Three years ago, prompted by reports showing that American students knew little about the modern civil rights movement, the Southern Poverty Law Center launched an investigation into what—in the form of standards—states expected teachers to teach and students to learn. We found that most states demanded little instruction in this area.
In casting the movement as a regional matter, or a topic significant to African-American students only, the states failed to recognize the profound national significance of the movement. Their standards and frameworks sent the message that the movement could safely be ignored.
Three years later, we see some improvement in the message that states send to their teachers and students. In some cases, states have modified and strengthened their standards. Most of the improvement, however, was captured because we widened our lens to look beyond what states required, to include resources and materials they offered teachers.
This 2014 report expands and improves upon our previous report in three ways. First, we invited states to self-report on their programs, processes and progress in teaching the movement. Second, the report includes a comprehensive review of the resources that states provide to teachers. These resources include curricula, lesson plans and original historical documents. Third, the ratings resulted from a more nuanced evaluation of both the state standards and resources. Major findings include:
- Most states still pay little attention to the civil rights movement: 20 states received failing grades.
- There is a large gap between the states that do well and all other states.
- States that do try to cover the movement are weakest in acknowledging resistance to the movement and examining its causes.
- Supporting materials offered by some states are extremely valuable to teachers across the country.
Moving forward, we offer three recommendations. First, states should continue to improve their standards and frameworks to add needed detail and nuance to coverage of the civil rights movement. Second, states should support teachers with accessible resources for teaching the movement. Third, teachers should look at exceptional resources offered outside their home states to enrich their classrooms.
We publish this report as the nation prepares to commemorate major civil rights milestones. It has been 60 years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision and 50 since ratification of the constitutional ban on poll taxes and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Anniversaries are times to rejoice and reflect. But as we celebrate how far we have come as a nation, we should also be clear-eyed about the work that remains.
Amidst these anniversaries, the Supreme Court has rolled back hard-won protections for voting rights. At the same time, the very school districts that Brown desegregated have now re-segregated.1 It is not at all clear that we are where we wanted to be when Dr. King spoke of his dream for a better America and when the nation looked on in horror as Birmingham police used dogs against black children peacefully protesting against segregation.
This is no time to rest on our laurels. It is a time to ensure that our children learn about the movement so they can continue the march for equality and justice in their time. This is the spirit that animated this report. For the second time, the Southern Poverty Law Center conducted a comprehensive review of the coverage accorded the civil rights movement in public school curricula at the state level.* This report details the results of that review. It provides a national report card on the state of civil rights education in our country.
Generally speaking, the farther away from the South—and the smaller the African-American population—the less attention paid to the civil rights movement. In 15 states, coverage of the movement is minimal. In another five states, civil rights instruction is not covered or supported at all. It is hardly surprising, then, that so many states received a failing grade.
At the same time, we discovered a rich array of resources for teaching the movement. We also found several models for full and effective instruction.
Like the 2011 Teaching the Movement report, this report is designed to promote change by identifying shortcomings in state documents and highlighting areas of excellence. In its analytical approach, it closely follows the 2011 report. There is, however, one major difference. This report looks not just at whether states require instruction in the civil rights movement, but also at how states teach movement history, including the ways they frame discussions of progress and opposition to change. To accomplish this, we considered state content standards and frameworks as well as the resources states offer to their teachers. These resources included curricula, lesson plans, resource banks and original historical documents.
We remain concerned that students are likely to remember only two names and four words about the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and “I have a dream.” Even as some states have made dramatic improvements in their coverage of the modern civil rights movement, most fall short of what is needed for minimum student proficiency.2 The comprehensive review of state standards and instructional resources set forth in this report reveals that the state of education about the civil rights movement remains woefully inadequate.
When we considered the entire body of publicly available frameworks and resources states provide to teach the civil rights movement, 34 states received a score of 19 percent or less (see Table 1). The scores reflect the breadth and depth of state standards and supports.* A score of 100 percent would mean that a state’s standards and resources were outstanding in every area; 50 percent means that they are adequate. Based on the raw scores, letter grades were assigned on a scale that recognizes the best state efforts. Only three states—Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina—earned a grade of A.
Twenty states whose coverage is minimal (with raw scores from 0 to 19%)—received grades of F. This included five states—Alaska, Iowa, Maine, Oregon and Wyoming—that neither cover nor support teaching about the movement.
- Fourteen states earned grades of D for raw scores between 20 percent and 39 percent.
- Six states—Arkansas, the District of Columbia, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia—earned grades of C for raw scores between 40 percent and 59 percent.
- Eight states—Alabama, California, Florida, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Virginia—earned grades of B for raw scores between 60 percent and 79 percent.
Rather than recognizing the profound national significance of the civil rights movement, many states continue to mistakenly see it as a regional matter, or a topic of interest mainly for black students. Seven of the 11 highest-scoring states are in the South. They are joined by California, Maryland, Oklahoma and New York. Generally speaking, the farther away from the South—and the smaller the African-American population—the less attention paid to the movement.
The civil rights movement is a national, not a regional, issue. It has lessons for students beyond those in the South. In the words of noted civil rights historian Taylor Branch, “If you’re trying to teach people to be citizens, teach them about the civil rights movement.”
These findings should both worry and encourage educators and policy makers, regardless of their political stripe. They describe a nation that is failing in its responsibility to educate its citizens to be effective citizens. They also identify beacons of hope and new directions that should be models for the rest of the nation.
By issuing this report, the Southern Poverty Law Center hopes to continue and deepen the national conversation that we started three years ago about the importance of teaching America’s students about the modern civil rights movement. We call for states to integrate a comprehensive approach to civil rights education into their K-12 history and social studies curricula. We also call for a concerted effort among schools and other organizations to ensure that teachers are well-prepared to teach about the civil rights movement.