Atlanta HBCUs: Why we teach critical race theory

As debate surrounds topic in Georgia, college students embrace these conversations



Kurt Young, political science chair at Clark Atlanta University, said his students are asking more questions about critical race theory these days.

It’s happening amid a smoldering national debate on the subject, which has also erupted in Georgia. Critical race theory, typically used in graduate and law schools, examines how race has shaped culture, legal systems and policies to produce unequal outcomes.

Republican state lawmakers have introduced several bills in recent weeks that would limit discussions on race in public schools and colleges and, in some cases, impose financial penalties. Young says the controversy has increased interest among his students in critical race theory.

“It’s the reverse of what the intentions seem to be of proponents of the attacks on critical race theory,” he said.

For decades, principles of critical race theory have been ingrained in the curriculum of HBCUs, including those in Atlanta. For instance, the English Department’s webpage at Spelman College says critical race theory is one of several areas “in the spirit of social transformation” that are “the cornerstone of a Spelman education.”

Many students say they enrolled at HBCUs to learn more about historical figures who fought structural racism.

“So trying to restrict it puts us at a disadvantage. It’s stopped us from knowing our true value as being African American and the value we added to our country, because this is our country, too,” said Milaj Robinson, a Morehouse College political science major.

Credit: Photo Contributed

Credit: Photo Contributed

Classroom focus

Atlanta’s HBCUs, connected physically and philosophically, have long been at the forefront of confronting racism. In 1960, students organized marches and sit-ins that desegregated several downtown businesses. In recent years, they’ve helped lead Black Lives Matter protests.

Together, the six private schools enroll about 9,000 students. Many were founded more than a century ago to teach Black students when other schools refused to admit them.

Young says they have a duty to teach “the missing chapters of history.” That includes teaching critical race theory.

“HBCUs must continue to be a space to study those dynamics and dedicate more resources to the refining of those dynamics,” he said.

At Clark Atlanta, Young said the conversations about CRT have resulted in more political science discussions about the inner workings of federalism and how politicians have used it to discriminate against people of color through poll taxes and other methods.

There are similar classroom discussions about CRT at Morehouse, the alma mater of civil rights icons such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Maynard Jackson. It was led for nearly three decades by King’s spiritual mentor, Benjamin E. Mays. Young people are ready for it, a group of students said after a recent constitutional law class.

Cameron Williams, 23, a senior majoring in history and sociology, said his knowledge of Black history has grown significantly since transferring to Morehouse in 2019. For instance, he learned about the “Call to Rebellion,” a speech by Henry Highland Garnet in 1843 encouraging Blacks to turn against their enslavers.



Robinson, a sophomore, said he learned about Black Wall Street at Morehouse. Black Wall Street was a flourishing Black business district and neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, destroyed by a violent white mob in 1921. Dozens of people were killed; thousands were left homeless.

One student in a group discussion asked if it’s too traumatic for younger students to learn about aspects of history that would come from critical race theory curriculum, such as the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot where about two dozen Blacks were killed, some reportedly hanged from light poles.

No, the others replied. The material, they said, could be taught on a gradual scale.

CRT backlash

The pushback against CRT has caused some at HBCUs to speak carefully, or not at all publicly, on the topic. One administrator worried that speaking in support of CRT could anger donors.

Faculty members at public universities in Georgia also say colleagues are increasingly wary of speaking on controversial topics such as CRT. A Republican state representative last month asked for information from University System leaders identifying any courses that focus on topics related to critical race theory, such as anti-racism and social justice. System officials are working on a response.

The seeds of critical race theory were planted in the early 20th century by Black intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois, who taught at what’s now Clark Atlanta. Most scholars trace the roots of CRT to the 1960s and early 1970s to academics such as Derrick Bell and Alan Freeman, who felt the instruction was needed on the graduate level at predominantly white colleges and universities.



CRT was largely unnoticed by the broad public until 2020 when the Trump administration asked all federal agencies to divert any federal funds from training involving critical race theory, calling it “un-American propaganda.” The White House spotlight sparked more interest, and criticism, of CRT from conservatives. President Joe Biden reversed the order his first day in office.

There’s frustration among faculty at Atlanta’s HBCUs about perceptions of CRT.

“Most people don’t know what critical race theory is. It isn’t popular. It is not taught in grade schools. It isn’t the basis for any federal programs,” Morehouse assistant political science professor Adrienne Jones, director of its pre-law program, wrote in a commentary posted on the college’s faculty blog site.

“The goal of CRT is to remove racism from law and policy and to further democracy by creating an equitable legal system,” she added.

The students in Jones’ American Constitutional Law class believe young people of all backgrounds are open to learning about CRT.

“I think our generation is more curious,” said Raquille Love, 21, a Spelman College senior majoring in women’s studies. “More individuals now are talking about what’s happened to us. And restricting common knowledge doesn’t necessarily move us forward.”

White parents, the students argue, are largely the ones reluctant to have these conversations.

“They don’t want their children or their great-grandchildren to hear about how they stopped somebody from going to school based on the color of their skin,” said Emmanuel Deen, 20, a junior majoring in political science at Morehouse. “So I feel it’s a way of erasing their mishaps.”

“It’s their parents who are the ones who are arguing (against CRT),” Love said. “The students have no complaints. They are the ones who are starting the conversations.”

AJC in Context: Critical Race Theory

Critical race theory

Critical race theory is used in higher education to examine the effect of racism on society. It looks at how race has shaped culture, legal systems and policies to produce unequal outcomes. Public school leaders say the theory is not taught in K-12 classrooms. Critics say its tenets about systemic inequity have influenced teachers and curriculum.

Atlanta’s HBCUs

There are more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities nationwide. Six schools, each of them private, are located in Atlanta. They are:

- Clark Atlanta University

- Interdenominational Theological Center

- Morehouse College

- Morehouse School of Medicine

- Morris Brown College

- Spelman College