Mike Kocian didn't just read about the civil rights movement -- he lived through that era of American history and now gives his students an eyewitness account.
"I've seen the signs at local restaurants that said 'colored' and 'white,' and I walked through the white side door," said the 69-year-old Columbus native who teaches gifted social studies and language arts at Double Churches Middle School. "I graduated from Baker High School in 1962 when there were five high schools in Columbus. The black and white schools had their own separate conferences.
We didn't play football or basketball against (black students), and they didn't play against us."
Yet, to Kocian's surprise, it's Southern states like Georgia -- once the hotbed for racial intolerance -- that are now setting the standard for teaching the civil rights movement in the classroom.
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Such are the results of a national report card recently released by the Montgomery, Ala.,-based Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance Project, which examines the teaching of the civil rights movement in classrooms across the nation. While 60 percent of the states received D's and F's, Georgia earned an A. The state was one of only three in the nation to receive the top grade and ranked third with a score of 85 percent. It trailed only behind South Carolina and Louisiana, which earned 97 percent and 96 percent, respectively. In fact, most of the high-scoring states were in the South. Others included North Carolina at 75 percent; Alabama at 74 percent; Virginia at 70 percent; and Florida at 60 percent. Twenty states received F's, including Connecticut, Vermont, Indiana, Missouri and New Hampshire. Alaska, Iowa, Maine, Oregon and Wyoming received 0 percent. An "A" meant that the state scored at least 80 percent, a B at least 60 percent, a C at least 40 percent, a D at least 20 percent and an F less than 20 percent on a weighted scale. While the scores suggest progress since the center released its first assessment three years ago, authors of the Teaching the Movement 2014 report expressed dismay at how poorly most states performed.
"We remain concerned that students are likely to remember only two names and four words about the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and 'I have a dream,'" the report stated. "Rather than recognizing the profound national significance of the civil rights movement, many states continue to mistakenly see it as a regional matter, or topic of interest mainly for black students. Seven of the 11 highest-scoring states are in the south. They are joined by California, Maryland, Oklahoma and New York. Generally speaking the farther away from the South -- and the smaller the African-American population -- the less attention paid to the movement."
Julian Bond, an emeritus member of the SPLC board of directors, wrote in the foreword that "ignorance remains the operative word when it comes to the civil rights movement and much of African-American history."
He used an episode of the "Real Housewives of Atlanta" as an example. When the cast visited an underground railroad location in Savannah, Porsha Stewart, granddaughter of civil rights leader Hosea Williams and ex-wife of former NFL player Kordell Stewart, was surprised to discover it wasn't a literal railroad. Bond also noted racist caricatures of President Barack Obama and recent comments made by "Duck Dynasty" patriarch Phil Robertson as reasons for concern. Robertson was temporarily taken off of TV when he said, among other things, that until the civil rights movement, blacks were happy and content singing in the cotton fields.
"The civil rights illiteracy of the American people is without dispute," Bond wrote. "The reasons are many. One, as this Teaching Tolerance study suggests, is the failure of our educational system."
In a recent telephone news conference, Bond and the center's Teaching Tolerance Director Maureen Costello discussed the report's findings. Costello said Georgia received a B in the first report, which was published in 2011. But the first assessment only evaluated state standards and curriculum. This time support materials were included and the states were allowed to self-report information. This year, Georgia is among a group of states considered The Notable Nine and Costello is encouraging other states to tap into Georgia's robust civil rights resources.
"The great news is that Georgia mentions the civil rights movement starting in kindergarten, continues in grades 2, 3, 5, 8 and high school," Costello said of state standards. "So what you have is continued exposure in a kind of staircase way so students are introduced to increasing complexity."
Costello said the state also has excellent resources for teachers. She said evaluators was particularly impressed with how the Georgia Department of Education worked with the Atlanta 11 Alive News television station and school systems across the state in recognition of the 50th anniversary of 1963 civil rights events. The project produced a television series and resources are now available to teachers. However, the report also noted a few key omissions in the state's program, stating: "The standards do not deal well with opposition to the movement. Students are not required to learn about violence against protesters, including notable events like the Birmingham protests and groups like the Ku Klux Klan. While the standards do require students to compare and contrast (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) tactics with (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) tactics, they do not stipulate that students should learn about nonviolence as a strategy or its relationship to Black Power."
Shaun Owen, Georgia's social studies program coordinator for grades K-12, said she is pleased with the state's grade.
"We're elated because it's extremely important for us to make sure we're talking to students about Civil Rights, about different groups and how they have fought to win their equal rights as guaranteed under the Constitution," she said.
Owen said when the Georgia Performance Standards were created, state educators brought in curriculum directors, professors, historians and national experts to help develop the social studies program. She said it was important to include history that's significant to the area.
"If you go out to Montana or Colorado, the West or the Northwest, a lot of their emphasis is may be on Native American history," she said. "Georgia is, obviously, a huge civil rights region for some of the big events that transpired. So it's really important that we make students aware of the struggles that a lot people went through to secure their civil rights."
At Double Churches Middle School, Kocian said students learn about civil rights in the eighth grade when he teaches Georgia history. He said the racial make-up of the school is about 50/50, between black and white students. The students are growing up with a black president in the White House, something he said he could not have imagined when he was their age. While prejudices still exist, Kocian said he finds most of his students almost colorblind, and they're very open to learning about the struggles of the civil rights movement. He said they especially perk up when he shares what he personally witnessed.
"They ask the wildest questions," he said. "And I try to answer every one of them no matter how long it takes."
Kocian said he starts with the Georgia standards and builds his lesson plans around them.
"Every question that I ask is not a who, what, where or when, it's a how or why," he said. "How did the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling affect our lives post-1920 and the kids have to explain that."
Kocian said he covers civil rights issues all the way from the pre-Civil War era to today. When he gets to the 1950s, he goes deeper into the subject, highlighting civil rights events in Selma, Montgomery, Albany and other parts of the South. He teaches about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and introduces students to state and national icons like John Lewis and Andrew Young.
Kocian said he doesn't separate the civil rights movement from the rest of American history, but teaches it as part of the nation's still unfolding narrative.
"Most people will do it in isolation, but I choose not to do it that way," he said. "It's like saying here's black history. Well, you can't teach black history in isolation any more than you can teach civil rights in isolation. Because when it comes up in the chronology of history you have to address it at that time -- or the kids will get totally lost."