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Originally published Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 4:08 PM

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The March on Washington, a teachable moment

The significance of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is lost on the many whose school history lessons breezed past the civil-rights movement, writes columnist Lynne K. Varner.

Seattle Times Editorial

Times editorial columnist

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Two great films in theatres now offer vivid context for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

“The Butler” is a powerful drama spanning seven U.S. presidencies as seen through the eyes of a White House steward.

“Fruitvale Station” is the fictionalized account of a true and sadly familiar story of a young unarmed black man shot and killed by police.

Cinematic interpretations of the black American experience will help explain why hundreds of thousands of people of all races are expected in the nation’s capital starting this weekend to commemorate a sweltering August day in 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to America’s collective conscience.

It has been a half-century, and America’s first black president will go to the National Mall on Wednesday and make a similar appeal.

From King to Obama, it is clear we’ve come a long way. But the short shrift civil-rights history is given in public education makes it difficult, especially for young people, to grasp how far.

In most states, requirements for teaching about the civil-rights movement are grossly inadequate to nonexistent.

Just 2 percent of high-school seniors in 2010 could answer a simple question about the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress — the test commonly called “The Nation’s Report Card.”

I’m not advocating for learning about history for history’s sake. We need that knowledge to make sense of double-digit unemployment rates among young African Americans, laws such as Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” and New York’s “Stop and Frisk,” and school-discipline policies that fall heavily on minority schoolchildren and contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.

One of our primary roles as citizens is to be effective agents of change. The civil-rights movement getting so much attention as we head into next week’s commemoration of the historic march offers the ultimate case study.

A state-by-state comparison of how well America’s civil-rights history is taught in schools was conducted in 2011 by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Washington state got an F grade. Most states got a D or F grade.

“We found that most American students seem to know two names and four words, Rosa Parks, MLK and I have a dream,” says Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Among the criticisms by the center is that civics and social studies curricula here rarely go beyond a few leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and rarely beyond a few dates and headlines, for example the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Educational standards, and the teachers who teach them, serve up civil rights in bullet-point fashion. Students basically learn that black people were slaves and then marched their way to freedom, an academic brevity that leaves Grand Canyon-sized holes in students’ understanding of why commemorating the historic march is so important.

One strategy could be to incorporate civil-rights studies in the new Common Core academic standards adopted by nearly every state, including Washington. The federal standards do not dictate curricula, but rather a rigorous level of analysis and understanding of core subjects such as math and reading.

Another idea: Teach King’s entire speech from the March on Washington. It is only three pages long.

Reading King’s words about jobs, the economy, religion, history and philosophy would broaden public perspectives.

Out here in the other Washington, the violence and indignities waged on African Americans in the civil-rights movement are largely lost, both because of our geographical distance from those things and because of the smaller black population.

In my view, that makes it even more difficult to grasp the full context of next week’s commemoration of the historic march.

It’s a conversation to continue beyond next week.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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