Teaching the Past and Advancing a Movement in Mississippi

By Michelle Chen Aug 22, 2009

When discussing the history of race relations in America, any mention of Mississippi usually deserves to be followed by a “god damn.” Nowadays, though, young Mississippians are moving toward an enlightened concept of past civil rights struggles—and making some history in the process. The state passed a law in 2006 calling for the development of programs to teach human rights and civil rights issues to all public school students, from kindergarten on. In collaboration with the Mississippi Civil Rights Education Commission, state education authorities are getting ready to roll out a social studies framework titled “2010 Mississippi U.S. History: Post-Reconstruction to Present.” The new curriculum is designed to inform youth about the history of racial discrimination as well as to provide an understanding of the continued relevance of social movements today. The organizations guiding schools as they implement the programs, WAPT reports, include the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy at Jackson State University and the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. Chauncey Spears, a Mississippi Department of Education social studies specialist, said:

It is our intention that students gain the understanding from this and other courses in the framework that social change comes from people who are informed and inspired by the purest democratic ideas and traditions of our country. These people then act to empower the relatively voiceless and powerless in our community, to be full participants in and beneficiaries of our cherished democracy.

The William Winter Institute, which also runs projects focused on reconciliation and restorative justice for communities impacted by racial injustice, has launched a web-based teaching tool, the Mississippi Civil Rights Project. The site will offer a wiki compendium of historical narratives, documents, audio and other materials, organized by county, to enliven a legacy long stifled by collective silence. Mississippi isn’t the only state working to confront its past through the education system. Montana’s “Indian Education for All” initiative stems from a legislative mandate that "every Montanan, whether Indian or non-Indian, be encouraged to learn about the distinct and unique heritage of American Indians in a culturally responsive manner." Rather than relegating native history to a unit within a mainstream American and European-centric curriculum, state law puts the spotlight on the communities that predated white settlement. State law requires:

every educational agency and all educational personnel will work cooperatively with Montana tribes or those tribes that are in close proximity… to include information specific to the cultural heritage and contemporary contributions of American Indians, with particular emphasis on Montana Indian tribal groups and governments.

The program also interrogates the institution of “Indian Education” itself, from its early incarnations as an instrument of colonization to its current potential as a foundation for cultural consciousness. Teaching history is always a political project, fraught with the cultural biases and ideological struggles operating outside the classroom. But whatever the format, whether we’re reflecting on history or living through it, the challenge is making sure it isn’t forgotten. Image: Freedom School class at Mt. Zion Baptist Church (Freedom Summer Photographs, Herbert Randall / University of Southern Mississippi Libraries)