An article in the Chronicle today got me thinking about what college students know about school desegregation. I know that when I teach the 2nd half of the American History survey, I only have time to mention Brown v. Board of Education and then discuss Little Rock as an example of how desegregation played out on the ground. But I am left with the impression that students just assume that Little Rock was an anomaly and that elsewhere around the South desegregation proceeded quickly and smoothly.
To try and disabuse my students of this notion, a couple of years ago, I put up a bulletin board that described the process of desegregation at our school. Before the board went up the common perception of students was that our school was the first private college in state to admit African Americans. The board, however, showed that this was not true and that our school did not begin the process of desegregation until after the passage of the 1964 Civil Right Act, which threatened to withdraw federal funding from schools that didn't desegregate. Moreover, the board showed that not all students and alumni welcomed this change.
The bulletin board got a lot of attention and since then I've had a number of history majors who have researched and wrote about other desegregation issues. I think once their eyes are open to just how difficult of an issue this was, not just in Little Rock but across the South, they are fascinated at how long it took to bring about real change. I often wonder if there are other issues that if presented in a similar way could help revise the common perception of certain historical incidents.