SPLC Study Finds that More than Half of States Fail at Teaching the Civil Rights Movement

Courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center

Though the civil rights movement is one of the defining events of U.S. history, most states fail when it comes to teaching the movement to students, a first-of-its-kind study released today by the Southern Poverty Law Center has found.

The study – Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education 2011   examined state standards and curriculum requirements related to the study of the modern civil rights movement for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It was conducted by the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance program and includes a forward by noted civil rights activist and historian Julian Bond.

The study compared the requirements in state standards to a body of knowledge that reflects what civil rights historians and educators consider core information about the civil rights movement. It found that:

  • A shocking number of states – 35 – received grades of “F.”
  • Sixteen states, where local officials set specific policies and requirements for their school districts, have no requirements at all for teaching about the movement.
  • Only three states received a grade of “A” – Alabama, New York and Florida – and even these states have considerable room for improvement.
  • Generally speaking, the farther from the South – and the smaller the African-American population – the less attention paid to the movement.

“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 Maureen Costello, SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance director. “When 43 states adopted Common Core Standards in English and math, they affirmed that rigorous standards were necessary for achievement. By having weak or non-existent standards for history, particularly for the civil rights movement, they are saying loud and clear that it isn’t something students need to learn.”

The SPLC issued the report to encourage a national conversation about the importance of teaching the civil rights movement. The report calls for states to include civil rights education in K-12 history and social studies curricula. It urges colleges and other organizations that train teachers to ensure that they are well prepared to teach it.

Most of the states that earned grades of “C” or better are in the South – suggesting that most states view the civil rights movement as something of regional significance or of interest only to black students rather than a matter of national significance.

The study also found that when states teach the civil rights movement, they tend to perform well on teaching leaders and events. They are considerably less likely to include the obstacles that civil rights activists faced, like racism and white resistance, or to mention more than civil rights related-holidays to students before they reach high school.

“An educated populace must be taught basics about American history,” said Julian Bond in his preface to the report. ”One of these basics is the civil rights movement, a nonviolent revolution as important as the first American Revolution. It is a history that continues to shape the America we all live in today.”

Teaching Tolerance is dedicated to reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences for our nation’s children. It produces and distributes tools at no cost to teachers, including Teaching Tolerance magazine, online curricula and professional development resources, and multimedia teaching kits that introduce students to various civil rights issues.

2 thoughts on “SPLC Study Finds that More than Half of States Fail at Teaching the Civil Rights Movement

  1. Morris Dees relates the moving story of his moral conversion to civil rights attorney in his memoir A Season For Justice. He was a new lawyer just starting up his practice when his neighbor Claude Henley asked Dees to defend him for assaulting a reporter during the Freedom Riders protests in 1961. Dees successfully defended Henley in Federal court, thanks to a photograph in Life magazine showing Henley kicking the reporter, “demonstrating that [Henley] hadn’t been where the marchers were, but [was] instead a block away” (A Season for Justice, 1991, p.84).

    I’ll let Mr. Dees tell the story about what happened right after the case was concluded: “… two young black men, part of the Freedom Riders group, approached me. ‘How can you represent people like that?’ one of them asked. ‘Don’t you think that black people have rights?’
    “I was startled. This was the first time a black person had ever confronted me. ‘Yes, I do,’ I said sincerely. ‘I agree with you a hundred percent.’ …. I was shaken. My actions, my morality had been challenged….. My God, it wasn’t that I was interested in the Klan…..! I was interested in making five thousand dollars representing a neighbor and keeping him out of trouble. But looking in the face of my accuser, I felt the anger of a black person for the first time. He saw me as the enemy representing the Klan….. I vowed then and there that nobody would ever again doubt where I stood…”

    Morris Dees isn’t the first nor the last person to experience a life altering moral epiphany. He acted on his. Morris Dees effectively wiped out the Klan and the Aryan Nations by winning money damages against them, sending them into bankruptcy. Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center are national leaders in using damage litigation to successfully eliminate hate groups.

    Richard Keefe, this is the only response we will make to you. You have an online career going from site to site attacking Morris Dees and the SPLC. You misquote facts and twist the truth.
    You’re a fact deficient, small time troll who has an entire blog devoted to kvetching about Morris Dees. Engaging with you is a waste of time and we’re busy. The adults have work to do. Goodbye.
    – FS editor

  2. Ironic, isn’t it? SPLC founder Morris Dees made thousands in the 60s keeping Klan thugs like Claude Henley out of federal prison for their civil rights hate crimes.

    Henley was part of a Klan attack on a bus carrying about a dozen terrified black and white Freedom Riders into Montgomery. LIFE magazine even published photos of Henley in mid-rampage:


    Fortunately,Henley had a good lawyer in Morris Dees. Henley walked out of federal court scot-free, Dees collected thousands of dollars from the local Klan and White Citizens Council, and Henley’s victims got nothing, least of all justice.

    This is the same SPLC where all of the top executives are white. In fact, the SPLC has NEVER hired a person of color to a highly paid position of authority in its entire 40 year history.


    Ms. Costello fails to mention that the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance program has been headed by “whites only” for 19 of its 20 year history.

    Some things never change in Montgomery.

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