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Posts Tagged ‘social justice’

Six years ago, when I first started work on the essays that would become Confederate Streets, I spent a lot of time in the Civil Rights Room in the downtown branch of  the Nashville Public Library. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, only that I had finished an analytical essay on busing for racial balance and that I wanted to, perhaps, write some narrative essays on the same topic. I was also interested in the outdoors and the Cumberland Plateau (subject matter I am pursuing now), and the room next to the Civil Rights Room was full of books on that topic, so I filled a few blistering summer days by wandering back and forth between those cool and pleasant rooms, reading about the sit-ins in one and Beersheba Springs in the other.

The Civil Rights Room is decorated with iconic photos from the movement in Nashville. I spent some time examining each one, but one photo in particular captivated me. You can see it at this link – it is the one at the top of the page. See the woman standing between the children and the crowd as she walks them to their first day of first grade? The girls holding hands? The white children lining the streets, barefoot, perhaps because they were being held out of school that day? I studied each face, each posture, wondered what everyone in that photograph must have been thinking at that moment – a late summer morning, September 9, 1957, the first day that blacks attended Nashville schools which were previously closed to them. However, the reason this picture really, really resonated with me is that exclamation point floating above the crowd – the sign which reads “GOD is the author of segregation.” I was born in the late 1970s and always thought of God as the author of the civil rights movement, of peace, of loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. The idea that someone would invoke the name of God as they harassed a couple of six-year-olds on their first day was school was both repulsive and darkly fascinating. Who was that person?

In another photograph, this sign shows up again and the woman holding it is visible, though the children are not. Her face is contorted. She is waving the sign and shouting.

One evening in the summer of 2005, I told one of my friends in Nashville about the picture and she said, “It makes me wonder what that woman must think now when she sees herself in that picture.” I’d been obsessing over every detail the photograph, but I had been thinking of it as something buried in the past, something encapsulated in the 1950s. Leila’s observation changed my perspective. I started wondering, “Where are we now because of where we were then?”

When I returned to Morgantown for the school year and started writing, I remembered those photographs as one in the same. As I wrote what would become the title essay of my collection, I pictured that woman shouting, the children mustering up an awful lot of resolve for six-year-olds, that sign invoking God and waving above it all. I devote about a page in the book to wondering where the woman with that awful sign might be today. I imagine that the sign is long gone, burned. Or, perhaps, it’s waiting in a closet, waiting to be used again. I imagine that the woman who held the sign is either completely mortified or silent and angry whenever she sees children of all races going to school together.

One thing I never did was actually try to find that woman, or the girls being walked to school, or anyone else in the photograph. I merely wondered where their lives had taken them since the morning of September 9, 1957.

Apparently, author David Margolick wondered the same thing when he saw this iconic photo of the day nine African-American teenagers began classes at Little Rock Central High School. Like my friend, Leila, he recognized that the lives of each of the women in that picture would have continued off the frame and forward through the ensuing decades. But, rather than hypothesize, he actually did extensive research, conducted interviews, and wrote a book – Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, which was just published by Yale University Press.

I have not yet read the book, but I did read the review in the New York Times on Sunday. It sounds like a book I should read, as should you, dear reader, if you are a fan of Confederate Streets. In the photo, the white woman, Hazel Bryan is apparently shouting, “Go home, nigger!” Her face, like the faces of so many white people in so many shots similar to this one, is contorted. Her ugliness in the shot is a manifestation of the ugliness of the time.  The black teenager, Elizabeth Eckford, has always seemed like the picture of grace to me. She’s smart and brave, with things to learn and no time for the likes of ignorant bigots like Hazel.

According to Margolick, however, Elizabeth was “terrified behind her dark glasses.” Although she did, ultimately, go to school at Central, she did not make it into the building that day. The governor blocked the door, the black teenagers were surrounded by a mob calling for a lynching. The National Guard had to be brought in to get those children into their classrooms. Once they were in, Hazel transferred out, but the Little Rock Nine bore constant abuse for the entire school year.

I’ll spare you all of the “where are they now?” details, but the essence of what I read in the NYT is this: By the time Kennedy was President, Hazel already regretted her actions. She apologized to Elizabeth, who accepted it, and went on to live her life. According to an interview I read in the Christian Science Monitor, Hazel has, for the most part, led a life of moral conviction for over 50 years. The depiction of the self in the photograph is, thankfully, not the self Hazel grew up to be.

Elizabeth, who clearly developed a sense of moral conviction before Hazel, has had a difficult life. She suffered from an undiagnosed case of PTSD. She’s had a hard time sustaining relationships in her life, even with her own children. In the 90s, after getting the PTSD diagnosis, things started improving for her, but there’s no denying that Elizabeth has struggled since walking through the doors of Central over half a century ago.

