True colours?

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
America's increasingly fragile race harmony is beginning to crack. In the wake of this year's Oklahoma City bombing and concerned by the chilling rise in white supremism amongst their pupils, teachers are turning to an Alabama law centre and its programme to teach tolerance. Reva Klein reports from Montgomery.

Nobody is marching on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama anymore. All is deadly still in the searing summer heat of the town that became famous for a year-long bus boycott in 1955, after black seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested when she refused to give up her seat to a white man. Ten years later, the town was again at the forefront of civil rights activity when the local pastor Dr Martin Luther King Jr led a massive, three-day march from Selma to Montgomery, calling for voting rights for black people.

Today, Montgomery is a town framed by the lush vegetation of the Deep South, the almost tropical humidity giving a blue tint to the profuse trees. Some of the houses are among the grandest you will find anywhere, great colonial-style white elephants inhabited by old-money white folks, flanked by hibiscus, wisteria and willows. Others tell just as evocative a story of their occupants' history, but from the other side. Tiny wooden frame houses of two or three rooms, planks hanging on to the frames by a splinter, are set on unpaved roads, with maybe an old oak tree bearing a car tyre for the children or grandchildren to swing on out front. On small, unscreened porches sit old rocking chairs. The peacefulness that the gracious mansions and the ramshackle wooden houses exude in the heat-stunned stillness belie a history that is, by turns, brutal and inspiring. The echoes of the past are destined, many hope and many others fear, never to fade into oblivion.

In the 1950s and 60s, when I was growing up in the white suburbs of St Louis, about 500 miles north of Montgomery, a system of apartheid was still in place in the former Confederacy. Black people had been freed from slavery for a century, but they led existences that were separate and unequal. They had their own schools, their own lunch counters, their own water fountains, their own seats at the back of buses. If they didn't show the appropriate subservience to whites, they could expect beatings. They were taken on for the most menial jobs. Random lynchings of black men and boys and targeted murders of civil rights activists were commonplace. Ku Klux Klansmen bombed black churches. White parents rioted against desegregation of their children's schools, joining their offspring in stoning and spitting on black children.

The governor of Alabama, George Wallace, famously sat in the "schoolhouse door" of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa in a bid to block the first black student from registering. (President Kennedy had to send in the National Guard to physically remove the governor.) During this same period, a movement of defiance and protest among southern blacks gradually spread from the grassroots through to black and white liberal circles all the way up to New York, resulting in boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins, long marches and other popular protests.

In the long struggle, black people eventually won the right to vote, to go to school alongside white children, to use the same facilities as white people. Many people whose names lack the immortality of Dr King died in the process. Today, their legacy can be seen in the established black middle class throughout the United States, fed by a growing number of black university graduates. Black people hold positions of political power in some cities and states, and there is likely to be a black candidate in the forthcoming round of presidential nominations.

But despite these developments, racial divisions seem to be widening. Black unemployment and poverty outstrip white levels. Affirmative action has been discredited and is on its way out. The racial subtext to the O J Simpson trial has split white and black Americans like few other issues. It is as if all the suppressed hatred, resentment and distrust that many white and black Americans have always held for each other has with this trial and helped by the continued effects of the recession and swingeing public spendings cuts been given the green light for expression.

The rise of white supremacist groups across the United States is one of the grossest manifestations of these trends. Last year, more than 300 so-called hate groups were identified. Until recently they may have just been thought of as a few daft men in white sheets. But with the Oklahoma City bombing last spring, America and the rest of the world woke up to the realisation that these groups are capable of wreaking havoc and destruction on a mass scale.

Less dramatic but just as worrying are the attitudes among young people. In a 1992 Louis Harris poll of nearly 2,000 high school students conducted nationwide, 30 per cent said that they would have no qualms about taking part in racist incidents; a further 17 per cent said that they would silently support such actions. Chillingly, these were not the children of Michigan militiamen and Ku Klux Klanners. They were ordinary boys and girls from all-American homes.

Given recent political trends, the melting pot myth looks ever more illusory in some parts of the country. The trend in school districts from north to south, east to west, to withdraw their desegregation or "bussing" programmes doesn't help. Does this herald a return to ghettoisation and segregation or a long overdue end to an expensive and ill-conceived failure? With an air of resignation, many people say both.

