Liberation Curriculum takes a trip to the south with teachers from Alameda County
Andrea McEvoy Spero, Curriculum Consultant and Master Teacher for the Liberation Curriculum Initiative at the King Institute, discussing the Little Rock crisis with the teachers.
We arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas late in the evening. After checking into our hotel, we heard from Dr. Carson and Andrea McEvoy Spero of the King Institute about the crisis at Little Rock’s Central High School. In 1957, nine black students, known as the ‘Little Rock Nine’ integrated Central High with the protection of federal troops after an angry white mob and the Arkansas guard sent by the segregationist governor Orval Faubus prevented their entry into the school on several occasions.
Our group in front of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
We visited Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Our guide was Spirit Trickey Brown, the daughter of Minniejean Brown, one of the Little Rock Nine. We had the opportunity to hear from Elizabeth Eckford, another one of the Little Rock Nine who had been forced to brave the angry mobs alone during one of the integration attempts. We also heard from Sybil Jordan Hampton who had been one of the few black students at Central High after the 1957 crisis and was forced to spend her high school years in isolation, much like the Little Rock Nine. Elizabeth Eckford inspired teachers by telling them that “ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances can do extraordinary things.” Sybil Jordan Hampton talked of the need for American communities today to invest in their children. Both our speakers discussed the importance of being allies to those suffering from discrimination. Teachers left the session inspired to convey these thoughts to their students.
We departed for Jackson, Mississippi in the afternoon. On reaching Jackson, we had a rousing session with members of the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute who laid out for us a framework through which to view institutional racism, both in the days of the civil rights movement and in America today.
The gravesite of Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the foot soldiers of the movement.
The next morning, we drove to Ruleville in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Ruleville is the birthplace and hometown of Fannie Lou Hamer, who was active in the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) and voter registration activities, helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and challenged the all white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, refusing to accept the compromise of two seats for the MFDP. Charles McLaurin, former SNCC field secretary took us on a tour of Ruleville, including the grave of Mrs. Hamer and the memorial garden built by the town in her honor. McLaurin, Hollis Watkins and Margaret Brooks, foot soldiers of the movement in the Mississippi Delta, shared their experiences with the teachers. Members of the Hamer Institute discussed current problems and examples of institutional racism in the Mississippi Delta. We also had the opportunity to meet the leaders and students of the Sunflower County Freedom Project (SCFP), an organization that helps African-American students of Sunflower County achieve academic excellence and gain leadership experience in programs modeled after the freedom schools of the civil rights era.
When we left Ruleville, the humid heat of the delta dissipated with warm rain falling lightly on the green crop fields. We ended this eventful day with a barbeque at the home of one of our teachers who grew up in Jackson, arriving very late after getting lost on the way back. At dinner, we had the opportunity to meet with others involved in the African-American freedom struggle then and now, such as two delegates who had accompanied Mrs. Hamer to the 1964 convention, individuals who were the first to integrate their schools in the post-Brown era and Robert Graves, the only African-American justice currently on the Mississippi Supreme Court.
History teachers marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
Our bus trundled towards Selma, Alabama where we had a leisurely lunch in the historic St. James Hotel where we were staying. We visited the National Voting Rights Museum established by Joanne Bland who had participated in the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March in 1965 and had been beaten on ‘Bloody Sunday’ when Alabama state troopers thwarted an attempted nonviolent march to Montgomery with clubs, tear gas and horses who trampled the marchers. We met Joanne’s sister Lynda Lowery, also a foot soldier in the Selma movement. Joanne then took us on a tour of Selma, showing us sites of civil rights activity such as the historic Brown AME Chapel from where protestors embarked on the marches and the house of Mrs. Amelia Boynton who was a staunch supporter of the movement and hosted many strategy meetings for the marches. When Joanne shared with us her heartfelt desire to preserve Mrs. Boynton’s home as a historical landmark, teachers moved by her passion donated some money to the cause. During the free evening that followed, the teachers met some interesting locals who were living embodiments of the racial divide still existing in Selma today.
One of the teachers looking at Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Movement memorial outside the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.
