Echols: The exclusivity of accurate US, state history only hurts Mississippians


Madison Echols

Mississippi’s refusal to reckon with its twisted past and the plights of African Americans and many other minorities within schools only puts its citizens at a disadvantage.

By Madison Echols, The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science

The minority experience in Mississippi is a troubled one. The survival of that experience is similar in struggle. I am an African American junior at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, and I experience this struggle every single day.

Before coming to MSMS, I went to a small, rural public high school in south Mississippi. There, African American History was limited to an eighth grade Mississippi Studies class where our history was condensed down to a two-week unit that we conveniently covered in February. Dozens of news outlets even called out this Mississippi Studies class for inappropriately portraying slavery and downplaying the horrors of slavery. The issue of inaccurate and incomplete history classes is not one confined to my previous school. Students and news outlets have called out and recognized countless other schools for their lackluster representation of Mississippi’s history. 

Mississippi, a state with arguably the deepest roots in racial injustice during the fight for civil rights, should be home to the richest and most enlightening history classes; unfortunately, this is not the case. Often, high school history classes skip over less palatable events in history like the Tulsa Race Massacre and instead focus on the lighter aspects of Black history like watered-down versions of Martin Luther King’s work.

A 2017 investigation by The Hechinger Report and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found many Mississippi public school districts still rely on outdated, inaccurate textbooks that don’t adequately teach or address civil rights issues. My first time hearing about anyone related to African American history in a history class outside of Harriet Tubman, MLK and Rosa Parks, was first at 16 years old, taking one of the few Advanced Placement classes offered at my previous school, and then at 17 years old — a year away from being a legal adult able to vote — at MSMS, a school for gifted students.

Based on this, in many Mississippi schools, accurate teachings of African-American history are exclusive to those willing to pay $45-$94 for AP exams in which only 3.9% of Mississippi’s African-American students took — even less taking an AP history class — or move to a boarding school for gifted students that is hours away from home for many of the students. How does Mississippi expect its citizens to make educated decisions when voting for the future of the state — a state with the highest concentration of African-Americans in the country — when the ones administering the education aren’t doing their job of accurately educating? 

An accurate representation of U.S. history and the oppression of minorities should be available all throughout Mississippi — not just for Mississippi’s best and brightest. Unlike Mississippi’s past, the accurate retelling of history should not be discriminatory or exclusive. Every single student in Mississippi should be privy to this information. Especially students of color, whose history has been watered down for centuries.

If the complete history of racism in our state is not taught, students learn a dangerously false narrative of Mississippi and the U.S. They will lack the knowledge needed to understand the position of minorities in society and to fight current injustices.

Telling the short and sweet version of U.S and Mississippi histories also overlooks the martyrs produced through the horrors and pressures of the past. There are two sides to the story of minorities in Mississippi: One is injustice, but there is also a side of perseverance. By hiding this story entirely from Mississippi schools, an encouraging and defining part of Mississippi’s legacy is lost. Consider my hometown of Hattiesburg, for example. While it has certainly experienced its fair share of injustice, Hattiesburg was the home to Mobile Street, where black entrepreneurship, commerce and civil rights activism coalesced to form one of Mississippi’s most influential African American hubs in the 20th century. Here, decisions regarding civil rights would reverberate across the state and nation — a prime example of Black Mississippians fighting and succeeding in a world of struggle. Now, a shell of its former glory, Mobile Street is not bustling with energy and is instead filled with buckling sidewalks and dilapidated buildings.

Not many Mississippians spread its story, certainly not Mississippi schools. 

Passing over history that isn’t as palatable for students and teachers is not the way to move on from the past. Instead, it covers up the amazing strength of past Mississippians, promotes ignorant complacency and runs the risk of repeating the same injustices we are attempting to cover up. Having pride in where you came from is not picking and choosing the parts of history that are deemed acceptable and covering up the rest. Instead, it is making an effort to peel the Band-Aid off the painful history of Mississippi, finding encouragement in the courage of past Mississippians and actively working to rectify the injustices. 

I, and students like me, need to know the atrocities of the Freedom Summer of 1964, the involuntary sterilization of Fannie Lou Hamer and the race massacres in Clinton regardless of if we have access to AP classes or the opportunity to come to a school like MSMS. Simply put: This education should be commonplace.

Mississippi’s refusal to reckon with its twisted past and the plights of African Americans and many other minorities within schools only puts its citizens at a disadvantage. Injustice and stagnation flourish in darkness. Only when the light of education replaces the darkness of ignorance can Mississippi move forward through its youth and shed the looming presence of its twisted past.

This story was originally published on The Vision MSMS on March 21, 2022.