Equity & Diversity

Civil Rights Tour Takes Students Over a Bridge Into Nation’s Past

By John Gehring — August 02, 2000 10 min read

Melinda Beira squints through the glare of a red-hot Alabama sun as she walks over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Thirty-five years ago, the African-American teenager would have risked blows from police batons if she had tried to cross this stretch of road spanning the Alabama River, where civil rights marchers on their way to Montgomery were beaten by state troopers in an incident now known as “Bloody Sunday.”

“I owe these people my life,” Ms. Beira, 16, says of the marchers. “It is my job to carry their torch.”

Ms. Beira was one of 15 students from throughout Massachusetts who participated in an 18-day tour of the South this summer organized by the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union.

The journey—at once exciting, educational, and exhausting—began July 6 when the group left Boston in three vans and one car for its first stop, in Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. By the time they returned, the 11 black, two white, and two Asian-American teenagers had covered 5,000 miles and visited many of the most important stops on the civil rights map—places like Greensboro, N.C.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Memphis, Tenn.

Along the way, they talked to heroes of the civil rights struggle, sang freedom songs, kept journals, slept on the floor of community centers, and followed in the footsteps of a history they had only read about in books.

“I’m a great believer in learning by doing,” said Nancy Murray, the director of the Bill of Rights Education Project for the ACLU of Massachusetts, who started taking students on the trip in 1993 as part of a group called Project Hip-Hop—Highways Into the Past: History, Organizing, and Power.

A soft-spoken woman with silver hair, Ms. Murray, 54, has long been active on social-justice issues in Africa, Britain, and the United States. Much of what passes for history classes in school, she believes, is a thin gruel of watered-down, often distorted information that leaves students bored and uninformed. Project Hip-Hop, she says, is an effort to breathe life into history, to take young people out of their comfortable worlds and introduce them to people who fought, bled, and struggled through the battles against segregation and racism.

“Kids really appreciate coming to grips with an issue that is complicated,” Ms. Murray said. “They get excited when they know they are dealing with serious social issues and not just clothes and malls.”

Students travel for free. Money for the trip is raised from foundations and individual donations.

For Abdul Farah, an 18-year-old African-American who graduated this spring from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and will be attending Tufts University this fall, the trip offered a unique opportunity. “I wouldn’t be here and doing the things I can do today if it wasn’t for the people in the civil rights movement,” he said. “This is a chance of a lifetime to get firsthand accounts from people before they die.”

‘Ain’t gonna let
segregation turn
me around.’

Freedom-song lyric

One such veteran of the movement is Johnnie Carr, whom the students meet in Montgomery, Ala., on July 10, the fifth day of their journey.

In 1955, Ms. Carr took part in the Montgomery bus boycott, which mobilized after a seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person.

Now 81, she talks slowly and walks with a cane. Sitting in the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where a 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. began his ministry, Ms. Carr tells the students about the mass meetings that were held in the city’s black churches to coordinate what would become a 381-day boycott of the segregated bus system. “Integration didn’t come easy by any means,” she says.

The students gather afterward at the Civil Rights Memorial around the corner, where they take turns reading aloud the names of men and women who have died in the movement.

The next day, they visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and listen to activist Anna Pearl Avery talk about what it was like to have to ride in the back seat of a bus.

“The first decent white people I met were in the civil rights movement,” Ms. Avery tells the students at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where in 1963, just a few days after Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, four little girls were killed when a bomb planted in the church basement by Ku Klux Klan members exploded.

The students ask her how she managed to persevere through the jailings and fear.

“If you are around strong people, you draw strength from strength,” she says.

Nicole Tabolt, 16, a white student at Boston Latin School, says experiences like today’s are making her think more critically about history and race. “I am already starting to look at things differently,” she says. “Racism is different today, but it still exists.”

‘Woke up this mornin’ with my mind on freedom.’

Freedom-song lyric

That lesson hits home just a day later in Philadelphia, Miss., when the students meet the father of David Scott Campbell, a 21-year-old black man who was found hanging inside a Mississippi jail cell in 1990. The young man had been dating a white woman in town, the daughter of a police officer who supposedly disliked blacks. An investigation was conducted but no foul play was found, and the death was ruled a suicide.

“That really brought the reality right in front of me,” J.P. Jacquet, a 17-year-old black student at the private Roxbury Latin School in Boston, says after hearing Mr. Campbell’s story. “You can’t ignore it. It saddens me and gives me that push to do what I can to make things better.”

The case is similar, some say, to a recent news story out of Kokomo, Miss., that has drawn the attention of national civil rights activists. A few weeks before, a high school junior who had been known to date white girls was found hanging from a pecan tree just steps from his front door.

State investigators have since ruled the death a suicide, but many of the students on the trip this week suspect foul play. Later, they would travel to Kokomo, where they would talk to the young man’s relatives and see the tree where he was found hanged.

“I didn’t even know what a lynching was before I came on this trip,” says 16-year-old Quiana Scott-Ferguson, a black student from Fenway High School in Boston. “It has opened my mind a lot.”

As night falls over Philadelphia, the only sound at James Chaney’s grave is the chorus of crickets in the surrounding woods. The day’s heat is dying, and the students circle around the tombstone with quiet reverence.

