Michigan Fails Civil Rights Education

This article first appeared in BLAC's January 2012 issue.

he Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a national civil rights organization, recently conducted a study called “Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States.”

The Montgomery, Ala.-based nonprofit rated all 50 states and Washington, D.C., on their curriculum requirements for teaching this seminal part of U.S. history.

Only three states received an A. Four earned a B. Six got a C. Three received a D. There were 34 states that earned an F. Among that failing group is Michigan.

Maureen Costello, director of SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance program, which conducted the study, says it’s disappointing that Michigan received an F. “What we found is that the states that did the best were either in the Deep South or had a large African-American population.

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"Michigan may not be in the Deep South, but it was certainly a receiving state for many people during the Great Migration, and there’s a fairly substantial African-American population. And that would suggest that this would be important for Michigan.”

According to Costello, Michigan doesn’t require much content to be covered past Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1963 March on Washington. States that earned an A begin introducing the Civil Rights Movement to students in elementary and middle school and then build on the information in high school.

Michigan only requires that the Civil Rights Movement be covered in high school.

Jamon Jordan is a social studies teacher at Nsoroma Institute, an African-centered, K-8 charter school in Detroit that begins teaching about the Civil Rights Movement in kindergarten.

“Today our young people, even adults, feel powerless to change society, make demands and transform conditions for the better,” he says. “You’re not here to see things happen to you, but to make things happen. And if the Civil Rights Movement tells us nothing else, it tells us that.”

Costello suggests that social studies standards be revised at the state level in order to introduce the Civil Rights Movement early and broaden the content covered. “One of the reasons to break it up over time is to teach more,” she says.

“But apparently Michigan figures that in one of year of high school, kids will learn all the U.S. history and geography they need.”

One way Michigan can improve is adopt some of the techniques of states doing a good job teaching the Civil Rights Movement. SPLC plans to release a second part of “Teaching the Movement” that will recommend how to strengthen the Civil Rights Movement education standards.

“The reasons why Black people now vote Democrat and why Republicans are seen as racist are all tied up in the Civil Rights Movement. People grow up and don’t know why things are the way they are,” says Jordan.

“If you don’t get the history, present-day reality can’t really make sense to you.”

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