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MARTY WISEMAN: The current racial strife and the failure to educate

Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University.

Marty Wiseman

A sentiment being expressed with all too great a frequency lately is one characterized by a growing bewilderment at the widening of the chasm in race relations in America.  With each incident where a person of color is the ultimate recipient of action on the part of law enforcement our inability to communicate with each other and our differing interpretations of the same events become glaringly apparent.  
    
Hidden beneath all of the earnest attempts to discern why the gap between the races appears to be growing may be found a fundamental and for the most part correctable explanation.  I am referring to the significant and increasingly well documented absence of formal education pertaining to the long and often bitter Civil Rights movement.  This omission is particularly acute in the southern states which, in essence, were “ground zero” for the most onerous of Jim Crow era laws.  Consequently the most vicious and protracted battles in the effort to gain equality among the races were fought here.  Indeed Mississippi often found itself at the center of the storm and furthermore that state persisted longer than surrounding states in pursuit of a second lost cause in defense of a mythical “southern way of life”.  The entire scenario from the founding, to the Civil War, to the end of Jim Crow, to the present is littered with countless watershed events in the history of race relations.
    
Even with so much material available something has been missing.  The Southern Poverty Law Center followed its groundbreaking study in 2010 with an updated version in 2014.  The original study and the follow up reveal a virtual absence in most states of any detailed education on the history of race relations.  Indeed, it is the events emanating from the 200 year struggle between blacks and whites to live in the same state that have quite literally established the identity of the state of Mississippi for all of the world to see.  From Mississippi’s entry into the Union in 1817 until today the status of race relations has been the central formative influence in this state and similarly in our sister southern states.  Yet, ironically, Mississippians in general and our public school students in particular have been largely deprived of knowledge of the events and the frequently racially charged environment that have brought Mississippi to this point.  
    
Now whether the issue is the series of often shocking incidents involving law enforcement and African-Americans, the nature of new election laws such as Voter I.D. requirements, or the astounding data contrasting the numbers of convicted Caucasians and African-Americans, there are stark differences in viewpoints based on the history of human interaction.  History is comprised of events and conditions that have already taken place – they are events that have been deposited in the bank of human experience.  Like it or not the history of race relations, warts and all, is who we are as a state.  Yet when we examine the history textbooks for middle school or high school there is scant or only passing mention of the struggles over race in which we have engaged for the entirety of our history.  
    
Now we are reaping the harvest of the decades’ long effort to conceal knowledge of an often sordid past when we should have been learning from it.  For example the recent 50th anniversary of Selma’s “Bloody Sunday”, the landmark event in the push for voting rights, served for many as a platform from which to renew the call of opposition to newly implemented election laws and voter I.D. requirements being imposed by a number of states.  By the same token, many of the recent violent events between African-Americans and law enforcement remind many old timers of the days when racial segregation was enforced at the barrel of a gun and the toe of a boot.  
    
Perhaps if the history of the “bad old days” of legal segregation and its enforcement were better understood then greater sensitivity to the perception of overly vigorous law enforcement would follow.  There are those who still remember the days when inequality was indeed a matter of law and it was enforced in sometimes brutal fashion.  In the same way those who were confined in the livestock pens at the state fairgrounds because the jails were full and those denied access to the ballot boxes because they had no poll tax card remember the multiple indignities they endured but these eyewitnesses to history are fast fading from the scene.  
    
History is permanent and it cannot be changed but the story can be told – indeed given the current turn of events nationwide it must be told.   Furthermore, the telling must not be just in passing but rather it must be told in detail.  Lessons must be planned and test questions must be asked.  As unthinkable as it would be to some of our fellow citizens to hide the exploits of the Confederacy in a war lasting 4 years, so it should be viewed as preposterous to downplay 200 years of volatile race relations that have had an impact on virtually every major aspect of Mississippi’s existence.

» Dr. Marty Wiseman is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Public Administration and Director Emeritus of the The Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. His email address is wmw3@msstate.edu. 

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4 comments

  1. Dr Marty Wiseman,
    Mr Alan Turner:
    I both applaud you both and bow deeply to your humble appreciation and respect for the human family. As a historian, educator and cultural arts preservationist, I readily acknowledge the lack of material available to truth seekers about Mississippi and the history of the South. I simply want to thank you for your truthful reflections and your bravery to publish your thoughts about the “bad old days” for all the world to see! If only we can stimulate change in our educational system with intentional speed for the benefit of our students, and citizens young and old … I am one who is willing and ready to work on this critical issue of concern … NOW!

  2. I guess I need some enlightenment. Marty`s article is absolutely nothing more than another tired regurgitation of Mississippi`s racial history. The article seems to attempt to paint Mississippi as being way behind the rest of the nation in the area of race relations which is total BS. What place does this type negative generic liberal tripe have in a publication that should be promoting Mississippi as a place to do business ?

