Time Traveler

By Theresa Johnston — February 01, 2000 2 min read

For most high school students, learning about the civil rights movement is a matter of reading words on paper, black on white. That’s fine up to a point, says Capuchino High School history teacher Jeffrey Steinberg. But if you really want to reach students, sometimes you have to do it in living color.

Last February, the San Bruno, California, teacher led 85 students on an emotional, 10-day, eight- city “Sojourn to the South”—a pilgrimage to the major landmarks of the American civil rights struggle. The trip began in Washington, D.C., where students sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and listened to a recording of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Their travels continued to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four girls were murdered in a 1963 bombing, and King’s grave site in Atlanta.

The trip garnered so much praise that Capuchino High granted Steinberg an unpaid leave of absence last year to expand the program. Supported by his newly created nonprofit organization, Sojourn to the Past, Steinberg is now planning civil rights history trips that will include students at 13 more public and parochial high schools in the San Francisco Bay area.

“This is not a tour,” the lanky, soft-spoken teacher says emphatically. “Tours drop you off and say, ‘We’ll pick you up in half an hour.’ ” Rather, Steinberg says, his trips have a serious goal: to make today’s students “ambassadors of tolerance.”

At 37, Steinberg doesn’t remember much of the civil rights movement. A Capuchino High student in the 1970s, he began reading about the struggle for black equality as a teenager after watching a television miniseries on the subject. The summer he was 29, he flew to Washington, D.C., rented a car, and zigzagged 4,000 miles between Louisiana and Pennsylvania, touring civil rights and Civil War sites. That experience “changed me as a teacher,” Steinberg says. “History came alive.”

What makes Steinberg’s program particularly special is his effort to connect students with some of the unheralded heroes of the struggle. Last year, the teacher arranged for the group to breakfast with elderly parishioners at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Students also met Chris McNair, whose daughter Denise was killed in the Baptist church bombing, and Ernest Green, one of the “Little Rock Nine” who integrated Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the first black student to graduate from the school. Another of the Little Rock Nine pioneers, Elizabeth Eckford, was so moved by her meeting with Steinberg’s well-prepared students that she asked the teacher to be her guest at last November’s White House ceremony honoring the black Arkansans with the Congressional Gold Medal for their bravery.

Indeed, Steinberg senses a hunger among civil rights veterans to tell their stories. “Many of these people are in their 70s. Ten years from now, many of them are going to be gone,” he notes. “There’s so much hatred and bigotry and intolerance in the country right now, and they see talking to my students as one way to fight back.”

Capuchino’s 1999 valedictorian, Sara Mrsny, was especially moved by a Selma, Alabama, woman who had given the Freedom Riders peanut butter sandwiches and a place to sleep for the night. “I really loved the fact that these people were just ordinary folk who stood up for what was right and fair,” Mrsny wrote in a thank-you letter. “Most students learn about famous civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., but very few get the opportunity to meet the foot soldiers.”