Teach The Children Well

Most people know about the legendary Jackie Robinson, an African American who broke the color barrier when Major League Baseball deigned to allow him admission to their very special, all-white club.

But what about Lewis M. Matthews?

The Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan in Selma, Ala. is widely known as one of the centerpieces of the Civil Rights movement. The bridge was the site of the conflict known as “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, when police attacked civil rights demonstrators with horses, billy clubs, and tear gas as they were attempting to march to the state capital, Montgomery.

But what about Colfax, La.?

I am shamed, then saddened but mostly angered at how little I was taught in school about the events that shaped the country and fueld the plights of African Americans in the years after the Civil War, World War I and World War II.

Judging by the fractures in the country, it would seem that the schools are not doing a very good job at educating young people. Who decides what we learn and more importantly, who decides what goes in the books that guide teachers to fill our young brains with information, right or wrong, that will stay with us for the rest of our lives?

For the record, Lewis W. Matthews is among the millions of African American veterans of World War II featured in a New York Times story about the savage racism and segregation that greeted returning veterans like Matthews, relegating them to menial, low-paying jobs and living in crowded, substandard housing while their white counterparts took advantage of the GI Bill, got low interest mortgages and started on lives filled with promise and equity that stretches across the generations.

Colfax, La., was the scene of the 1873 massacre of 150 former slaves by white supremacists emboldened by the end of reconstruction. Most of the dead were found shot to pieces, lying face down in the grass or bludgeoned, mutilated and burned to death.

A 12- foot marble obelisk at the Colfax cemetery declares it was erected “to the memory of the heroes” who “fell in the Colfax Riot fighting for white supremacy.” Another historical marker near the current courthouse reads, “On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain” an episode that “marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”

Education is subjective; what is important to one group is irrelevant to another. The dominant and loudest voices in the community are generally reflected in curriculum choices.

There are no national social studies standards to mandate what topics or historical figures must be included in school curriculum. Instead, each state decides what will be taught.

The New Jersey social studies standards address a wide range of issues but it is hardly the case across the nation where seven states do not directly mention slavery in their state standards and eight states do not mention the civil rights movement. Only two states mention white supremacy, while 16 states list states’ rights as a cause of the Civil War, according to a CBS report.

In New Jersey, the goals are included in a 55-page outline of learning standards for social studies.

The overarching goal is to ensure that “all students will acquire the knowledge and skills to think analytically about how past and present interactions of people, cultures, and the environment shape the American heritage.”

How well those goals are met depends on the teachers and administrators and their particular biases and determinations about what is important. And these are invariably colored by community values and politics as reflected on school boards. So regardless of the lofty goals and words in the curriculum, the students will learn what the majority of the community wants them to learn.

Teachers who stray from the party line will pay with their jobs. They are first and foremost employees and they are told to follow the curriculum and rules set by the administration and abide by the standards written by outside testing companies. There is little room for rebels.

Unfortunately, schools often do not address controversial subjects like the Black Lives Matter movement and the general subject of racism in America because they don’t want to risk being the target of angry residents or because such subjects may go against the teachers’ personal politics.

And it is impossible to understand how we got to the current state of affairs without a comprehensive knowledge of what led up to the present. And that lack of knowledge is one of the cornerstones of the continuation of white privilege and all it entails.



Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer

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