At 21, just a few years older than the students here, Mr. Chaney, who was black, was killed execution-style by Klan members in 1964, along with Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, two young white men who had traveled from the North to investigate the bombing of a church here that was registering black voters. Driving through Neshoba County in a blue Ford station wagon, the three were pulled over, taken to jail, and released to Klan members. Their bodies were found two months later in an earthen dam.

For a long while, no one speaks. The group has brought two lilies, which the students have named Peace and Justice, to plant at the grave. Together they sing “Amazing Grace.” A few students kneel and pick up small stones by the grave before heading back to the vans and into the dark Mississippi night.

“That really hit me strongly,” says 18-year-old Claude Mede, reflecting on the short vigil. “It was almost like we were burying him again

‘We shall overcome. We shall overcome someday.’

Freedom-song lyric

Emotions run close to the surface throughout the trip, and sometimes the discussions are heated. Just a few hours after crossing the bridge in Selma, Ms. Beira, a student at Wayland (Mass.) High School, wipes tears from her eyes after a tense exchange with Lauren Redmond, one of seven adult chaperones on the trip.

Ms. Beira tells Ms. Redmond she rejects the idea of calling a black woman her “sister” if she can’t extend that same title to women of all races. She struggles to express how limiting, how exclusionary an idea that seems to her. “I don’t even see color,” she says passionately,

Whether it’s fair or not, Ms. Redmond insists, as black women they share a history of oppression that bonds them in a “sisterhood” that whites can never fully understand.

The exchange begins as a private discussion, but soon the entire group is listening. Ms. Beira and Ms. Redmond finally end their debate by hugging each other, but they still don’t agree.

“I am just trying to get them to think about their positions,” Ms. Redmond, 49, says later. “The first thing to do is to get them to wake up ... This trip has been a learning experience for me, too.”

Sixteen-year-old Jeremy Taylor, a white student from Arlington High School just outside Boston, is seeing the trip through a lens different from most of the other participants, but the experience has raised some profound questions for him as well. Racism, he learns, is not a vestige of the past, as a visit to the KKK Museum and Redneck Shop in Laurens, S.C., where pictures of lynchings stand next to neo-Nazi paraphernalia, makes evident.

“Going there was frightening. I was shaking when I was talking to the owner,” he says. “I was blown away by that museum.”

Dennis Chira, 18, an Asian-American who attends Wellesley High School in suburban Boston, says his parents grew up during Mao Tse-tung’s rule in China and immigrated to the United States. “For me as an Asian-American, I was interested in the civil rights movement as a movement started by minorities,” he says. “It is not about seeing the historical buildings, but meeting the people who can pass down knowledge. We are hearing things firsthand.”

‘Angola—Ain’t No Place To Be.’

Inscription on T-shirts made by prison inmates

Louisiana State Penitentiary, an 18,000-acre maximum-security prison and working farm known as Angola, is a half-hour from the nearest small town. The students are here to learn about prison conditions and the role that race and class play in the criminal-justice system.

“We have no racial problems here. We don’t even see color,” Warden Burl Cain, a Bible-quoting man wearing a green polo shirt and dark slacks, tells the students gathered in a small museum that includes weapons confiscated from prisoners and the facility’s old electric chair.

“I would even say that we may be one of the few places in the country without a race problem,” he says. “You are going to leave Angola with a different perspective on race.”

Somewhat skeptical of that claim, the students then take a tour of the penitentiary and meet Wilbert Rideau, a black inmate and the editor of The Angolite, an uncensored prison magazine. He tells the group that a disproportionate number of minority youth offenders in the state’s juvenile- justice system are sent to prisons.

Asked about the warden’s assessment of the racial climate here at Angola, Mr. Rideau, a convicted murderer, answers carefully. For the most part, whites and blacks do get along, he said. “But Warden Cain is white, and he wouldn’t see racism if it hit him. Everyone defers to him.”

After eating the same lunch as the inmates—macaroni and cheese, tuna, beans, bread, and grape juice—in the prison cafeteria, the students conclude their visit and seem eager to leave a world enclosed by barbed wire and metal bars.

‘Keep your eyes on the prize.’

Freedom-song lyric

Organizers of the trip go to great lengths to make sure this trip is not just a one-time summer experience.

Ms. Murray and earlier graduates of Project Hip-Hop wrote a curriculum book that provides a framework for students and teachers to explore such topics as slavery, the Reconstruction era, and the civil rights movement.

In the fall, this year’s participants are expected to go into schools around Massachusetts to talk about the journey and lead workshops about civil rights history. The curriculum provides guidance, but each presentation will be different, reflecting the student’s own perspective.

“The key to this whole thing is it’s a model of peer-to-peer outreach,” Ms. Murray said.

Project Hip-Hop students also produce a newspaper, Rising Times, which has published stories about the trip, issues of racial diversity in school, and opposition to the state’s high-stakes testing system.

For 16-year-old Robert Foster, an African-American, the lessons he learned about the people who labored in the civil rights movement will be carried into the new school year—and for a lifetime.

“What they fought for back in the day is not always coming true,” the resident of Boston’s Dorchester section said. “That was only a stepping stone. I have a great responsibility now, not only as a student but as a man.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 2000 edition of Education Week as Civil Rights Tour Takes Students Over a Bridge Into Nation’s Past


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