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Sowing the Seeds of Racial Tolerance

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In 1989, the Southern Poverty Law Center took on a project to memorialize those killed during the civil-rights movement and make their stories accessible to schoolchildren. The sculptor Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, was commissioned to design the Civil Rights Memorial, which now draws hundreds of visitors each week to the law center's headquarters in Montgomery, Ala. The stories of the 40 people whose names were included on the memorial became the basis of an award-winning book that has been used in thousands of classrooms, Free at Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle.

It was during their efforts to create Free at Last that the law center's leaders realized the enormity of what might be achieved by challenging bigotry not only through the legal system, but also in the classroom. This realization was the seed from which the Teaching Tolerance project grew. Inherent in the decision to launch this massive public-education endeavor was the belief that not only could the lessons of the civil-rights movement be taught--not simply talked about--but that tolerance for differences could be nurtured as well.

In the past, teachers looking for resources and strategies to use in this area have had several organizations to turn to: the National Coalition of Education Activists, Rethinking Schools, Educators for Social Responsibility, Impact II, California Tomorrow, the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith, the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The work of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, for example, can be traced back to the 1920's. The Anti-Defamation League's A World of Difference, which teaches children about racial stereotyping, was first introduced in 1986. The National Association for the Education of Young Children's Anti-Bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children is one of the most widely used books on the subject of teaching very young children how to get along and value differences.

The Teaching Tolerance project doesn't attempt to duplicate such efforts. Its goals are compatible. What it does do, however, is very important: It gives away its products and services free to teachers and schools. And just how important is this? Critically important, if we are to reach beyond the "choir of believers,'' teachers already in sync with the message of racial harmony and tolerance.

After having mailed out nearly a million copies of Teaching Tolerance, a twice-yearly magazine whose fourth issue is due out this fall, and 40,000 video kits on "America's Civil Rights Movement'' (to nearly every school in the country), Teaching Tolerance has met the nation. Now the telephones won't stop ringing, and the mail keeps pouring in. This is exciting. We like being in touch with the world. But the world is not always in sync with what we are about. Many educators simply fail to comprehend our message; many more seem misinformed about what it takes to battle racism.

Teaching Tolerance magazine, because it reviews books, curricula, films, and other educational materials dealing with a range of anti-bias issues, gets alot of unsolicited items for review. In addition, we who work for the project seek out materials that might be of value to educators. Imagine our excitement, then, when we discovered a film by New York City's Sidewalks Theatre. Aside from its effectiveness in helping viewers discuss racism realistically, it stands as a testament to what is possible with determination and a little support: Twenty-five homeless teenagers wrote, directed, videotaped, performed in, and edited this insightful film.

Perhaps the best thing about the film, however, is its title, a piece of genius in its simplicity: "It's Not Easy!''

Battling racism is hard, emotional work that never ends. One of the most disappointing discoveries we have made at the Teaching Tolerance project is how many people, especially teachers and other educators, believe their battles against racism can be neat, clean, finite affairs. We base this rather negative observation on the nearly 100 telephone calls that flood the Teaching Tolerance offices each week. Frequently, in complete desperation, callers want to know if they can get their hands on our "miracle'' curriculum kit. Even after talking sense into most of these callers, assuring them that we know of no "miracle'' curriculum to stop racism, and certainly aren't selling one, we can sense the relief in their voices when they hear about our teaching kit, "America's Civil Rights Movement.'' Maybe this is their utopia.

It is not. Teaching about the civil-rights movement can achieve much, but it alone will not eliminate racism. In his book, The Color Line: Legacy for the Twenty-First Century, the historian John Hope Franklin articulates one of the best rationales we have come across for why our society--especially our children--must face the history of civil rights. Mr. Franklin writes:

Perhaps the very first thing we need to do as a nation and as individual members of society is to confront our past and see it for what it is. It is a past that is filled with some of the ugliest possible examples of racial brutality and degradation in human history. We need to recognize it for what it was and is and not explain it away, excuse it, or justify it. Having done that, we should then make a good-faith effort to turn our history around so that we can see it in front of us, so that we can avoid doing what we have done for so long. If we do that, whites will discover that African-Americans possess the same human qualities that other Americans possess, and African-Americans will discover that white Americans are capable of the most sublime expressions of human conduct of which all human beings are capable. Then, we need to do everything possible to emphasize the positive qualities that all of us have, qualities which we have never utilized to the fullest, but which we must utilize if we are to solve the problem of the color line in the 21st century.

