Back to School in Ferguson - Pacific Standard

Back to School in Ferguson

One former student remembers the classrooms of this now-divided Missouri town were filled with important discussions of the Civil Rights Movement back in the 1970s. What happened?
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A makeshift memorial near where Michael Brown was shot to death by police in Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo: R. Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock)

A makeshift memorial near where Michael Brown was shot to death by police in Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo: R. Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock)

This week, children are finally back in their classrooms in Ferguson, Missouri, the place I learned to go to school. A white daughter of the Midwest, and student at Walnut Grove Elementary School, my classmates were the first black people I recall meeting. The school was mostly white, but about 30 percent of the students were African-American, making it home to some of the most racially integrated classrooms I would ever sit in. My first crush was on a black student named Darren in the third grade.

The year was 1973. At Walnut Grove the sights and sounds of the Civil Rights Movement were everywhere on display. Each day began with a ritual that engaged its small students in a solemn civic lesson. The school’s public announcement system squawked to life, calling everyone to their feet. Together we recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Then the speaker broadcast a song. The one we heard most often—hundreds of times—was the folk song tribute to fallen civil rights leaders, “Abraham, Martin, and John.” Written in 1968, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the song was a bracingly direct statement about the mortal danger of trying to dismantle the nation’s racist structures, building to a haunting celebration of those fallen heroes.

Didn't you love the things that they stood for? Didn't they try to find some good for you and me? And we'll be free. Some day soon, it's gonna be one day.

Forty years later, that day has still not fully dawned. But as students re-enter classrooms in Ferguson and across the country one good that can come of the understandable outrage stirred by Michael Brown’s death is to channel it into a teaching moment, particularly for white Americans. Too many of us still barely understand the long history of the enslavement, exploitation, and oppression of African Americans in this country. No museum to this history stands at our nation’s capital, though one is finally in the works.

During my years at Walnut Grove, racial tensions and the tortured progress of civil rights were discussed at school and around our kitchen table at night. But the statistics that have contextualized Michael Brown’s tragic death in so many news stories display that this early promise withered. Moreover, much of the rest of St. Louis never embraced, even fleetingly, the promise of civil rights.

Talk about the wonders of diversity and tolerance fills schools but in no way substitutes for an honest reckoning with the past that explains why far too many young black men are still perceived guilty before innocent.

I learned this after 1980, when my family began a series of moves to better-ranked public schools that had been kept virtually all white because of legal challenges to desegregation. I received a wonderful education in the public schools of Ladue, Missouri, in most everything but the 400-year history that had produced our nation’s racial inequality and only so recently (legally) come to an end. That topic, like black faces, all but disappeared in my new schools. Casual racism was pervasive in more elite areas of West County where “porch niggers”—little statues of black people dressed like butlers and holding lanterns—dotted many lawns. My otherwise excellent advanced placement American history course covered the 19th century and Civil War with hardly a mention of slavery and ended before the coming of the modern Civil Right’s Movement.

Disturbing evidence suggests that most students learn little more about the history of slavery or civil rights that challenged its corrosive effects than when I was in school. In 2010, only two percent of high school seniors could answer a basic question about the purpose of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which turned 60 earlier this year. Following the release of that edition of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a regular assessment of America’s students, the Southern Poverty Law Center called civil rights education across the country “dismal,” a restrained adjective given that 35 states, including California, received an F. Only six states received a grade of A or B—all were either in the South or contained a large black population.

We must do much more to ensure that all school children—about 80 percent of whom are currently taught by white teachers—learn the history of the movement and what made it necessary. Talk about the wonders of diversity and tolerance fills schools but in no way substitutes for an honest reckoning with the past that explains why far too many young black men are still perceived guilty before innocent by teachers and the police alike.

I have come to see the interaction between black and white as our original sin and our original blessing. It is impossible to understand American culture without grappling with race’s effect on our country’s development. It is responsible for a musical culture of unsurpassed richness and relevance. It is responsible for years of lynching, a practice that cut through the 20th century with the Mississippi River’s force. As we all head back to school this fall, let us renew our commitment to teaching this history. Let’s put Michael Brown’s death at the center of a conversation about the crucial role that civil disobedience has played in the long road toward fulfilling our promise to offer equality for all.

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