Trivia and Civil Rights History (2024)

This year, I started asking my third- through fifth-grade students civics-based trivia questions during our afternoon snack. They get a point for each question they answer correctly—and can redeem privileges or prizes, which incentivizes full participation. Questions range from state capitals and abbreviations to U.S. and international historical events and geography. My goal is simple: to encourage them to think about the world around them.

During one trivia session, we discussed what they know about the civil rights movement. They named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and how there used to be “separated”—to use their word—places for people of color and white people to eat. One student mentioned the Black Panthers, and when I asked him what he knew about this group, he said “Assata” and then shrugged.

I don’t remember when I started to learn more about the civil rights movement. However, I remember being horrified to learn about the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and the racist protests with which the first school integrations were met. The snippets of information I got about the violence that occurred with and around the civil rights movement confused me when I was the age of my students. Why, I wondered, were white people so worried about who sat next to them? Why were they killing people? And why did my parents joke that some of our Southern neighbors were still fighting the “War Between the States”?

The lessons I learned about the civil rights movement as I child were far too sanitized for any of my questions to be answered.

The day after the January 6, 2015, bombing outside the NAACP building in Colorado Springs, my students asked to do trivia. We went through our usual set of about 100 questions, and then my students wanted me to come up with more questions. I racked my brain for something to ask them—and then told them I’d give them points for current events they could tell me about.

I heard about Ebola, of course. One student told me about the Charlie Hebdo shooting in France. Another talked about the recent car accident, only blocks from the school, that had taken out a bike-share station. And then a student said, “I heard that a place got bombed in Colorado Springs.”

The other youth turned to look at her. The room was nearly silent. Colorado Springs is a place most of the youth know.

“What do you know about it?” I asked.

“It was an NAACP building,” one student said.

Someone asked her what NAACP stood for, and she squinted her eyes and peered up at the ceiling. “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” she said, hesitating between words.

“You’re not supposed to say colored,” another girl said.

“It’s the name of the place.” I heard exasperation in the first girl’s tone.

“Why would someone bomb it?” a boy asked while raising his hand.

None of the students had an answer. They looked to my co-teacher and me. I weighed what I wanted to say to these young students who don’t have a strong background knowledge of the civil rights movement.

“Things like this have happened before,” I said finally. “Sometimes when people really disagree with something, or when they hate something, they think that setting off a bomb—and maybe killing some people—will make them feel better.”

“That’s stupid,” said the girl who’d admonished the first girl for using the word colored. “Didn’t anyone ever tell them to use their words?”

“Did anyone die?” another student asked. “I’ve got family in the Springs.”

The conversation moved on. But students’ curiosity about the civil rights movement did not end there.

At Denver’s parade on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, some of my students in attendance asked me about the songs I sang with a group. They were spirituals, I explained, as well as songs from the civil rights movement. The next day, I sat with a small group of interested students during our free time and played the songs for them. We also discussed how racial violence still happens today, and I made connections to #BlackLivesMatter, a movement students know about.

These conversations are crucial, teachable moments. They allow me, an after-school educator, to discuss the civil rights movement with students. Too often, as Teaching Tolerance has documented, this movement is not taught adequately or in a sustained way in schools. Even basic knowledge about the movement among students cannot be taken for granted.

Teaching Tolerance offers these five essential practices for teaching the movement: 1) educate for empowerment; 2) know how to talk about race; 3) capture the unseen; 4) resist telling a simple story; and 5) connect to the present. Together, we can change civil rights movement instruction, nationally. How do you apply these practices in your classroom? How do you effectively discuss the civil rights movement with your students—including those in the elementary grades?

Clift works in an after-school program for youth and as the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Trivia and Civil Rights History (2024)
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