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When It Comes to Teaching Civil Rights, Not All Schools Are Equal

By J.D. PROSE Beaver County Times | 4/1/2014, 1:40 p.m.

Douglas, who chaired the Rochester Area Human Relations Commission in the 1970s, said Pennsylvania's grade from the SPLC did not surprise her.

"Many western Pennsylvanians seem to wear the blinders on their eyes and see things as worse somewhere else,'' Douglas said. Over the years naysayers frequently told her there were no racial problems in Beaver County and historical segregation issues have long been ignored by local leaders and residents, she said.

"It's mainly because there never has been any civil rights education in the Beaver Valley,'' Douglas said. "Whenever it would come up, there was a state of denial.''

Allen founded and operates the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights bus tour, an annual sojourn that takes participants to sites of the civil rights movement, such as the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where marchers were attacked by police, and introduces them to veterans of the movement.

In 2012, Allen received a grant for educators to take the nine-day tour for only $150, less than 10 percent of the usual cost. Offers were distributed across Beaver, Allegheny and Lawrence counties, but just two teachers, both from Beaver Falls High School, accepted the deal.

"I have no idea why other teachers didn't respond,'' said Allen, who acknowledged the poor response was disappointing.

Beaver Falls High School English teacher April Gaul was one of the two teachers who took Allen's tour that year.

"I think a D is generous,'' she said of the state's civil rights education grade. "If you talk to kids, they really don't know anything. They don't know anything.''

Gaul said the 1960s and topics such as the civil rights movement, Vietnam War and Cuban Missile Crisis are glossed over in classrooms. In the past, she said her students have been stunned to learn the Ku Klux Klan was active in western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

Armed with that knowledge, some of her black students began speaking to family members who told them about their experiences with racism. "It's sad that (civil rights history) is not being taught because this is a life-changing experience for these kids,'' Gaul said.

Textbooks, Gaul said, give minimal coverage to the history of the civil rights movement and the countless movement veterans who fought for change. That leaves King -- who was assassinated on April 4, 1968 -- as students' only reference point.

"Kids know Martin Luther King gave his 'I Have A Dream' speech,'' she said. "They don't know about who went before then or during.''

Allen and Gaul derided the thinking that civil rights education is only for black students. "That's such a misunderstanding,'' Allen said.

The civil rights movement "gave birth'' to social activism that people across the world still emulate today, Gaul said. "There's nothing about our culture that doesn't go back to the civil rights movement,'' she said.

As for why such education is lacking, those interviewed said it ranges from teachers being required to focus on standardized tests, which takes up valuable class time, to administrators simply being too uncomfortable with some of the hard truths of the Jim Crow era, such as lynchings and other racial violence.

Gaul said the movement is an integral part of our culture and "to continue to ignore it because we're uncomfortable is unconscionable.''

If schools continue to shy away from civil rights movement education, Douglas suggested churches, which played a vital role in the movement, or other youth groups could start educating children.

Allen, a Beaver Falls High School graduate, said his interest was piqued in the 1980s by retired Beaver Falls teacher Paulette Potter, who started a high school black history program in the 1970s, but he also was encouraged by his parents to do his own research.

That is easier for today's students, many of whom have access to the Internet, smartphones and tablets, he noted. Teachers can offer reading lists about the civil rights movement, parents can recommend books or websites and school districts can bring in speakers to discuss the movement and its lasting impact, Allen said.

"Everybody at every level can be doing a little something,'' he said.