Celebrate the women of the movement

It’s great that students are learning about Martin Luther King Jr. in schools across the United States this week. Possibly no American in my lifetime is more worthy of being so honored and memorialized.

Ella Baker speaking into microphone with fist raised.

Ella Baker

But I hope teachers also take advantage of the King holiday to share lessons about the many people who were crucial to the success of the civil rights movement, not just its best-known leader. They could focus on the women who did essential work, often behind the scenes.

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Teaching about the civil rights movement: a lesson in the news

Civil rights pioneer the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth died Wednesday, and while his passing generated a few news stories, you have to wonder how many Americans knew who he was – and whether there’s a lesson there regarding what schools are teaching.

Just last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report that gave 35 states, including Indiana, an F for the way they treat the civil rights movement in history standards and curricula. The report compared state requirements with core knowledge identified by civil rights historians and educators.

“For too many students, their civil rights education boils down to two people and four words: Rosa Parks, Dr. King and ‘I have a dream,’” said the SPLC’s Maureen Costello.

The study looked at whether states integrate the study of civil rights with other social movements, provide context, and link it to current events and the practice of citizenship. Often, it found, states largely ignore the movement in early grades and focus on a handful of high-profile leaders.

The SPLC says Indiana doesn’t have specific requirements for teaching about the civil rights movement before high school. Guidelines for addressing the movement in 11th-grade history are reasonably strong, but teachers don’t have to follow them, it says.

“Despite fairly detailed suggested content, Indiana’s low score reflects the state’s decision not to require specifics about the civil rights movement,” the report says. “If the suggested content were required, the state’s grade would be a high C … Instead, Indiana’s disappointing score reflects a reluctance to give direction to teachers, students and school districts.”

Indiana Department of Education spokesman Alex Damron told School Matters that Hoosier teachers are given flexibility to offer social-studies content that’s relevant to the students they teach. For example, elementary teachers are to “explore actions individuals can take to contribute to the common good,” which can be a prompt for looking at the accomplishments of the movement.

It seems likely that the national emphasis on student performance in math and English, as vital as those subjects are, could push history and social studies to the margins – and that the civil rights movement may be relegated to brief mention around Martin Luther King Jr. Day or during Black History Month. And some teachers are sure to find the story more compelling and necessary than others.

“The civil rights movement is a defining moment in this nation’s history,” Damron said, “and we certainly encourage schools across Indiana to include lessons on this important subject in their curriculum offerings.”

Let’s hope they do, and that at least a few teachers and students made note of the passing at age 89 of Fred Shuttlesworth, a courageous and rough-hewn man who endured a bombing of his parsonage, assaults, fire hoses, dozens of jailings and a vicious battle with Birmingham police commissioner Bull Connor to fight for integration and equality. “He was the first black man I met who was totally unafraid of white folks,” U.W. Clemon, Alabama’s first black federal judge, told the Associated Press.

The Indianapolis Star got things just right Thursday: at the top of the front page, two obituaries – Steve Jobs on the left, Fred Shuttlesworth on the right. Apple founder Jobs changed the way we work and play. Shuttlesworth and his civil rights peers changed the way we see ourselves and each other. They made history, and we should be sure our children understand that.