But if there is resignation in some quarters, there is determination to fight racism and foster understanding in others. In few places is this more striking than down in steamy Montgomery. A block away from the first capitol of the Confederacy, fronted by the Civil Rights Memorial (designed by highly-acclaimed Vietnam Memorial artist Maya Lin), a dynamic team of educators, lawyers, researchers and writers work away at combating prejudice and promoting civil rights at the Southern Poverty Law Centre. Established in 1971 and under the directorship of veteran civil liberties lawyer Morris Dees, the centre's activities are divided into a number of different areas. On the legal side, it takes up mainly "high impact" class action law suits on behalf of groups of minorities against white supremacists, neo Nazi groups and the burgeoning Militia movement. The SPLC also runs Klanwatch, an organisation that monitors and analyses hate groups in the US (anti-black, ethnic minority, Jewish, gay) and report on their activities in a magazine of the same name.

And, since 1991, the centre has run an education department called Teaching Tolerance. This programme runs a twice-yearly magazine also called Teaching Tolerance that goes out to 250,000 American teachers on subscription. It runs articles on issues around multiculturalism, bilingualism and racism in the classroom, as well as providing a swap shop of teachers' views and strategies on engendering a respect for differences in the classroom. Also available are curriculum materials (for use in history, civics, personal and social education) and in-service training for teachers.

The first of the two videos it has produced to go with education packs, A Time for Justice, won the Academy Award for short documentary at the 1995 Oscars. A documentary on the civil rights movement, it comes with a booklet Free at Last and a teachers' guide. The magazine, along with the second pack, The Shadow of Hate, about the history of intolerance in the United States, has won numerous awards and plaudits from educational and mainstream organisations.

Most incredibly, the SPLC distributes all its materials, even its Oscar-winning videos, free of charge to subscribing universities, school districts, individual schools, universities, YMCAs, churches and non-profit organisations. With each kit costing $300 (Pounds 190), this makes Teaching Tolerance a unique operation nationally and probably internationally, too. Even one day INSET courses are free, save for the trainers' travel expenses. There are no big grants from public funding bodies behind the organisation to subsidise this largesse. In that typically American style, it manages to do so without a cent of public funding. The entire centre is run on regular private donations from 300,000 supporters, bringing in $7 million a year.

As you might expect, it is not loved by everyone. The Ku Klux Klan burnt the place down in the 1970s. And in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, a number of death threats have been made on the director Morris Dees, including, according to the FBI, one from a white supremacist sent to jail by Dees. On his release he planned to lob a ballistic missile at the centre. Extra private security at the centre and round the clock guards at Dees' farm outside Montgomery have been employed.

But the impetus behind the centre's activities and the motivation of its staff are unstoppable. Teaching Tolerance evolved, says Morris Dees,"from the frustration of seeing so many young people involved in race crimes". Klanwatch's Brian Levin estimates that half of all hate crimes are committed by people under 25; of those, half are still at school.

The idea of the programme is to instill attitudes in children's minds before prejudice takes root. This is done by offering teachers materials and ideas for methodologies in the classroom. These are aimed at different age groups, at different situations that may arise and may be applied in different parts of the curriculum. They are also, explains Jim Carnes, senior writer on Teaching Tolerance, "not subject to any school's or state's curriculum requirements.

"In some states, there is a lot of leeway and teachers have flexibility to use our packs as they choose. In others, things are more structured. And certainly some administrators ideologically oppose projects like ours." It is ironic if not altogether surprising that while the materials are in wide demand from schools all over the country, the home of Teaching Tolerance, Montgomery, takes issue with some of the material that deals with challenging homophobia.

Sara Bullard, the director of the nine staff at Teaching Tolerance, is no stranger to inhospitable southern attitudes. The daughter of an early pioneer of school integration in North Carolina, she was in the first generation of bussed schoolchildren and much of her professional life as a writer and journalist has focused on civil rights. She was drawn to anti-racist education by the belief that "all the lawsuits in the world won't change anything if the children of liberals grow into rabid racists" (as was the case in a recent racial murder in Oregon).

She believes that children's attitudes need to be challenged and formed in the nation's classrooms, but is adamant that "teachers need action, not talk, rhetoric and theory. They don't have time to read academic journals. They don't want another duty couched in difficult terms. If I were a teacher reading pedagogic literature on multiculturalism, I wouldn't have a clue about what to do in class."

So in order to formulate the appropriate approach in the right language and the most accessible format, Teaching Tolerance works closely with teachers, discussing what they want and what they need. The result has been a pre-eminently practical set of curriculum materials which, with the practice-based articles written both by teachers and by professional writers in the magazine, gives support and encourages confidence. "I believe," says Sara Bullard, "that all teachers have the resources to engage children in discussions about race and differences. What they need is the confidence. Clearly there is no single way to teach about cultural differences. The teachers' personality, their relationship with the pupils and the relationship between parents and the community all have an impact . . . In our materials, we are relying on teachers' inherent wisdom."