It is hard to argue with this logic. But we occasionally have callers at the Teaching Tolerance project who argue with us about the appropriateness of using the civil-rights movement as a vehicle for discussing racial problems. Some say its history is too violent. Others complain that it just resurrects old hostilities. Then there are those who argue that this history makes whites look "bad.'' For example, a principal from California called to tell us he would not use "A Time For Justice''--the film included in the teaching kit--because "all the bad guys in the film were white.'' He felt that such a film would never fly at his school without causing violence. He wasn't interested in our pleas for the truth. You know: In the 1950's, in the deep South, the bad guys were white. And when we mentioned that many of the "good guys'' involved in the movement were white, too, the silence on the phone spoke, "So what?''

This principal seemed interested only in making sure that the skinheads stayed on their side of his school's playground and the blacks stayed on theirs. What this guy really was after was a "miracle'' bricklayer to build walls; not a miracle to build human relations.

We believe that one extremely important factor driving the search for the magic bullet or miracle curriculum for improved race relations is the insistence in some quarters that we are a color-blind society. A color-blind society does not now and never has existed in the United States. As John Hope Franklin tells us, "Those who insist that we should conduct ourselves as if such a utopian state already existed have no interest in achieving it and, indeed, would be horrified if we even approached it.''

A harsh assessment? You bet. But one that is supported by writers and thinkers from W.E.B. DuBois to Cornel West. If society is unwilling to accept the realities of racism, then the actions we (and schools) choose to solve race-centered problems run the risk of being superficial, ineffective, or out of sync with reality. In other words, since many of us in schools do not believe racism is a threat to society, when a race-centered problem arises, we address it with the superficial--showing a film, planning an ethnic-food fair, or holding a one-day sensitivity workshop.

Many of us simply do not want to accept the harsh assessments--wake-up calls, really--of writers like Derrick Bell or John Hope Franklin. Such acceptance ultimately means that those of us (schools included) who are serious about battling racism must be willing to commit to the endeavor as a lifetime struggle. The history of racial oppression in America is a legacy from which we simply cannot emerge "simply.''

Yet, for most, any commitment that is more than simple is simply too much. Getting school districts to commit to the level of reforms that have taken place at schools like La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee and the Southside Family School in Minneapolis--two schools with strong anti-racist objectives weaved into all aspects of school life--is out of the question. Few want to get this serious. So in the end, many fall back on the safety of the simple notion that racism can be eliminated with the magic bullet or the miracle curriculum.

Once again, we warn schools that it cannot happen.

The psychologist Kenneth B. Clark has said, "Children must be helped to understand that one cannot keep others down without staying down with them.'' We believe the study of history plays a unique role in shaping this ideal. But not the study of any history. We believe that what Kenneth Clark had in mind was what Mr. Franklin also had in mind when he said all Americans, but especially whites, must confront and deal with a past history of "racial brutality.''

Many Americans wish to simply forget this history. It is difficult to get schools to teach openly and honestly about the enslavement of African-Americans or their oppression under Jim Crow laws. The history of the civil-rights movement is frequently nothing more than a blip on the radar screen of curriculum. Teaching this amazing and complex passage in our national life as one more curricular blip, however, does little to teach schoolchildren the real lessons from this period. In fact, some current approaches to teaching civil-rights history may do more harm than good. The civil-rights researchers Ceasar L. McDowell and Patricia Sullivan have noted that "... many people believe the movement began with Rosa Parks and ended on a hotel balcony in Memphis, and having achieved its primary goal of 'voting rights' and the elimination of legalized segregation [it] has little to offer the world of today except for vicarious nostalgic pleasure.''

By trivializing this history we run the risk of believing that a color-blind society was achieved during the movement. We run the risk of believing that shortly after the 1963 March on Washington, America entered into that utopian state Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described in his famous "I Have A Dream'' speech. Such an ideal, of course, has not been achieved.

Teaching about the civil-rights movement will not achieve it. But an understanding of that struggle can give students tools to continue the search for that ideal: information and a heightened sense of civic responsibility.

In a simpler time, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that "if we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.'' We believe with a passion in the power that peering into that "secret history'' can have for all our futures.

Carol Heller is an assistant professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Joseph Hawkins is an evaluation specialist for the Montgomery County, Md., public schools. Both recently completed one-year teaching fellowships at the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance project.

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