorial Preservation Act and CRT and the hypocrisy of protecting Confederate monuments while erasing Black history,” Bennett said. “We were encouraged when Democratic lawmakers Merika Coleman, Barbara Boyd and Prince Chestnut used Project Say Something’s talking points during 2023 House and Senate public hearings.” 

crowd of students outside of a high school
More than 200 Hillcrest High School students joined a walkout on Feb. 8, 2023, to protest racism at the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, school. (Credit: Jamiyah Brown)

At Hillcrest High School in Tuscaloosa, the 2023 Black History Month program was a big disappointment to the student planners. The program included performers dancing to the Jackson 5, Afro Caribbean, Afro Latinx and African music, and presentations by fraternity representatives from historically Black colleges and universities.

“We wished we could have done more,” said Brown, currently a college student.

There were no “happy” Beyoncé songs, because Brown was supposed to play the part and the principal threatened to keep her from graduating if she played any role in the program.

“I can only imagine if we had wanted to add Tupac Shakur,” Brown said. “[The assistant principal] would have screamed to the top of her lungs.”

Photo at top: On Feb. 8, 2023, Jamiyah Brown led a walkout at Hillcrest High School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to protest racist comments directed toward the school's Black students by its white administration and teaching staff. (Credit: Jamiyah Brown)