Mississippi Textbooks Gloss Over Civil Rights Struggle
The Civil Rights Movement was once a footnote in Mississippi social studies classrooms, if it was covered at all. Then, in 2011, Mississippi became a “model” for other states when new social studies standards set an expectation that students learn civil rights in depth.
But despite those new expectations, most school districts in the state where the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till mobilized black Americans still use textbooks that give local civil rights milestones short shrift.
An analysis of Mississippi public school textbooks by the Hechinger Report and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting shows that, for at least some grades, all of the state’s 148 school districts rely on textbooks published before the model standards appeared as part of their social studies material.
Students first learn about Mississippi history in fourth grade, and that’s the first time they are supposed to delve deeply into the history of the movement to end racial segregation and discrimination. Yet, in the book most districts use—titled “Mississippi Studies” and published in 2005—only five of 100 pages are devoted to civil rights struggles.
In Mississippi Studies, a required high school course, “Mississippi: The Magnolia State” is commonly used. Published in 2005, it describes ardent segregationist John C. Stennis as “politically moderate.” The Freedom Riders, scores of mostly young activists who traveled by bus across the South to challenge Jim Crow laws—who appear prominently in the state standards—aren’t mentioned at all. Neither are the laws they challenged, Mississippi civil rights activist T.R.M. Howard, or the Congress of Racial Equality, an organizer of the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign to register black voters.
In contrast, James K. Vardaman, Mississippi’s governor from 1904 to 1908, who supported lynching African-Americans, is mentioned 69 times, according to a Hechinger/Reveal text analysis of the textbook. The state standards don’t mention him once.
Many Mississippi residents say their schools did not teach them important civil rights topics. Some blame their teachers, some blame the textbooks, some blame the state for not prioritizing public education funding. Others say it’s a complex cocktail of inadequacy that cheats students out of an important aspect of their state’s legacy.
At the local level, however, motivated teachers are scrambling to fill the gaps between materials available at school and the standards they’re expected to meet.
Danielle Creel finds it difficult to help her fourth-graders meet the state standards armed solely with an outdated book. She was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, in Yazoo County, and now teaches there, at Bentonia Gibbs Elementary. This summer, Creel joined a dozen other teachers from across the state at a weeklong training institute at the state’s Department of Archives and History.
The training not only gave teachers the opportunity to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement, but also taught them how to pull documents from the archives to enhance and enrich their classroom materials.
The teachers learned about the Tougaloo Nine, a group of students from historically black Tougaloo College in Jackson, who staged read-ins at the white-only Jackson Municipal Library in 1961. Creel was particularly taken by the life story of Fannie Lou Hamer, a key organizer of the Freedom Summer, who dedicated her life and work to suffrage for black Mississippians.
“It was eye-opening learning about things that happened,” Creel said. “I’d heard of it, but didn’t really know much about it.”
In three years of teaching, Creel has barely touched her school-issued social studies textbook, “Mississippi Studies.” The book, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, had so little content on Mississippi’s indigenous populations and the Civil Rights Movement that she gave up trying to teach her students with it. Now, even the school doesn’t use it, she said.
The book only once mentions Hamer, the Mississippi Delta native who challenged President Lyndon B. Johnson on the national stage and whose work helped give all black Americans the right to vote.
“That’s somebody these kids, especially here in the Delta where I live, they need to know about,” Creel said. “She’s somebody they don’t really talk about.”
A textbook problem
Before 2011, Mississippi public school students weren’t required to learn about the Civil Rights Movement at all. The previous social studies standards mentioned the phrase “civil rights” just three times in the 305-page document. It refers to the “Civil Rights Movement” once.
Under the updated standards, students are supposed to begin learning about the Civil Rights Movement as early as third grade, and delve deeply into the topic again and again. They go into the greatest depth in required courses in Mississippi Studies and U.S. History when they reach high school.
The Hechinger Report and Reveal asked the state for a list of the primary textbooks used by every public school in all 148 Mississippi districts during the 2016-17 school year. Data wasn’t available for every school and every district for all grades.
On first glance, the results from the available data signaled a disconnect with the state standards:
- In third grade, just three of the districts that reported data used textbooks published after 2011.
- No fourth-grade classroom in 116 districts that reported data used a book published more recently than 2006.
- At least 70 districts used older books exclusively for high school Mississippi Studies, usually taught in ninth grade. Some used books with copyrights as early as 1995.
- For the study of U.S. history after Reconstruction, usually taught in 11th grade, at least 40 districts relied on books published before 2011.
