What American-History Classes Aren't Teaching

Despite efforts to require lessons on civil rights, outdated textbooks in the Mississippi school system indicate little has changed.

John Lindsay / AP

The Mississippi fight against integration and civil rights was the most organized, defiant, and violent of anywhere in the country. But until 2011, civil-rights history was not part of the required curriculum in Mississippi public schools.

“Before then, it was up to the discretion of the teacher if the civil-rights movement was taught at all inside a classroom,” according to the reporter Sierra Mannie.

In 2011, the Mississippi Department of Education issued a new set of standards requiring lessons on civil-rights history.

Mannie, who grew up in Mississippi, wanted to know if the new standards were being taught. She looked at textbooks used in social-studies classes in Mississippi public schools. Her analysis for The Hechinger Report and Reveal showed that, for at least some grades, all of the state’s 148 school districts relied on textbooks published before the new standards were put in place.

The analysis found:

  • No fourth-grade classrooms —when students first learn Mississippi history ——used a social-studies textbook published more recently than 2006.
  • At least 40 districts relied on books published before 2011 for the study of U.S. history after Reconstruction, usually taught in 11th grade.
  • Some school districts were using textbooks with copyrights as early as 1995.

The old textbooks are full of holes and omissions about the state’s civil-rights history, according to the analysis. In one book, Mississippi’s segregationist Senator John C. Stennis is described as “politically moderate” while the Freedom Riders, civil-rights activists who rode buses across the South to challenge Jim Crow laws, aren’t even mentioned.

Some teachers are trying to fill the gaps between what’s in the textbooks and the standards they’re supposed to meet.

“If you teach someone the truth of what happened then they cannot help but to change their perception of what reality is,” says Kristin Kirkland, who teaches history at Neshoba Central High School in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Kirkland, who is white, grew up in Mississippi and says she didn’t learn about civil-rights history. “It’s not something that was ever brought up in social circles,” she says. “It was something that I learned exclusively from my university education.”

As the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opens in the state capital, we talk about what students in Mississippi—and the rest of the country—are learning about the history of the civil-rights movement.

Listen to the Educate podcast with host Stephen Smith here.

The Educate podcast is produced by APM Reports in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.