Kate Shuster of the Southern Poverty Law Center trains Whitman students on how to teach Civil Rights.

Activist Kate Shuster warned that ignorance about the civil rights movement is dangerous.

The consultant with the Southern Poverty Law Center explained that if public schools continue neglecting this integral period of U.S. history, students will lose sight of what it means to be an American.

Shuster delivered her lecture, titled “Losing History? State Standards and the Civil Rights Movement,” to a mix of Whitman students, faculty, administrators, local teachers and area residents on Dec. 7. The lecture forced the audience to grapple with the many implications of failing to teach students about the civil rights movement.

Learning about the movement “teaches citizen skills,” she said. “History of the movement is a classic American story. By American, we learn what it means to struggle to overcome injustice. It’s how we learn to be human.”

Shuster is the author of a groundbreaking report that assessed the declining attention America’s public education system gives to the civil rights era. The report, “Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States 2011,” received extensive coverage, including a story in the New York Times. The report evaluated state requirements for teaching and learning about the movement in the public schools. Thirty-five states received an F, including Washington.

Whitman is partnering with Walla Walla Public Schools (WWPS) and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project on a pilot program to creatively address some of the challenges raised in Shuster’s report. The Whitman Teaches the Movement program involves Whitman students going into Walla Walla public schools to introduce second-, fifth-, seventh- and 11th-graders to different aspects of the movement.

The SPLC intends to use Whitman Teaches the Movement as a model before exporting the curriculum to other districts throughout the state and the nation. Whitman is the only college in the U.S. participating in the innovative program.

“Kate communicated the SPLC’s strong interest in partnering with the college and Walla Walla on this new initiative and other related efforts,” said Noah Leavitt, assistant dean for student engagement who is managing Whitman’s involvement in the program. “This is truly an extraordinary opportunity for Whitman to develop a new project with perhaps the most significant civil rights organization in our country today.”

In addition to delivering her eye-opening lecture, Shuster trained 100 Whitman students on how to teach four age-appropriate lessons. The training sessions covered a range of elements, from discussion strategies and appropriate dress code for teaching, to how to handle the use of the “N” word, which appears in MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Shuster reminded Whitman’s volunteers that 11th graders can present more of a challenge than elementary and middle school students, and to expect the unexpected.

“Nothing I can do today will fully prepare you to sit in a group of 11th-graders and talk to them about a controversial topic like the civil rights movement,” Shuster told Whitman students at one session.

The lessons Whitman students will deliver to the WWPS include reading a story book about the Greensboro sit-ins to second-graders; talking about the baseball legend Jackie Robinson with fifth-graders; introducing seventh-graders to women of the civil rights movement; and discussing “Letter From Birmingham Jail” with 11th-graders. Whitman students will teach the 45-minute lessons on Jan. 19-20 and 23-24.

These specific lessons differ from what are mostly vague standards set by states. It’s difficult for states to set specific standards on what history to teach, especially in terms of how to discuss hot-button subjects like the movement. So instead of detailed standards, Shuster’s report highlights that states offer teachers muddied examples of what falls under the umbrella of civil rights.

As a result, history of the civil rights movement is being watered down into meaningless generalities.

“History-based standards are radioactive. History is slippery. It’s alive and the opposite of neutral. History is a battlefield,” Shuster said, explaining one reason for such abysmal standards.

If history is truly a battlefield, and teaching about the civil rights is controversial, does Shuster think Whitman students are prepared to enter the WWPS?

“Whitman students are a smart bunch – inquisitive and very bright,” she told the lecture audience. “Those who have the opportunity to work with them are very lucky.”

—Edward Weinman