How Do You Teach The Civil Rights Movement?
Note: As part of NPR's series on the summer of 1963, reporter Cory Turner headed to Jackson, Miss. to take a look at how folks are teaching the Civil Rights movement to kids who weren't a part of it — and making the lessons stick.
Much has changed in the past 50 years, since the height of the Civil Rights movement. But how do you teach the Civil Rights to kids who haven't ever experienced it? In Jackson, Miss., Fannie Lou Hamer Institute's Summer Youth Workshop tackles that question.
Take 13-year-old Jermany Gray, for instance. Gray and his fellow students are all African-American, and many of them are from Jackson. They're familiar with the struggle for civil rights — they read about it in text books and saw it in museum exhibits. But for most, it's a story that ended long before they were even born.
Gray has no problem talking about what the Civil Rights movement was back in the '60s, but when asked what it means to him these days, the answer doesn't come as easily.
"What does it mean? I'll have to think about that question," he said. "Maybe I can answer that at the end of the week."
That's the typical challenge, according to Michelle Deardorff who is the chair of political science at Jackson State and who also helped found the Hamer Institute.
"The image I give when I talk about this is a tree, and the tree is democracy. And a chain link fence was around it," said Deardorff, who used the idea of the fence to represent racism and slavery. "And as the tree grew, it grew around the fence. We've now pulled the fence out... but the tree is shaped by it forever."
During the workshop, the kids rub elbows with long-time activists and hear their stories first-hand. They also tour historic Jackson, which was once home to the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. But it's visiting downtown that brings about the challenges of past and present.
Jackson is no longer officially segregated, but most white families left the city and its schools long ago. Today, Jackson is 80 percent black, and its public schools are 98 percent black. Despite having a successful black middle class, the median household income is still just $34,000 dollars — and more than one in four people live in poverty.
Charles McLaurin was around during the Civil Rights movement. He's experienced a far different life than the students at the youth Civil Rights workshop. McLaurin said he knew Evers for about a year, when Evers bailed him out of jail after the FAIR demonstration.
"A kid asked me one day as I was speaking to a group up in sunflower county: 'Where has the civil rights movement gone?'" McLaurin said. "And after thinking awhile, I looked at all the kids in the audience, I said the Civil Rights movement is in you."
His message is clear: if something in your community is broken, fix it.
But even after teaching students about the Civil Rights movement, how do you make it current — so that it's relevant to these kids' lives?
Over at the Hamer workshop, students talked about their own civil rights movement: To reduce teen pregnancy, increase graduation rates and fight crime. How, though?
So they take part in a youth congress, with kids from across Mississippi, many of whom are older and already changing their communities.
One of those students is De'Vante Wiley, a 19-year-old from Greenwood, Miss. who attended a similar workshop and left it determined to fight obesity in his community.
"As soon as I got home, I went straight to the mayor of my city to get her to be on my side and help me initiate my projects and right then and there she was all for it," Wiley said.
And today, Greenwood has a community garden.
We're curious: How were you taught the Civil Rights movement? Teachers, how do you teach it? What are the best ways to help kids learn about an important era — but also understand how it's manifested today?
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. Now, the latest in our series on the summer of 1963, a turning point in the struggle for civil rights. Much has changed in half a century, and talk of a civil rights movement has largely shifted from the news to the classroom. In Jackson, Mississippi, this month, two dozen middle and high school students have gathered for an annual civil rights workshop. As NPR's Cory Turner reports, the two-week program is meant to bring the fight for civil rights into the 21st century.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Jermany Gray is stumped.
JERMANY GRAY: What does it mean? That's a good question. It means...
TURNER: Jermany's 13, and we're walking on the campus of Jackson State University. It's his first day at the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute's Summer Youth Workshop. Jermany is happy to be in school this summer, learning about the civil rights movement. He's a smart kid and has no problem telling me what the movement was. But when I ask: What does it mean to him today?
GRAY: What does it mean? I'd have to think about that question.
TURNER: Jermany and his fellow students are all African-American, and most are from Jackson. The struggle for civil rights is a story they know well through textbooks and museum exhibits. But to most of them, it's a story that ended long before they were born. That's the challenge, says Michelle Deardorff. She's chair of political science at Jackson State and helped found the Hamer Institute.
MICHELLE DEARDORFF: The image I give when I talk about this is a tree. The tree is democracy, and a chain link fence was around it.
TURNER: That fence, Deardorff says, was racism and slavery.
DEARDORFF: And as the tree grew, it grew into the fence. We've now pulled the fence out, which is the formalized racism, but the tree is shaped by it forever.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good afternoon, Hamer Institute.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah. Good afternoon.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I would like to welcome you all on behalf of the Medgar & Myrlie Evers Institute to the tour where Medgar walked.
TURNER: Through the workshop, the kids rub elbows with longtime activists and tour historic Jackson, once home to slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. And it's visiting downtown that the challenges of past and present begin to merge. I'm sitting on the bus with one of the workshop's oldest students, 18-year-old Ashley White. I ask her to describe what she sees out her window.
ASHLEY WHITE: Buildings burned down, graffiti on the houses. It makes it look very bad, you know, like no one cares.
TURNER: Jackson is no longer officially segregated, but most white families left the city and its schools long ago. Today, Jackson is 80 percent black, its public schools, 98 percent black. Despite having a successful black middle class, the median household income in Jackson is still just $34,000, and more than one in four people lives in poverty. This is not the vision of Jackson that Medgar Evers died for.
CHARLES MCLAURIN: I met Medgar after he got me out of jail for the fair demonstration. I knew Medgar for about a year.
TURNER: The tour continues to Medgar Evers' home, the stain of his blood still visible on the concrete 50 years after he was shot by a white supremacist. Here, the Hamer students meet Charles McLaurin, a survivor of the movement. And his message to them is clear: If something in your community is broken, fix it.
MCLAURIN: A kid asked me one day as I was speaking to a group: Where have the civil rights movement gone? And after thinking awhile, I looked at all the kids out there in the audience, I said: The civil rights movement is in you.
TURNER: Just a day later, the Hamer students are already talking about their civil rights movement - to reduce teen pregnancy, increase graduation rates and fight crime. But how? They take part in a youth congress with kids from across Mississippi, many of them older and already changing their communities.
DE'VANTE WILEY: My name is De'Vante Keshena Wiley(ph). I'm from Greenwood, Mississippi, and I'm 19 years old.
TURNER: A few years back, De'Vante Wiley attended a similar workshop through the University of Mississippi, and he left determined to fight obesity in his community.
WILEY: As soon as I got home, I went straight to the mayor of my city to try to get her to be on my side. And right then and there, she was all for it.
TURNER: And today, Greenwood has a community vegetable garden. De'Vante smiles, proud of one, small detail. In Greenwood, there once stood a house with a beautiful pear tree behind a tall fence. He says his father's generation and his grandfather's generation long envied that tree. Well, today, the house is gone. In its place, De'Vante's community garden. And in the middle of it, that pear tree. Cory Turner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.