U.S. history textbooks fare the best at meeting the state standards, generally covering the civil rights topics laid out for 11th grade much more thoroughly than the Mississippi Studies texts. Educators suggest books for students at that grade level may be more up to date because 11th-graders must pass a U.S. history exam to graduate from high school. The newer books are more likely to reflect content in the state standards covered on the test.
In earlier grades, students are supposed to learn how Mississippians contributed to the Civil Rights Movement and the events that happened here. But analysis of the textbooks for younger students show few books provide that foundation.
The most commonly used fourth-grade textbook is the one Creel was issued. A five-page subsection of a short chapter titled “Changes in Mississippi” condenses the lives of Medgar Evers—Mississippi’s first NAACP field secretary who was assassinated in 1963, Hamer and Unita Blackwell—who became Mississippi’s first black woman mayor in 1976—into a single sentence: The trio “worked against unfair laws that made it hard for African Americans to vote in Mississippi.”
The textbook offers fourth-grade teachers an option to “extend” the lesson through use of a one-paragraph biography of Martin Luther King Jr. The paragraph describes the March on Washington in 1963 in terms so bland it’s hard to envision any fourth-grader grasping the import of the watershed moment, should their teacher choose to include it: “He gave a speech that made people excited. He imagined a future where everyone in America could work together for freedom and democracy.”
The most comprehensive lessons on the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi are supposed to be taught in the ninth grade, in Mississippi Studies. The analysis only included Mississippi-focused texts. It’s possible other ninth-grade classes cover civil rights, and Mississippi Studies teachers may use other textbooks. But Mississippi’s public schools generally teach the course from one of three textbooks—only one of which was published after the new standards were released.
Copyrighted in 2005, “Mississippi: The Magnolia State” is used by some of the poorest districts in the state, including the Canton Public School District in central Mississippi and the Okolona Separate School District in the northern part of the state. The other two textbooks are “Mississippi: Portrait of an American State,” published in 1999, and “A Place Called Mississippi,” from 2013.
Almost all the people mentioned with the greatest frequency in “Mississippi: the Magnolia State” are either white Mississippi authors or antebellum politicians. The sole exception is “Native Son” author Richard Wright, an African-American native of Natchez, Mississippi. Segregationist white politicians are mentioned more often in the chapter on the Civil Rights Movement than are any activists, black or white.
Pivotal groups and terms included in the standards, such as the Council for Federated Organizations, the Congress for Racial Equality, and “de facto” and “de jure” segregation—social segregation and that required by law—aren’t referenced at all.
Meanwhile, in “Mississippi: Portrait of an American State,” the chapter about the Civil Rights Movement lists 17 key figures students should know: 12 white men—a majority of them segregationists—four black men and one black woman. The chapter focuses largely on Mississippi’s resistance to change at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Both of the older ninth-grade books use identical wording to describe Emmett Till, saying the state’s failure to convict Till’s killers “painted a poor picture of white Mississippians” to the rest of the nation.
There’s no way of knowing if districts are using the books on the state list regularly in classrooms, or if teachers are supplementing the books with additional materials. But the state’s list of textbooks provides a window into what resources are made available to teachers, whether they use them or not.
When the new standards emerged, Camille Lesseig was a first-year teacher, teaching social studies for grades nine to 12 in the Meridian Public School District in Lauderdale County in east Mississippi, where roughly a third of children live in poverty. Her assigned ninth-grade textbook back then? “Mississippi: the Magnolia State.”
The book was valuable for state geography and basic vocabulary, she said, but using it to teach about the Civil Rights Movement was out of the question. Lesseig, who is now a research associate at the Center for Educational Research and Evaluation at the University of Mississippi, noted, for instance, that the text presented Vardaman, the turn-of-the-century governor who supported lynching, as a “normal human being.”
“I had at least one student who was related to James Chaney,” she said, referring to a civil rights activist and Meridian native slain with two others during Freedom Summer just an hour away in Neshoba County. “It would be wrong for me to use that book given the context of where I taught,” Lesseig said. “That first year I had maybe one or two white students, so it was overwhelmingly African-American, and here’s this book that doesn’t really acknowledge them at all.”
The newest of the three ninth-grade books, “A Place Called Mississippi,” was written by former University of Mississippi history professor David Sansing. Used by many districts last year—including some of the poorer ones—it does a far better job of meeting the state standards and putting local contributions into context.
