In the Classroom Policy
Mississippi Students’ Activism is Historically Significant
March 8, 2018
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Stacy Jones

Terry, Mississippi, located in Hinds County, about 15 miles southwest of Jackson, had a population of just over 1,000 people—60 percent African American—at the time of the 2010 census. It is home to two high schools, including Terry High School. One of its most famous residents was Tommy Johnson, the blues man about whom the original legend of soul-selling at a crossroads in exchange for masterful guitar playing originated—before it was later attributed to musician Robert Johnson.
This week it was reported by Mississippi Public Radio that the first Black History Month program at Terry High School was recently cancelled, much to the chagrin of some ambitious students who staged a resulting protest. They allege that Chelsea Clark, one of their teachers, was fired due to her organization of the commemoration. Tenth grader Travon Lee believed the event was quelled because it might offend the school’s white students. Lee said, “We have so many threats saying we gone get expelled if we protest and we don’t appreciate that. And we don’t see how black history can be offensive. We learn about slaves and stuff in school and that’s not offensive to us.” According to reports, the school district had no response, except to say that it supports students’ freedom of speech.
This is not the first time, of course, that the month-long acknowledgement of black history has created controversy since its beginnings in 1912. It originated in a declaration made by Carter G. Woodson, noted scholar, author, and co-founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. He declared the second week of February as Negro History Week, saying, “If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” In 1976, it was expanded to a month-long, nationally recognized observance.
According to “The Struggle for Black History: Foundations for a Critical Black Pedagogy in Education,” Woodson himself faced controversy from both blacks and whites, many of whom thought the celebration would create problems between the races, suggesting that such topics should not be taught to elementary or high school students but delayed until college. Woodson’s response was that black students of all ages faced racial disparities every day.
Part of the debate, which continues today, centers on the control over education of black students. In the past, there have been instances of teachers being transferred from one school to another to lessen controversy after implementing such programs or voicing their opinions about them. Such has happened in the past in two Louisiana cities: Lebeau and Baton Rouge.
Conversely, an entirely different part of the debate centers on the tokenism that the celebration potentially creates. Images of Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. get wheeled out and then relegated back to the shadows after the month’s end. Some argue that the celebration of black history should not be limited to a single month but acknowledged throughout the year.
Woodson himself, according to the NAACP, hoped that one day America “would willingly recognize the contributions of black Americans as a legitimate and integral part of the history of this country.” We know, however, that that goal has not yet been completed. According to Melinda D. Anderson, writer for The Atlantic, in 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s program Teaching Tolerance graded schools across America by state on the basis of their civil-rights-era instruction. Twenty states received a failing grade, and five states—Alaska, Iowa, Maine, Oregon, and Wyoming—offered no such instruction to students at all.
A photograph of the Terry, Mississippi students who recently protested the lack of such instruction depicts them holding posters with messages that state, “Maturity doesn’t mean age. It’s how you react;” along with, “It is not wrong for a teacher to teach black history;” and “The time is always right to do what is right,” a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.
These more recent students extend the fights of those students who participated in the 1964 Freedom Summer in order to help register black citizens to vote. They join those students who formed local NAACP chapters before and after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling in 1954. They join those students who challenged de jure segregation by participating in sit-ins, walkouts, and boycotts. They join University of Mississippi student James Meredith and the Little Rock Nine elementary students, who also challenged racial partisanship.
They join a long, successive line of young people who saw disparity in government, law, and, yes, education—and refused to be silent about it. Perhaps the city of Terry itself now stands at a crossroads.

Stacy has taught English at McNairy Central High School for the last nine years, while also teaching evening classes in composition, literature and poetry at the Selmer satellite campus of The University of Tennessee at Martin. Previously, she was a lecturer in English at The University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She served as a cohort among the second group of SCORE fellows from 2015-2016, contracted for two years as a Core Coach for the Tennessee Department of Education and currently works as a content reviewer for the 9-11 grade English Language Arts TNReady assessment. She writes a weekly column for The Daily Corinthian in Corinth, Mississippi. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from The University of Tennessee Memphis and a Master of Arts degree in English with a concentration in poetry writing from The University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.

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