Diary of a First-Year Teacher: Racism Is Alive and Well for Kids in the Mississippi Delta

A 22-year-old teacher shares what it's like to teach students in a segregated community about Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the Mississippi Delta, it's common for black students to attend public schools and white students to go to private academies. (Photo: Photograph by Justin Bonaparte)

Each week, an anonymous first-grade teacher will share her confessions, musings, struggles, and successes during the first year of her teaching career in rural Mississippi.


As I prepared to teach my students about Martin Luther King, Jr. this last week, King’s own words on Mississippi rang in my ears:

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

Before moving to the Mississippi Delta, I believed that King’s dream had become a reality. I thought the atrocities of King’s time were left in the pages of history books. But in the Delta, that history book is still open. There is still much path to tread before it’s truly transformed into “an oasis of freedom and justice.”

So, how do you go about talking about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream, in a place where it has yet to be fully met? What I found was, you let the children talk.

Children see the world simply. When we are small, we make sense of our surroundings by generalizing our experiences. Slowly these generalizations expand as we experience new things, and we begin to see the world more and more complexly.

Growing up in a largely segregated community, my students see a world that is still divided by black and white.

Growing up in a largely segregated community, my students see a world that is still divided by black and white. I was worried my answers to their difficult questions would be insufficient. Fortunately, I was but a facilitator to my students answering their own tough questions.

I was humbled to find that instead of my pushing their thinking, it was the students who were able to beautifully and simply explain what Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in.

I asked my students, “What did Martin Luther King fight for?”

One student responded, “He fought to keep white people away from black people.” It was the response I had feared, but knew it would lead to the most important lesson for my students. So I began, “Actually, no, not at all. This is really important, you guys. Listen closely, I need everyone’s eyes and ears.” They leaned in close, ready to listen, but another student raised her hand. I called on her, “Yes, Natasha.” She said, quite simply, “He fought to have black and white Americans get along.” My heart swelled. She said it so much more clearly and purely than I could have. I said, “Yes. That is exactly what he fought for.”

All my students know is a community where black students attend public schools and white students attend private academies. How would I explain to my students the difference between school segregation in the 1950s and the informal segregation they experience today? How could I address this in an empowering way that six year olds would understand?

I longed to be able to talk to my children about how far we have come since Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his dream half a century ago. And yes, in policies and laws there have been drastic changes. But I fear that my students experience a world where not much has changed for black first graders in the Mississippi Delta.

But then my students taught me again. I told them that black and white students were once not allowed to attend the same school until enough people stood up and said those laws were unfair. One of my students raised her hand and said, “Like you! That’s why you can be our teacher now!” I smiled. “Yes, exactly.” My fears were appeased.

Tough questions may still come, but I decided to embrace this moment of positivity. We can celebrate in our Mississippi classroom that black and white people get along—even if it’s just a teacher and her students.

In the spirit of celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision, my students chose to see the progress. Although there's a path of progress that still lies ahead for the Mississippi Delta, with our youth we must celebrate what has been accomplished. 

We must do this so they know they can be a part of making Martin Luther King’s dream a reality.

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