It hardly seems fair. I look at the pictures of Little Rock and Nashville and I want the bigots to be the ones suffering today. I’d like to think that the woman defiling a just and loving God with her sign in Nashville has been paralyzed by guilt, while those two black six-year-olds have gone on to lead pleasant and fulfilling lives. Then I think, “What good does it do me, or anyone, if that’s actually the case?” I should want what Martin Luther King wanted – “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars,” he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” So, I feel guilty myself for wishing bad things on the woman with the sign.

The best thing, I suppose, would be that everyone in that photograph hanging in the Civil Rights Room in the Nashville Public Library has found some sort of peace. True peace, however, won’t come without reconciliation, and reconciliation won’t come without people acknowledging the truth of what happened that day, as well as either the ugliness or bravery they were demonstrating when the photographer captured a moment in time. From the NYT article, I get the impression that Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryant have made such an acknowledgement. They’ve even become friends. Their lives are far from perfect and they currently are not speaking to each other but at least they did reconcile to a degree.

Margolick’s work with Elizabeth and Hazel has me wondering more about the people in the photograph I wrote about for my book. Does anyone know the people in the photo at the top of this page? I don’t know much more than the caption tells us – the shot was taken by John Malone for the Nashville Banner.  I believe the girls are being walked to Buena Vista Elementary, though I could be wrong. I’d like to find them and learn whatever they have to teach.

It’s easy to look at black-and-white photographs and think, “That’s over. That happened a long, long time ago.” What we can learn from books like Elizabeth and Hazel is that nothing is so tidy as to ever really be over. Good photographs capture the truth, but they can only capture a moment. Life, with all its chaos and sadness and redemption, spills over the frame.

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Last night, I spent about an hour Skyping with a good friend in California (grad student, genius, and fellow writer C.E. Tucker – keep an eye out for his work) on my fantastically fast and clear MacBook Pro. When I got off Skype and left Christopher to his scriptwriting, it was a little before 8 p.m. I decided to open my net browser and check email before heading off to read a book, and I saw the announcement on Apple.com – Steve Jobs, 1955-2011.

Stories about Steve Jobs abound across the various media outlets this morning. Two separate articles – one about his death and one about his vision – are the most popular on NPR.com.  The front pages of washingtonpost.com, nytimes.com, and cnn.com each boast about five separate articles about Steve Jobs’ life, inventions, health, and impact. Every media source is announcing his passing in an overly-large font.  The New York Times is inviting readers to submit photos of themselves using Apple products over the years.

Other front-page articles of the day? The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. Sara Palin won’t run for President. Occupy Wall Street continues. Cnn.com, which always strives to keep it classy, prominently features articles about Anthony Weiner Halloween costumes and Amanda Knox’s potential book deals.

If I hadn’t stumbled into my kitchen a little later than usual this morning (I’m on Fall Break), if I hadn’t had time to read the Editorial page of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, I would not have heard NPR’s end-of-the-hour broadcast or seen the tribute buried in the Local section of my newspaper – the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, tireless and vital leader of the Civil Rights Movement, passed away yesterday at the age of 89. Like Jobs, Shuttlesworth had been ill for some time, unlike Jobs, online memorials will not be pouring forth for the man who is credited with bringing the Civil Rights Movement to its largest and most influential battleground – Birmingham, Alabama.

Shuttlesworth was one of the “Big Three” in the movement, co-founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph D. Abernathy. I first heard of Martin Luther King sometime around 1984 when my first grade class read about him in a Weekly Reader. I did not learn about Abernathy or Shuttlesworth until the summer before I began graduate school, when I read Carry Me Home, Diane McWhorter’s excellent write-up of Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement.

McWhorter’s tome is over 600 pages long and filled with narratives about every major figure on both sides of the movement in Birmingham. It weaves the fabric of history and narrative seamlessly, but the sheer number of people involved, combined with their varying motives and degrees of involvement, can make the book feel overwhelming in places. Through all these fighters, all these characters, the one that rises above the fray, the one most memorable to me, is Shuttlesworth.  I devoured any portion of Carry Me Home in which he was a major figure, and that is a good percentage of the book. At times, he seems almost like a superhero – dashing in and creating good when all hope seems lost.  He was also completely fearless. Throughout the book, he calls out to those who would stop his movement or physically harm him. He loved reminding segregationists that they were going to lose. He openly challenged Bull Connor, often calling up the brutal segregationist to let him know where they would be demonstrating, inviting the public safety commissioner to come and “be a part of history.” He called the movement what it was: a war.  In an interview years later, Shuttlesworth said the goal of his work in Birmingham was “to have a war against injustice. Not against people – against injustice. A war against any system that sets up a thing where a man cannot be, cannot become.”

