Posts Tagged ‘freedom riders’

Among other nice things in a recent review of my book, Ralph Bowden wrote that I “grew up with engaged, responsible parents.” This is true. One of my favorite examples of Mom and Dad’s engaged responsibility, however, did not make it into the book….

In the winter of 1987, when I was eight years old, my parents informed me that the three of us would be watching every episode of the PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965 together. It was, I remember, broadcast once a week for six successive weeks, with each episode covering a specific aspect of the movement.  It also came on precisely at my bedtime. In my house, bedtime was iron-clad, so the fact that Mom and Dad let me stay up late made me happy and conveyed the deep importance of what I was watching. Some of the footage, I remember, was scary – buses on fire, men being beaten, faces contorted with hate, but I was allowed to ask questions about what I was seeing.  It was while watching those episodes that I learned about my parents’ memories of those days.

I looked forward to the every episode of Eyes on the Prize. Sometimes, I would fall asleep on the couch, but Mom and Dad woke me up if there was something they thought I needed to see – I still remember being shaken awake to witness the Freedom Rides.

Because of what my parents did, I felt a responsibility to what I’d learned. I wasn’t sure what exactly to do with my newfound knowledge,  but I knew, somehow, that I needed to be mindful of that history in my daily interactions. I knew those stories were important. I also became completely fascinated with the movement – a fascination that rekindled itself as I sat in the Downtown Nashville Public Library in the summer of 2005 and began what would become my book.

Tonight, PBS is airing another immensely important Civil Rights documentary – Freedom Riders – in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides, when black and white Americans violated Jim Crow laws to ride buses together across the South. Advance criticism is overwhelmingly positive. From what I can tell, one thread of the story involves students retracing the rides today.

We Americans can talk and talk about what happened here in the 1950s and 60s, but few genres capture the high stakes, terror, and courage of the Civil Rights Movement like documentary film.  Tune in tonight – PBS 9/8 C. And if you have school-age kids, keep ’em up – I speak from experience when I say this is one history lesson that’s worth sacrificing some sleep for.


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Well, gentle readers, I have returned from Nashville and Confederate Streets is officially out there in the great big world, available directly from the publisher, on amazon, and on the iPad. Barnes and Noble is all hung up in some sort of distribution issue, but that should be resolved in the next couple weeks. Also, if you want copies in your local bookstore OR to use for your book club, be sure to email my publisher.

Rather than give a run-down of the entire weekend of readings, which was wonderful, I thought I’d break this into 4 separate posts, one for each reading. Each group I read to had its own interesting things going on, and I’d like to share those things.  So, today we have – Reading #1, The Civil Rights Collection

Since the book was accepted for publication last year, I have been in periodic contact with Kwame Leo Lillard – a former Metro Councilman and veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, who participated in both the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides. I told him I would be in town to read and he was pretty excited because I would be around at the same time as a school group from Minnesota which was taking a tour of cities that had played a role in the Civil Rights Movement.

Mr. Lillard invited me to speak to these students when they visited the Downtown Nashville Library on Friday afternoon and I showed up around 3 p.m., uncertain of what to expect.

I met an incredible group of young people.

All of them were from a school called The Southside Family Charter School and let me tell you about this place. It’s in Minneapolis, serves kids in grades K-8, and has a curriculum based around social justice, using that especially to foster critical thinking in their history and language arts classes. I was fortunate enough to cross paths with the 6-8 graders and their wonderful teachers on their triennial (that’s once every three years) Civil Rights Study Tour.  These students (who were all races, though mostly minorities) have been studying the Civil Rights Movement cross-curricularly all year and were spending their Spring Break on a bus tour of the South.

When I got to the library, Mr. Lillard was speaking with them.  It was a discussion format, but mostly lecture.  There were no activities or games, just Lillard speaking and asking questions for about 45 minutes and these junior high kids were totally dialed in. Lillard asked tough questions (“Why you think grown-ups don’t talk to you about the movement?”) and they provided great insight (“Because we don’t eat dinner together, but I’ll make us and I’ll ask them.” “Because it was like a war and veterans don’t want to talk about their wars.”) This went on and on for over 3/4 of an hour and I have to say, it was quite chilling to see these young people sitting at a replica of a lunch counter from the Nashville Sit-Ins, sharing that they knew very little about the movement until that school year. It is history which simply is not taught or discussed with any sort of depth.

I stood up to read a very brief section from “Our Most Segregated Hour” – a chapter about my church’s complex role in the movement, and I affirmed what they had already been discussing – the fact that, for a variety of reasons, very few people who experienced the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement are willing to discuss it with later generations.  Before I read, I also explained the predominant metaphor of my book – that it’s called Confederate Streets because people who opposed Brown v Board of Education moved out to my part of town and named the streets after Confederate generals and battles.  Many jaws dropped. One boy shook his head. These 12-year-olds simply could not believe that anyone in the last 30 years grew up on a street named for Robert E. Lee. That gave me some perspective.

So, I read my section and the students listened hard. In fact, when I was done, a hand shot up immediately.  “What does ‘schism’ mean?” a girl asked.  You teachers out there can appreciate that I just about fell over. I’d read nonstop for 6-7 minutes and this young person keyed in on a specific vocab word, remembered it, and cared enough to ask what it meant. More questions followed (“Why do you think no one told you about your church’s role?”  “Were your parents mad when you started to research?” “How did you research?”)  Their engagement affirmed two things for me:

First, young people are capable of so, so much more than we are typically willing to challenge them with.

Second, what I came to believe from writing my book IS true – this country does not spend enough time teaching and engaging with the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement.  All around us are people who fought in or witnessed an incredible, brave, horrifying struggle.  These stories are everywhere, in every American city, and they need to be told. People my age and younger need to ask and listen. It was a war and those who fought are veterans, traumatized in many ways, but we need to get their stories as often as we can. Our vision of this country is incomplete until we understand.

I had to cut my time with the children of Southside Family Charter School short so that I could head over to my next reading, but I am so glad that they were my first audience and I am so glad that school exists.  Are there any social justice charter schools in your area? What are they up to?

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