Civil Rights Is All About Fairness


All day long in my first-grade classroom I hear, “That’s not fair!” It’s a primary concern for 6-year-olds—that everyone be treated equitably. First-graders are diligent about making sure each student gets the same number of chances, the same opportunities, the same choices. They are quick to alert you if they didn’t get a turn or if someone else got seconds. They understand that, above all, we must be fair. That’s why the topic of civil rights is such a natural unit of study for first grade; it’s all about fairness.

To introduce the modern civil rights movement to 21st century students, we have to help them identify with the situation of those discriminated against and understand the injustices. That personal connection to this critical time in our history is hard because, fortunately, they have no experience with segregation. They do not know what it’s like to be denied entry into a restaurant, or bussed to a school across town, or be told you can’t try on shoes before you buy them. They know for a fact that a black man can be president and this makes it a little hard for them to understand it wasn’t always this way. And so we help them achieve this by looking at the experience through the eyes of a child, someone the students can relate to.

We help students connect to Martin Luther King Jr. by reading My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris to discover what Dr. King was like as a child. We conduct a human treasure hunt and the students go around the classroom to find classmates who share similar traits or interests with Dr. King, like playing baseball or reading. It helps them see that he was not so different from them; he wasn’t born great; he seized the opportunity to do great things—and so can they.

We also read The Story of Ruby Bridges, which chronicles the experiences of a courageous little girl who spent her first-grade year as the only African American in her school. My students make a Venn diagram of themselves and Ruby to help them realize they have a lot in common with this little girl who was doing the right thing.

When we read my story, Child of the Civil Rights Movement, students become a part of the civil rights struggle, acting out marches, singing protest songs and creating a village to represent an extended family of caregivers. I want to convey to students the sense of community, the group effort that was required to bring about the change in laws, behaviors and attitudes. I want them to learn about Dr. King, but also to recognize that he did not act alone and that it was the mass movement of everyday folks that led to the success of the civil rights movement. 

Teaching history to young children is about helping them connect to the past in a meaningful way. When students can relate to characters in a story, they can understand and appreciate it. My students love learning about civil rights because they know how important it is to be fair and what a great injustice it is to deny a child the right to thrive.

Shelton is a first-grade teacher and author of Child of the Civil Rights Movement. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and three sons. She is dedicated to spreading the truth about our American history.


I was given a generic gloss

Submitted by Dan on 5 April 2013 - 4:22pm.

I was given a generic gloss over of the Civil Rights movement when I was growing up. Our curriculum went through events on a timeline and never dived into the "Why?" I also grew up listening to my extremely racist grandfather tell jokes, stuff that seemed fairly normal to me until I was in my early teens. Mostly, my self-education on race came from playing sports and hanging out with the kids near my house. We had just about every ethnic group you can think of and when I was around my friends, I felt right at home. So that's when I started to reject "old fashioned" thinking and start asking questions none of my teachers could answer. Through college, I would look up people or events and research them as deep as I could. In the last five years, work ironically took me to both Memphis and Birmingham where I visited both Civil Rights museums. I cannot tell you accurately in words how I felt standing five feet from where Dr. King was murdered. It is upsetting. I've been to the USS Arizona, the 6th floor museum in Dealy Plaza but that day in Memphis is haunting.
But even after all of that I ask, what do I really know?

I think, for lack of a better term, shock value has hit home for me when learning or asking the question, what was it like to live through this time period of history? And now, as a parent of a 6 year old, I find the question of Civil Rights education coming back to me. I wrangle with the debate of letting his school introduce him to particular figures or moments, then answer his questions. Then there's a part of me that says, give it to him straight. Show him how ugly some Americans were...and still are at times. And then I back off, fearing that I am pushing things that should wait until he is more mature.

But I will say this. We attend a lot of major league baseball games. And ever since he was 4, my son has asked me why all the ballparks have the number 42 posted so prominently. I do my best to tell him who Jackie Robinson was, in layman's terms although I have researched his life extensively. For me, it feels good to relate to my son through our common passion, baseball. But it also feels good to teach him about real people and how they set the stage for following generations. And now, as the film '42' prepares for its release, the trailer is on tv a lot. My son has instantly recognized that it is a film about Jackie. And now I wonder if it's okay to take him because of the PG-13 rating, surely for language and violent themes (if Hollywood dares to give it to us straight). I don't wish to be considered inappropriate however isn't it hypocritical to dodge a subject than can change man kind because he will hear the word we all know will be in the film? I haven't made up my mind.

I feel responsible for my generation, people in their early 40's. I view my peers as a chance to transition the old way of teaching these topics into a more effective way, that somehow, may eradicate racism. I guess it is a long way off though.

I may be biased, because I'm

Submitted by Andrew Berman on 3 April 2013 - 8:52am.

I may be biased, because I'm Paula's teaching partner, but I'm always impressed by her dedication to teaching this valuable topic to our first graders. It is a pleasure to work closely with her to share our lessons with our students. If you haven't read her first book, Child of the Civil Rights Movement, you should. Even better, ask her to come to your school and read it aloud. Her expressive voice makes the story even more engrossing and compelling.

Second graders at the Smith

Submitted by Robbie Murphy on 3 April 2013 - 4:21am.

Second graders at the Smith College Campus School spend 4-5 weeks each year studying the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Like Paula Shelton's class, it is centered around the issue of "fairness." We begin with questions about how communities of people take care of each other, and what they do to fix unfair things. We explore the boycott story in-depth using photographs to make a timeline of the events, write letters to Mayor Gayle from the POV of the Women's Political Council, create sculptures, write poetry and more. The power of fairness rings true for 7- and 8-year-olds as well.

We are struggling with how to

Submitted by M Jeans on 1 April 2013 - 9:13pm.

We are struggling with how to teach civil rights to first graders in a developmentally appropriate and sensitive way. Any insights you have about how to teach young children about this difficult period of American history without making them feel uncomfortable about who they are would be greatly appreciated. Specifically, we're wondering how much detail we should go into about the Jim Crow laws and what was happening in the 50s and 60s. We want to emphasize to a diverse population that when they see something unfair, they can be courageous and stand up for equality (like Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, and Ruby Bridges), but we don't want 6- and 7-year-olds to get discouraged, ashamed, or confused as their eyes are opened to the hatred some have experienced. We read several of the books mentioned, but feel like sometimes after the lessons students are hyper-aware of their differences and how they would have been treated, even while being indignant at the injustice. Thanks for any advice you can give.

Be honest, that doesn't mean

Submitted by Paula Young Shelton on 19 April 2013 - 10:20pm.

Be honest, that doesn't mean you have to tell them about the most violent events, but what you tell them has to be accurate. Segregation was a reality in America and we cannot deny or gloss over its existence. However, I am careful in how I characterize the people that were cruel and hateful; they were racists, not all white people, but racists. There were many whites who joined the civil rights movement, fought alongside Dr. King, financially supported the movement and gave their lives in the struggle. Remind your students of these people to let them know that they too can be allies to fight against hatred and discrimination in America. We talk about how silly the segregation laws were and ask our students, "How would you feel if you couldn't be friends with ----?" It's okay if they begin to notice their differences, we embrace the differences, that's what makes America so wonderful. How boring would it be if we were all the same? Jim Crow was a long time ago, and with your guidance, students will quickly identify with those that fought to end it and choose to continue to fight against injustice wherever it is.