Our group drove to Montgomery this morning along the 54 miles of highway made famous by the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. En route, we stopped at the Interpretative Center where we learned about the march through an innovative exhibit. The Center is in Lowndes County at the site of Tent City, a gathering of temporary housing structures designed to shelter African-Americans who were driven out of their homes by the white backlash following the gains of the civil rights movement in this region. We spent the afternoon in Montgomery participating in a workshop by Teaching Tolerance at the Southern Poverty Law Center, discussing the nature of memorials with Professor Dee Andrews of Cal State East Bay and visiting the Rosa Parks museum. During our tram ride to the museum, we saw other sites such as the Montgomery State Capitol Building that showcases a monument to the confederacy, King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church from where the bus boycott movement was conducted and the home he lived in that was bombed. In the evening, we drove to Birmingham.
Sculpture in Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham commemorating the Children’s March of 1963 where young children were attacked by vicious dogs and high pressure fire hoses.
We disembarked from the bus at Kelly Ingram Park, the site of the famous Children’s March of the Birmingham movement. In May 1963, over the course of several days, thousands of black children, the ‘secret weapons’ of the movement, skipped school to rally in the park where Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, the city Commissioner for Public Safety and the police attacked them with dogs and high pressure fire hoses and hauled many of them off to jail. After a tour of the park and the surrounding areas, we visited 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of the horrific bombing on Sept 15th, 1963, that killed four black girls getting ready for the Sunday service in the basement. We had the opportunity to hear from Carolyn McKinstry who was a friend of the four girls and present on the day of the bombing. She talked of her role as historical witness. The teachers were really moved by her memories, especially by her story of Sarah Collins, the sister of one of the girls who was killed. Sarah, who was also in the bombed basement, survived with wounds and scars and is still too traumatized to discuss the events of that day.
After touring the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, we met with Reverend John Woods, one of the ministers actively involved in the Birmingham movement and Janice Kelsey who participated in the Children’s March as a teenager. The powerful stories of these foot soldiers inspired the teachers to bring the history of ordinary people and their extraordinary acts into the classroom. After dinner, we began our bus journey to Memphis.
Balcony outside Room 306 in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, site of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on 4th April, 1968.
The group attended a session by Ashni Mohnot of the King Institute who outlined the events of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, King’s last campaign, and gave examples of economic injustice today. Dr. Carson described to the group the shift in Christianity from a religion advocating the social gospel which Dr. King supported to a religion of personal salvation. He also discussed the challenges of organizing for social justice and offered the perspective that Rosa Parks led Dr. King on a civil rights detour, away from his original agenda of economic justice for the poor and oppressed that he returned to with his participation in the Memphis strike. This concept was a paradigm shift for most teachers who enthusiastically continued the discussion after the intellectually stimulating lecture.
After lunch, the group visited the National Civil Rights Museum which cleverly spans two buildings, the Lorraine motel where he was assassinated and the boarding house across the street from where James Earl Ray allegedly shot the fatal bullet. The museum’s exhibit on the controversies of the assassination was especially thorough and sparked much discussion in our group. In the evening, the group visited Memphis’ famous Peabody Hotel for cocktails and had a last group dinner, after which some of the teachers enjoyed blues music on Beale Street and walked along the shores of the Mississippi in the balmy air.
Rev. Billy Kyles (L), one of the witnesses at Dr. King’s assassination with Dr. Clayborne Carson, Director of the King Institute (R) and Ashni Mohnot, Director of Education (Liberation Curriculum) at the King Institute (C).
On our last day, we had the privilege of meeting Reverend Billy Kyles, Dr. King’s close personal friend who was with him when he was assassinated. Reverend Kyles described for the group King’s last days, his thoughts about death and the last hour of his life of which he is the only living witness. He also described the moment of the killing in detail. Through Reverend Kyles, we obtained an intimate psychological view of Dr. King that only close friends were privy to. Despite the problems of the past and present, Reverend Kyles remains optimistic, encouraged the teachers to dream about and act for change and lauded pioneers like Dr. King who “aren’t around to walk the trails they blaze.” After lunch, the group enjoyed a final session with the staff of Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization that provides resources for teachers to teach tolerance, ethics and civic responsibility through the teaching of history.
The group then departed for the airport and flew back to the Bay Area, inspired to transform young people’s view of history by bringing all they had learned about the African-American freedom struggle into their classrooms in innovative ways.