By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – The young students sat together on the floor of their Carver Elementary School classroom as their teacher prepared to read them a book.
First-grade teacher Susan Hankins asked the children if they had ever heard of Martin Luther King Jr. or if they knew why school would be closed on Monday because of him. A few arms rose.
Hankins began reading a book about the famous leader and got to a point where a 6-year-old King was told by a white friend’s mother that the two boys could no longer play together because they were different colors.
“That’s not nice,” said many of the students, both black and white. Others said that would make them feel sad.
Hankins continued through the book, noting how King committed himself to bringing both blacks and whites together.
Tomorrow, the nation will celebrate King with its annual holiday held in his honor. Nearly 44 years after the Civil Rights leader’s death, students continue to learn about his life and legacy.
In Mississippi, those students are learning as much about civil rights as they ever have, thanks to a 2006 state law that requires it to be taught as part of the state’s K-12 curriculum.
That curriculum now includes elements of civil or human rights in each of the state’s history classes.
Chauncey Spears of the Mississippi Department of Education said teaching students about the subject throughout each grade level and history course allows for greater continuity. Spears is the director of advanced learning and gifted programs in the Office of Curriculum and Instruction.
“We see the civil rights story of America and the civil rights story of the world as an experiment in the expansion of democracy,” Spears said. “We hope the … exploration of figures like Dr. King will make that notion of evolution of democracy more concrete to our students and inspire them to be more civic-minded as individuals.”
The law was spurred by the efforts of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi and its executive director, Susan Glisson.
Glisson said it was important for students to learn more about civil rights than merely the “savior narrative.” The shorthand of which, she said, is that “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up and now everyone is free.”
“What we want to do is complicate that narrative and make it more historically accurate by focusing on Mississippi civil rights history,” Glisson said. “We wanted to focus on the leadership of ordinary people, grassroots efforts and the role of women and young people.”
The institute worked with the MDE in making content suggestions for the new curriculum.
It now provides training for educators to better teach about civil rights. It also is collecting personal narratives from those who experienced and played a role in Mississippi’s civil rights movement. Those narratives can be used by educators.
Although civil and human rights are now a part of all Mississippi history courses, the American Civil Rights movement is primarily taught in two such courses: Mississippi studies and U.S. history.
Carol Cummings, a U.S. history teacher at Shannon High School, said the course covers such topics as Brown v. Board of Education, integration, the march on Washington and King’s assassination. She’s also noticed that students know a lot by the time they get to her, thanks to black history lessons they’ve had in elementary school.
At Carver, Hankins said her efforts to teach first-graders about civil rights begins on the first day of school when those of different races are encouraged to form a community with each other and respect one another.
At the end of her lesson on King last week, she asked her students about dreams they had for the school, making a reference to King’s famous speech.
Two pupils, Jack Sanders and Keairrius Fair, combined on a thought. They said they were thankful that “all boys and girls” could go to school together.