Teaching Civil Rights

In March 2014, The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released a report describing civil rights education in the United States as “woefully inadequate.”

According to the SPLC:

In this new report, 20 states received grades of ‘F.’ These include five states – Alaska, Iowa, Maine, Oregon and Wyoming – that neither cover the movement in their state standards nor provide resources to teach it. Despite a more nuanced evaluation of state standards and resources in the 2014 report, only three states (Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina) received a grade of ‘A.’

A week later, in his NY Times op-ed “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” Christopher Myers described the state of race in children’s literature:

Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.

I wrote “The Longest Home Run” to address this “inadequate” state of civil rights education in the United States. As a graduate student working in middle and high schools with at-risk students in 2011-2012, I realized these students needed a better text to address various diversity issues impacting their community.  There were few to no tools providing a therapeutic narrative to empower them and there also seemed to be a lack of effort to demonstrate the legacy of the movement.

Specifically, here are some examples of diversity issues I witnessed:

  • In one mentoring program a group of 100% black “at-risk” students were provided 0 black mentors.  All mentors provided to these students were white.
  • In another program, 1% of the mentors were black.
  • The lack of mentors of color was not due to the program’s recruiting, but due to the lack of students of color enrolled in the admission-based schools where mentors were culled from.
  • The schools the white mentors were culled from (special public admissions-based high schools) had a minimal population of students of color.
  • My independent studies revealed that admissions practices to these special admissions-based public schools had serious transportation and application deficits that could pose challenges to poorer students and allow for discrimination in the application process.
  • Drop-out levels for males students from the mentoring program were higher because of a lack of male volunteer mentors.

The state I was working in received a “D” in civil rights education from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Their study did not look at the issues I witnessed, but I believe that there is a relation. While working in this role as a graduate student, I was asked to use my graduate level course work in diversity, oppression, social welfare, social practice, and empirical evidence on role modeling to perform this job. However, this was a challenge because the systems in place appeared to not support this evidence. Check out the statistics in the school’s report card. Out of 323 students, only 5 (in the entire public school) were black.

What worried me was that this was a public school, paid for by the state, and offering special programs not available anywhere else. I compared these schools to cases I was studying in my Social Work and the Law class and saw correlations between equal protection lawsuits. I wondered, why are so few of these students minorities? Through my independent studies, I theorized that the problem was in admissions. Application to the program is not free to everyone online. Students must attend a mandatory, inconvenient information center with their parents to even see an application to these schools. For me this sounded reminiscent of travel issues that have stymied civil rights throughout history. For someone who was like me growing up–poor, with a working, exhausted, single-mother–this requirement would be discouraging. If I can’t even get to this information session, I would have thought, how am I going to get to school everyday?

I began to ask more questions and called the schools. What began to worry me was that the application process allowed for the opportunity for discrimination. Are students even informed about these opportunities? Are guidance counselors required to recommend them to students? How do student even know these schools exist? “We post it in the newspaper,” the school office told me. This did not appear a sufficient way to manage a publicly-funded special school admissions process.

I earned a B.A. in English literature from Fordham University in 2002 and have been studying main texts in children’s literature in my spare time since graduation. Like Christopher Myers and the Southern Poverty Law Center, I recognized that there was a dearth of appropriate texts for these students and began to adapt the longest home run baseball story to fill this gap. Based on my experience in the graduate program, the travel issues the freedom riders fought for in the 1960’s–though different now–were still relevant.

The topics of race in “The Longest Home Run” are very much still relevant and in the news. Within the past two weeks, Hank Aaron has received racial threats reminiscent of those he was mailed in the 1970’s. Jonathan Capehart addressed this debate and Aaron’s story in “Hammerin’ Hank for speaking a racial truth” in the Washington Post. As I wrote “The Home Run That Tours America,” Hank Aaron’s story emerged as a defining moment in the progression of politics that paved the way for the modern presidency as we have seen it in Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. As Paul Krugman wrote recently in his op-ed “That Old-Time Whistle” in the NY Times:

Indeed, race is the Rosetta Stone that makes sense of many otherwise incomprehensible aspects of U.S. politics.

Aaron’s story and the “longest home run” baseball legend serves as a narrative that can make sense of both historic and more metaphysical aspects of the American imagination and how it impacts our nation’s politics. Something happened after Martin Luther King’s assassination that changed the American psyche. However, if you were to study most American textbooks, this period is glossed over or ignored. Between 1970 and the present, a new psychology around race emerged, but few authors have put words to these concepts. Instead, as Myers describes, these concepts are ignored. In “The Home Run That Tours America,” I attempt to put words to the unspoken attitude toward race that emerged during this period.

Indeed as Myers described in “the Apartheid of Children’s Literature”:

This apartheid of literature — in which characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth — has two effects.

In “The Longest Home Run,” I directly address this “pass card” and correlate its psychology to Jim Crow and interstate travel regulations. I hypothesize that the ability to imagine travel has an important effect on the psyche. Limitations in the ability to imagine travel in civil rights history due to Jim Crow, as I describe in the book, resulted in a parallel effect on achievement gaps. The longest home run baseball train legend provides a framework to address these concepts. In the book, train travel is the motif that explains this historical and metaphysical background. As William G. Thomas described in the NY Times, the railroads changed America and won the Civil War for the Union:

A whole generation of black railroad workers came out of the Civil War . . . Their experience in the first months of the Civil War in 1861 and 1862 suggested an important truth: They could turn enslavement on the railroads into freedom, that they could undermine, and even target, the Confederacy’s key military structures, and in so doing could challenge the Confederacy’s claim as a modern nation built around railroads and slavery.

In addition to a literal effect on our nation’s politics and government, train travel impacted our imagination. When Curtis Mayfield wrote the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement “People Get Ready, There’s a Train Coming,” in 1962, he realized that the legacy of train travel in the United States–through the Civil War and the Pullman Porters–had a profound impact on the American psyche, not just on its literal constructs. “The Longest Home Run” works to explain this impact and how this imagination transformed our country.


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