PHILADELPHIA, Miss.—Twenty-seven teenagers from across Mississippi piled off a tour bus on Rock Cut road. It’s 91 degrees. The sun is blazing. Fifty years ago, three young civil rights workers were murdered here by the Ku Klux Klan. The nation was transfixed by these murders and many say they provided the impetus to push the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress. But most of the teenagers on today’s tour say they knew nothing about this history.
“I didn’t know Mississippi was that violent, I been in Mississippi my whole life and I never knew something like this went on,” said 15-year-old Jayla Mondy, who is one of the participants on the bus tour.
The tour is part of a nine-day summer program run by the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. The goal is to teach students about civil rights history along with providing leadership training. Several teenagers on the tour say school lessons on the civil rights era were superficial, covering only “Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, the basic stories.”
In 2006, Mississippi was one of the first states to make teaching civil rights a legal requirement from kindergarten through 12th grade. In 2011, the state spelled out the topics that should be taught. That included a “Mississippi Studies” class usually taught in 8th or 9th grade, where students are supposed to learn about Freedom Summer.
Susan Glisson, the executive director of the William Winter Institute, says some schools may not be teaching it. “In Mississippi specifically, we’re a locally controlled state in terms of education so even though the state mandates teaching civil rights, it’s up to the local schools to implement it,” Glisson said. “And if teachers aren’t properly trained or they feel like they need to spend a lot of time teaching to the test, it’s hard to find that space.”
In the past, lawmakers have tried to repeal the civil rights education law and critics have said that the civil rights topics specified by the state are too vague. There’s no way to tell how many students in Mississippi are learning about the era. Only 10 to 12 questions on a 70-question high school United States history exam deal with civil rights.
In Neshoba County, some students say they are not learning much about the infamous race crime that took place here. To fix that, residents are leading the charge to teach students about their past. The Neshoba Youth Coalition has been studying civil rights in afterschool meetings. Twenty-one year old Shamiski Collier joined the Neshoba Youth Coalition as a teenager. Now, she’s a mentor for students in the William Winter Institute program.
Collier says lessons at her school didn’t talk much about events in Mississippi.
“In civil rights history in school, we covered Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, of course Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, occasionally Eli Whitney. As far as the three civil rights workers who were killed here in Neshoba County, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, we don’t mention those hardly at all,” Collier said.
Collier says residents in the town are still hesitant to discuss the past. Schools are still mostly segregated. The majority of white kids attend public schools out of town while most black students attend the public schools in town. Several times vandals have torn down and stolen a marker commemorating the deaths of civil rights workers.
Collier says ongoing tensions are the reason why Freedom Summer isn’t taught in the schools. “When you have people who live in a town with such bad history, in a sense you don’t want to talk about it. You just kind of want to get over it, you want to move on. That’s why it’s not talked about.”
The Winter Institute has been offering the summer program since 2010, and plans to keep it going. But it’s only reaching a few dozen kids a year. This year, the institute plans to work with schools to add lessons on civil rights to curriculums throughout the state.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.