To buttress the written and video materials, Teaching Tolerance offers free in-service training to schools. In addition, the launch of the Teaching Tolerance Institute is planned for 1997. Currently in its pilot stage, this will take the form of a three-week summer programme of academic seminars and interpersonal workshops on intolerance. Twenty-five teachers from around the country will be invited to attend the institute, all expenses paid. The intensive course will equip them to go back into their schools to undertake training of their own, aimed at helping other teachers engender acceptance of cultural, racial and sexual diversity.

That the need is there is obvious. As in this country, the United States has no systematic teacher training in multicultural education, conflict resolution or acceptance of diversity. One measure of teachers' hunger for help is particularly harrowing. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Teaching Tolerance was inundated with requests on how to talk to pupils about white supremacists groups. The Shadow of Hate pack and video was particularly useful in examining the history of prejudice and how these groups have long been a driving force in that history. Since the bombing, 50,000 packs have been sent out on request.

What impact Teaching Tolerance will have on the youth of America nobody knows. In Sara Bullard's words, "it is a given that the country is divided; that the divisions are deep and entrenched and that it will get worse. But it's our job to promote the positive ideas and practices that are taking place."

For Jim Carnes, a native Mississippian, the fact that Teaching Tolerance is taking a leading role in this work from its southern base is an important one. "Racism is not just the south's problem. It's everybody's problem. But the issue has been southerners' historical tragedy for a longer time, giving us a rich pool of experience from which to draw. The south resonates from the whole racial issue and the fact that we're producing this material in the focal point of Montgomery gives it added weight."

For further information about Teaching Tolerance, write to 400 Washington Avenue, Montgomery, Alabama 63104, USA.

Growing up in alabama: What was it like

Elsie Williams is a white native Alabaman who was a high school English teacher for a number of years until she joined the staff of Teaching Tolerance. She left teaching in disgust at "the racist attitudes among fellow teachers and administrators". Her experiences are not representative of the United States as a whole, but give a vivid picture of southern rural attitudes.

During the desegregation of schools in the 1970s, many white parents in Elsie's hometown of Abbeville set up their own private schools, often mortgaging their farms to do so, in order to keep their children separate from black pupils. But even among those who didn't, race hatred ran high.

The last school in which she taught, in the late 1970s, was half-black, half-white. The school had established a system of segregated graduation ceremonies, proms and separate white and black homecoming queens. Student council elections were fixed, according to students of both races, to ensure all-white council officers. When Elsie insisted on monitoring the elections, a black president was voted in for the first time.

"I got a lot of flak from white parents after that. They called me 'nigger-lover.' In the staffroom, teachers openly called black pupils 'stupid niggers' and would denounce gay pupils as 'queers'."

Since working at Teaching Tolerance, Elsie has received many letters from teachers now in a similar isolated position. This has spurred her on to planning an article for the centre's magazine on how to deal with biased co-workers.

sophronia Seals is also a native Alabaman. Born in 1934 to the grandchildren of slaves, she grew up as one of 15 children in a three-roomed house without electricity.

She left school at 14 to get a job and by 17 she was married and living in a shotgun house ("it's a house where, if you fire a gun through the front door, it shoots clean through to the backyard"). She had five sons and a daughter.

Thirty years ago, Sophronia marched for the right to vote from her hometown of Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King, Dr Ralph Abernathy and thousands of others. On the first, abortive march a few weeks before, she was among the peaceful group which was violently stopped by mounted state troopers.

"They were waiting at the foot of the bridge and ordered us to turn around. We went on marching and then they started throwing tear gas.

"There was screaming and hollering as some people were trampled by the horses and we ran back to the church that we'd started from. That same night, people heard about it and started flying in from everywhere - black, white, Catholic - to show their support."

As a result of that march and the much publicised murders of three civil rights marchers involved, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act four months later. Sophronia and her family were to face another landmark a decade later, when her eldest son became one of the first black children in Selma to be integrated into a white school. "There were lots of police and newsmen on the first day. The white kids at the school didn't act so pleasant, but it didn't matter to Junior. He wanted to be in on the action."

For Sophronia, it was a triumph. It hadn't been long before when, working as a maid in white people's homes, she had been instructed to use a separate toilet in a broom cupboard out in the backyard, to always use the back door of the house, to sit and eat her lunch in "a little place in the utility room", to sit at the back of buses, to call children she had raised from infancy Miss and Master when they reached puberty.

A more personal triumph came last year when her daughter graduated from the University of Alabama. Today, 23-year-old Sophia is herself a civil rights activist who works for the Southern Poverty Law Centre.

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