For instance, although it details the accomplishments of Mississippi governor and U.S. Sen. Theodore Bilbo, it also describes the Ku Klux Klan member as a white supremacist and an extremist, “even by the standards of the day.”
The chapter on the Civil Rights Movement touches mostly on activists, not segregationist politicians. And, unlike other texts, also shines the spotlight on women: Evers’ widow, Myrlie, whose own activism for race and class equity keeps her husband’s legacy alive today; Hamer; and Constance Baker Motley, the lawyer whose work forced the University of Mississippi to admit its first black student, James Meredith, in 1962, and who was the first black woman appointed to serve as a federal judge.
Textbook author Sansing, retired now after more than three decades at Ole Miss, said he was shocked at how little his college students knew about these famous Mississippians. That increased his resolve to craft a better textbook for ninth-graders.
“I want to be very honest about Mississippi’s past,” he said. “There’s been a lot about our past. It’s bad. But there’s been a lot in our past we can be very proud of.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center once was among the most outspoken critics of Mississippi’s standards for teaching about the Civil Rights Movement. After the state overhauled its standards, the group called it a leader in civil rights instruction.
But, while Alabama earned an A after revamping its standards, eighth-ranked Mississippi earned a C from the advocacy group, which rates state standards for inclusion of leaders, groups, events, history, opposition and tactics. That was far from the worst grade in the 2011 report. For instance California—with barely any Civil Rights Movement details in its social studies standards—received an F.
Mississippi taught just 30 percent of recommended content and, the report said, would have “significant, additional work” to do to make sure students have a “satisfactory, comprehensive picture of the Civil Rights Movement.” In a 2014 report, the group said the state had improved somewhat, covering 50 percent of recommended content.
Yet implementation of the standards remain “very spotty,” according to Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a nonprofit focused on reducing prejudice that provides free resources to teachers, with some schools doing “superficial work” and others doing “deep dives” into the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Costello said that glossing over what gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement does a disservice to students.
She said it’s not unusual for a state to include “protests and desegregation, but not Jim Crow, and not explicitly teach about white supremacy, the nature of slavery, and the effect on both the plantation owners and the people who were enslaved, or look at the role … slave labor played in creating capital and wealth for the rest of the country.”
Because education in Mississippi is locally controlled, she said, “even though the state says there’s a theme in the standards, it’s up to the schools and districts to decide if they’re going to teach them.”
Mississippi students say districts often decide not to.
The Hechinger Report and Reveal created a short online quiz, distributed through Facebook and Twitter, to test the Civil Rights Movement knowledge of current and former Mississippi students.
It asked them to identify photographs—of Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and Bayard Rustin—and it asked them to give the year James Meredith entered Ole Miss.
Those who took the quiz were shown a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and asked to identify the author. They were asked to name the county in which Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by white supremacists; and to identify which of four men served as the state’s governor during the Civil Rights Movement.
Of the 172 people who responded—80 percent of whom attended public school—most could identify Evers, Hamer and Parks, but misidentified Rustin, a civil rights and gay rights activist and organizer regularly excluded from the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement. Though Martin Luther King Jr. is arguably the most iconic of Civil Rights Movement activists, most attributed his quote to Malcolm X.
“I’m embarrassed,” wrote one commenter.
Another, who attended 11th grade the year after the social studies framework was updated, wrote that when she asked her 11th-grade U.S. history teacher why the course didn’t cover black history, the teacher said the topic was unnecessary, didn’t fit the district’s curriculum and wouldn’t be on the state test, anyway.
“She lied,” the woman wrote. “My entire test was civil rights and the women’s rights movement.”
The Mississippi Department of Education plays a mostly hands-off role in the selection of textbooks used by individual districts. After a lengthy review process, it issues a list of suggested texts, then helps districts through the bid process.
Under state administrative guidelines, books must meet at least “80 percent of the mandated competencies” as outlined in the Mississippi Curriculum Framework. Textbooks that contain “obscene, lewd, sexist or vulgar material; advocating prejudicial behavior or actions; or encouraging acts determined to be anti-social or derogatory to any race, sex or religion” are not considered for adoption.
But other than that, the state doesn’t limit schools to the state-approved textbooks or to using more modern versions, said Chauncey Spears, the state’s textbook procurement chief.
“Books over 12 years old should not be on the district’s ‘active listing’ of books,” Spears said via email.
But Spears also recognized the dire budget straits of many of the state’s districts. Mississippi’s legislature has fully funded its public education budget only twice in over 20 years, and public education received a $20 million cut just this school year.
