In late April, the Southern History Project was invited to present No Citizen Shall be Denied at the William Winter Institute’s conference, Civil Rights Literacy and the Common Good. When we broke from the immediate discussion of history curricula, the conference addressed broader themes of civil rights—recognizing the stories of the civil rights veterans who, as young children, integrated the high schools of Benton County, Mississippi.
The conversation turned to the South’s historical amnesia—the absence of civil rights history in our schools and communities. It’s well understood that we lose a part of the past when these young people’s contributions are forgotten. But we also compromise our future when the conditions that circumscribed people’s lives, sanctioned terrorism, and justified the hand-me-down books and second-class citizenship are termed heritage.
Amnesia seems the product of all of this, rather than the cause.
In adhering to old curricula and pedagogy of Southern classrooms, we are clinging deliberately to an old narrative. We are not simply forgetting. We are choosing a side and crafting a historical narrative tailored to that side.
In two years, both the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History are expected to open their doors. It’s unclear the divide between these histories, or how the artifacts will honor what separates and what unites both narratives. But as former governor Haley Barbour proudly stated, defining both museums will be Mississippi’s—and the South’s—“tradition of telling stories.”
Barbour has received eloquent criticism in the past for his lopsided understanding of Mississippi’s civil rights history. But he touches upon something here. If storytelling can put people in listening mode, we need to rethink who and what we teach.
A leader of this effort is Dr. Roy DeBerry, civil rights veteran and founding director of the Hill Country Project. Deberry is working to introduce the oral histories of fellow civil rights veterans into our classrooms. They are civil rights history, Mississippi history, and American history. And they honor the great tradition of telling stories, and compelling us to listen.