Studying Civil Rights in Mississippi – Summer 2017

I was accepted to attend an NEH Summer Institute for college and university faculty at Jackson State this summer.  The Institute is a 3-week seminar with faculty from across the country.  The institute’s purpose it to place Mississippi in the wider Civil Rights narrative.  It will include trips to the Delta, Memphis, TN, and Claiborne County, MS. My hope is to use this online space to gather my thoughts and to share what I’m learning.  If someone benefits from my thoughts or is encouraged to reflect as well, all the better.  I thought I’d start by sharing some of my application essay.  It should give you a glimpse of why I wanted to do the seminar in the first place. I’ve excerpted it down to just the parts I think someone else might find of interest. I am really excited about the opportunity.

Why I’m Applying

In the fall of 2003, my wife of two years told me she wanted to adopt her half-sister. Born to my wife’s mother, a Caucasian female, and an unknown Black man, my daughter came into a world that would daily confront her with questions of identity and race. Having spent the past twelve years watching my adopted daughter wrestle with her place in the world, I have grown more aware of the role of race in our society and of the increasing importance of knowing our shared and often violent history.

In 2014, I moved from Auburn, Alabama to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to accept my first academic appointment as an Assistant Professor of Secondary Education at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM). I immediately recognized and appreciated the institution and surrounding community’s long struggle with race, racial justice, and racial reconciliation. From the White flight that has occurred to West Hattiesburg following school desegregation to the city’s often racially-tinged electoral politics, Hattiesburg and USM face significant challenges in uniting people. Wanting to understand these problems more, I devoured histories of my new community, histories that have helped me begin to place Hattiesburg in the larger historical narrative. Moreover, having started work with the Executive Board of the Mississippi Council for the Social Studies (MCSS), I came to know and admire many who have devoted themselves to the work of racial reconciliation. Otis Pickett, a Mississippi College historian and President of MCSS, for example, inspires me by his efforts to teach Civil Rights history to ethnically diverse classes of prisoners at Parchman.

I am applying to the Hamer Institute’s NEH-sponsored Civil Rights project because of a confluence of influences, including questions deep within me and a growing desire to be a part of efforts to unite people. Learning more about Mississippi’s role in the Civil Rights Movement will equip me to understand my neighbor more deeply and to become a peacemaker in my community. I am eager to take what I learn back to my college classroom and influence the future teachers that I teach to see the struggle for civil rights and democracy as an ongoing one that does not continue if we leave the work to others. I am also confident that I will form relationships that will impact me both personally and professionally for years to come.

My Background

As a graduate assistant at Auburn University working on a Teaching American History grant-funded professional development project, I had the privilege of helping to lead thirty-five social studies teachers on a tour of the Selma to Montgomery March.  I came to understand how shared experiences around questions of freedom and justice can powerfully unite people and create within them a commitment to reconciliation and progress.  Tours of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma, the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, and the Lowndes County Interpretive Center are seared in my mind. More importantly, the conversations with a racially diverse group of social studies teachers that ensued brought me to a place of deeper empathy and compassion.

I hold a Ph.D. in Secondary Social Studies Education from Auburn University.  As a doctoral student and now assistant professor, I have conducted professional development with 4th, 8th, 9th, and 11th-grade history and geography teachers. I have published in the Journal of Social Studies Research and Social Studies Research and Practice. Currently, I am conducting lesson study research with six middle school geography teachers. We have developed and implemented research lessons grounded in problem-based geographic inquiry, an instructional framework that pushes students to weigh evidence from multiple perspectives before making reasoned decisions about the social issue that frames the inquiry.

What I Can Contribute

Lesson study, mentioned previously, involves researchers, teachers, and content experts designing, implementing, and reflecting upon instruction, but lesson study is most beneficial when a true collaborative community develops to support the work of instructional reform. As someone who is routinely trying to facilitate the development of a community of practice, I appreciate the complexity of uniting a diverse group of people around a common goal. I pledge myself to that endeavor.  I am not afraid to contribute to large groups or to voice my views. As a teacher of teachers and husband to an introvert, however, I am also sensitive to those individuals who are reluctant to speak. I am conscious of dominant voices in conversations and routinely work to expand the voices that are heard and appreciated, a personal goal that likely reflects a larger one established by your project.

What I Hope to Accomplish 

Personally, I hope to deepen my understanding of and appreciation for the Civil Rights heroes who worked tirelessly to bring about justice and equality in Mississippi. I want to understand those contributions and sufferings so that I can pass it on to my daughter as she seeks to navigate her life in Mississippi. I also want to develop relationships with diverse individuals so that I can understand where I fit in Mississippi and how I can help bridge divides in my community.

Professionally, I want to expand my knowledge of Civil Rights era history, particularly in Mississippi. As human beings and Americans, we face persistent questions whose resolution can be aided by understanding the Civil Rights Movement. Questions such as, “When are people justified in resisting governmental authority?” and “What strategies would best achieve the expansion of human rights?” remain relevant today. As a social studies researcher and teacher educator, I am motivated by these fundamental human questions. Reasoning about such issues is near impossible, however, without sufficient knowledge and without ears to hear others’ stories.  I have no doubt that participation in your project will open my ears to hear. At USM, I teach courses in our alternate route teacher certification program and our undergraduate secondary education program.  Within these programs, I teach courses on curriculum, management, and policy. All of the courses have diversity components within them that are informed by my understanding of the Civil Rights era and by my emerging understanding of continued racial injustices, particularly in Mississippi. I have taken a keen interest, for instance, in trying to understand the school to prison pipeline and its disproportionate impact on young, Black men. I have also taken an interest in culturally responsive pedagogy, an approach that places cultural understanding as a first aim.  I have no doubt that your project will inform my efforts to expand students’ appreciation for diversity. I also know that my experience will sharpen my ability to create community in my classroom.


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