  3. I’m afraid I must disagree that our kids (in Mississippi) are not being educated on racial history. As the parent of a middle schooler and a high schooler, this country’s racial history has not only been woven into their history classes in every grade since Kindergarten, but also into English and Language Arts classes as reading assignments. Four out of six of my daughter’s summer reading assignments for her pre-AP English class this year had such themes. In fact, I find that even I am learning things that were not a part of my history intensive K-12 education (South Louisiana, many years ago). Our local Mississippi schools weave such themes into field trips, extra-curricular activities, school events, plus an entire month’s celebration of black history.

    Good grief, how much is enough for you?

    You may want to re-think a failure to educate (in Mississippi, anyway) as the reason for racial strife in America. In my experience, the tone is set from the top of the leadership chain.

  4. GOOD NEWS: Mississippi To Make Civil Rights History Part Of Curriculum
    Comments: 0 | Leave A Comment
    Aug 25, 2009 By Smokey Fontaine
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    In Mississippi, where mention of the civil rights movement evokes images of bombings, beatings and the Ku Klux Klan, public schools are preparing to test a program that will ultimately teach students about the subject in every grade from kindergarten through high school.
    Many experts believe the effort will make Mississippi the first state to mandate civil rights instruction for all k-12 students.
    So far, four school systems have asked to be part of a pilot effort to test the curriculum in high schools. In September, the Mississippi Department of Education will name the systems that have been approved for the pilot. By the 2010-2011 school year, the program should be in place at all grade levels as part of social studies courses.
    Advocacy groups such as the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation and Washington-based Teaching for Change are preparing to train Mississippi teachers to tell the “untold story” of the civil rights struggle to the nearly half million students in the state’s public schools.
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    “Now more than ever we are engaged in national debates about race and so much of those debates are impoverished in their understanding of history,” said Susan Glissen of the Winter Institute. “We want to emphasize the grass-roots nature of civil rights and the institution of racism.”
    The program is the outgrowth of a law passed in 2006 by the Legislature. The state moves forward with statewide implementation in the 2010-2011 school year, despite an unsuccessful legislative effort to eliminate the plan this year.
    Education officials looked to other states for a model, but couldn’t find one that included anything as comprehensive as what Mississippi has in mind, said Chauncey Spears, who works in the curriculum and instruction office of Mississippi’s education agency.
    The Education Commission of the States didn’t know of any other state with a such a program, although it does not specifically track social studies curriculum.
    Some states, including Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas, have placed an emphasis on civil rights instruction. New Jersey created an Amistad Commission to ensure the history of slavery is taught in schools. Pennsylvania’s Philadelphia school district requires students to complete an African-American history course before graduation.
    “We’re behind time. Students don’t know about what blacks did. They’re not taught anything about culture, about our history,” said Ollye Shirley, a member of the commission created to research the Mississippi curriculum and a former Jackson Public School board member.
    History classes will be the proving ground this fall, and the state Board of Education is expected to approve expansion of the curriculum to other grade levels in spring 2010, said Spears.
    Deborah Menkart, executive director of Teaching for Change, said it’s important to help students understand that Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weren’t the only important figures in the civil rights movement.
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    “The traditional version would be that it started in 1954, thereby leaving out the fact that a lot of groundwork had to be done before that,” Menkart said. “The other part that gets left out is the struggle for economic justice, like Martin Luther King’s support of the sanitation workers in Memphis.”
    Menkart said classrooms activities can include role-playing in which students act out civil rights protests such as the Montgomery bus boycott, improving their critical thinking and social interaction.
    Those are the types of lessons being taught in Vickie Malone’s “Local Cultures” class in the McComb School District, which began civil rights studies before the law was passed. The state’s curricula will be modeled, in part, after the district.
    Classroom assignments for Malone’s students, who sit around tables rather than desks, include interviewing local activists, questioning their relatives about their role in the fight for integration, or studying the plight of migrant workers. The students are reading “Mississippi Trial, 1955,” a fictionalized account of the murder of Emmett Till, a Chicago youth who was mutilated in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman.
    Kindergartners in McComb are introduced to the subject through lessons on diversity, discussing differences such as hair texture and skin tone, Malone said.
    “It helps kids understand that however you are that’s a great way to be,” Malone said.
    Spears said the curriculum changes don’t require new textbooks and teachers will be allowed to develop their own lesson plans. There will be added achievement goals for students. For instance, high school students should be able to evaluate the impact of the civil rights movement in expanding democracy in the U.S.
    Spears said teachers can also call upon people in their community who lived through these historic events.
    “There are people in local communities who can give great insight into the civil rights movement. There are various things that teachers can do to incorporate this into their classrooms.”

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