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New law gives Mississippi schools chance to teach civil rights history

JACKSON, Miss. – Mississippi, where violence in the 1960s came to epitomize the struggle for racial equality, could be a pioneer in offering history lessons on civil rights from kindergarten through high school.

A new state law will help school districts develop and pay for civil rights curricula. Districts, though, will not be required to implement such courses.

Susan Glisson, executive director of the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi, spearheaded the bill. She said it was modeled after those in several states, including Mississippi, that required the Holocaust to be taught in public schools.

Glisson said the institute did not know of any other state with a similar program devoted solely to civil rights history.

Currently, textbooks in the state make reference to the civil rights movement, but districts usually don’t devote an entire course to it.

The idea for the law, which takes effect July 1, came from Glisson’s conversations with history teachers during civil rights workshops sponsored by the institute, based at the University of Mississippi.

“The way that the civil rights movement normally gets taught, we erroneously communicate to the students that one person made it all happen,” Glisson said. “So much attention gets placed on Martin Luther King, for instance, that we do not see the contributions made by grass-roots people, some of whose names we may never know.

“The message that gets communicated is that we have to have a savior to make our communities better, when the reality of civil rights is that we have the power to do it ourselves.”

Other aspects of civil rights will be taught in at least one district.

Pat Cooper, education superintendent for McComb Public Schools, said his district’s curriculum will include struggles in other states, such as “the sugarcane cutters in Louisiana and the vegetable pickers in California.”

McComb’s 3,200-student district is 77 percent black and 23 percent white. Nine years ago, it was about 15 percent white, Cooper said.

Developing the new curriculum will cost $25,000 to $30,000 per grade – “fairly cheap” compared with traditional courses, Cooper said.

“For this amount of money, we’re going to get a whole lot back,” he said.


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