“There will be some districts that miss the mark in this area, and may have challenges purchasing new textbooks due to budget concerns,” he wrote.
Budget constraints are less of a concern in the Clinton Public School District, in central Mississippi, one of the state’s wealthier districts. Each of its 5,183 students receives an electronic device—iPads for K-8 students, and MacBook Airs for students in grades nine through 12. But even Clinton is one of the many districts that lists “Mississippi: The Magnolia State” for ninth-grade Mississippi Studies and “Mississippi” for the fourth grade, both texts published in 2005.
Tim Martin, superintendent for Clinton Public Schools, says his district assesses the need for books based on the requests of individual schools in the district and on updates to state standards.
“We look at the standards and what standard needs to be taught, and then say, ‘Let’s go find materials to do that,’” he said. “Effective teachers look at the standards. If the textbook doesn’t do it, it’s up to them to find the resources.”
“We know the teachers make the difference, not the textbook,” Martin said.
Visits to schools around the state and conversations with teachers and students make it clear that many teachers have found creative ways to teach Mississippi students about the Civil Rights Movement, and its legacy, in their state.
In the Canton Public School District, Howard Hollins teaches sixth-grade world geography and citizenship. Hollins carves out special activities for Black History Month. He’s committed to impressing on Porter Middle School students how important that history is, especially in a city that was an epicenter of civil rights protests and violence.
One day last February, Hollins framed his lesson as a battle of the idols—or, in this case, ideals. Who had the best approach to liberation efforts in the 1960s, he asked the class: seemingly peace-loving Martin Luther King Jr., or Malcolm X, who was decidedly more comfortable with armed resistance?
The room erupted into debate on the merits and drawbacks of a pacifist approach to justice.
After the spirited classroom discussion died down, Hollins put students to work on a black history quiz. It’s not his job, he said, to influence their opinion, but to help them understand their history in the larger context of global movements. And not just in February.
Hollins is somewhat of a rarity in Mississippi schools, simply because he—like most of his students—is black. According to a 2014 Center for American Progress study, nearly three-quarters of teachers in Mississippi are white.
Kristen Kirkland, who is white, teaches two U.S. history courses at Neshoba Central High School in Philadelphia, Mississippi: general and Advanced Placement. In both courses, she is largely married to a curriculum that prepares her students for the state’s U.S. history test. But her approach to teaching about the Civil Right Movement begins with lessons on prejudice and bias.
She says in one lesson she gave last school year, she asked her classroom of teenagers to cut spectacle shapes out of colored paper and hold them over their eyes. When her students held them up, they couldn’t see anything.
That, she told them, is the point.
“Exactly. That’s your lens. That’s your bias,” she told them. “What are some things that keep you from seeing the truth sometimes, and change how you see the truth and what it is? We all have bias, but we have to be aware of those, and how that colors our vision.”
The past, she said, has tentacles, that seek and touch the present. That’s why Kirkland embraced Mississippi’s social studies standards overhaul from the start.
“It changed me as an individual,” she said. “I tried to use it as an opportunity for the students, to get them to care about history and about human rights around the world.”
Some school districts prioritize students’ knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement in other creative ways.
After the establishment of the new framework, Teaching for Change, a nonprofit organization that creates and distributes anti-bias materials for educators to use, connected students from the McComb Public School District with local veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. The students became local historians, their interviews immortalized at the University of Southern Mississippi.
But for many teachers, adhering to the state’s new expectations for civil rights education is still an uphill battle.
Last summer, Danielle Creel hoped to tackle a sweeping unit on civil rights with her Yazoo County fourth-graders this school year, relying on the new resources from her summer training, including copies of photographs and primary source documents. She wanted to center the unit not only on the famous names—Martin Luther King, Jr., Ruby Bridges and Medgar Evers—but also on the less well-known, like Hamer.
But her plans were complicated by her school’s adoption of new fourth-grade coursework from the New York Department of Education. She remained undeterred.
The New York curriculum for August centered on “Love That Dog,” a story about a boy, poetry, and a dog. So, during story time, Creel supplemented by reading aloud another book featuring a boy and a dog: “My Dog Skip,” by white Mississippi author Willie Morris, set in Yazoo City during the Jim Crow era.
Creel also plans to ask her students to write blues poetry—which she considers a cultural gift from the Mississippi Delta to the rest of the world.
“These kids are growing up on a treasure mine,” she said, “and just don’t even know it.”