It was Fred Shuttlesworth who confronted the racist institutions in Birmingham long before the national spotlight turned there. Shuttlesworth convinced Martin Luther King to bring the crux of the movement to Birmingham. Shuttlesworth organized the Children’s Crusade that so galvanized the movement and horrified the nation. Shuttlesworth sheltered the Freedom Riders in his church after they had taken brutal beatings and it seemed they could not go on. It is widely acknowledged that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not have been passed were it not for the tireless work of Shuttlesworth and the activists in Birmingham.

Shuttlesworth himself suffered tremendously. His own decision to become an activist in the movement had been brought about by the elimination of  segregated schools through Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. His most severe beating came three years later, when white men attacked him, his wife, and his two daughters as he attempted to enroll his children in an all-white high school.  Shuttlesworth was beaten with chains and brass knuckles. His wife was stabbed in the hip.  Over the years, he suffered other beatings, was injured by fire hoses, and was arrested more than three dozen times. He was twice targeted in bombings.

Through all the physical and emotional persecution, Shuttlesworth never cowered. In fact, I think one of the reasons I’ve been so drawn to him would have to be his fiery, indomitable spirit. He could preach love, yet wield words as weapons. After emerging, miraculously unscathed, from his dynamited home on Christmas night in 1956, a police detective told him, “If I were you I’d get out of town as quick as I could.” Shuttlesworth replied with, “Officer, you are not me. You go back and tell your Klan brethren that if God could save me through this, I’m here for the duration and the war is on.”

We don’t often encounter Shuttlesworth in watered-down stories of the movement. Even McWhorter writes that “his personality did not invite the term ‘beloved’.” And, because Shuttlesworth forced us, all of us, to confront the uglier side of our own humanity rather than creating shiny toys, remembrances of him will be buried under the tide of memorials for Steve Jobs.

Now, don’t get me wrong – Steve Jobs brought some very cool things to life as we-in-a-certain-demographic know it. As I type this on my sleek MacBook Pro, I’m listening to classical music on West Virginia Public Radio (which I much prefer to Chattanooga’s station) through an app on my iPod touch.  It’s a lovely fall day and, at some point, I plan to sit on my porch and figure out what the latest version of iPhoto can really do. Next week, when I travel to Nashville for the Southern Festival of Books, I will be able to carry my iPod touch in lieu of my laptop. With it, I will check the weather, send emails, and do a little conference networking, all from a device smaller than the palm of my hand.

One quote that has been floating around about Jobs today is that “he knew what we needed before we knew we needed it.”

Apple products are great, ingenious even, but I could have written this on a typewriter and sent it to newspapers in the hopes that someone would print it. I’d be fine listening to NPR through the radio. I could organize hard copies of my photos, get the weather through the newspaper, and network via business cards, address books, and ink pens.

If anyone gave us what we needed before we knew, it was Fred Shuttlesworth. His life’s work was not limited to people who could afford to buy gadgets. It has benefitted us all.  Shuttlesworth’s colleague, Martin Luther King, once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  In this country, at the very time that Steve Jobs was born, America was not a just place. Everyone – white and black – was aware of it. And whether they were willing to admit it or not, I believe most people knew that this unbalanced world, this institutional and vastly unfair way of being, was rending the fabric of American society.  Years before the movement really took off, Fred Shuttlesworth was challenging the horrible, horrible injustice of segregation – the injustice that was constricting everyone and preventing this entire country from becoming. He and the other members of the SCLC chipped away at it until Jim Crow was brought down and we could all be freed from its tyranny.

One of my earliest memories of using Apple products is of sitting in the computer lab at my elementary school, confronting a game called “Math Blaster” on an Apple IIE. As I recall, the game involved solving math problems quickly enough to allow a stick figure to be shot from a cannon at the circus. The problems came faster and faster until, eventually, everyone’s stick figure perished. My character died frequently, and we all thought this was hilarious. I remember sitting in that room full of white, black, and Asian first-graders, all of us laughing and laughing. Steve Jobs brought us the computer, but Fred Shuttlesworth brought us each other.

Much work remains, but the foundation has been laid.

We still live in a society that perpetuates a “system where (people) cannot become.” Perhaps the next great innovator will combine Jobs’s technology with Shuttlesworth’s vision.

But, rather than waiting for that singular person, let’s pull out our idevices and learn about the men and women of the civil rights movement who knew what we needed before we did. In his memory, let’s continue the war against injustice which the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth fought so boldly across seven decades. The work remains and innovations in all facets of American life must continue.

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The Muse of Fire kids get a standing ovation.

As I’ve been saying this week, May is a beautiful month in the world of education. Oh, it’s stressful, but usually the stress comes because all the stuff you’ve been working for all year is finally completed, presented, and evaluated – the students hand in the big research paper, AP tests are taken, concerts are performed, end of the year picnics and receptions are attended, and so on.

Along with other end-of-the-year duties, I was busy getting the school literary journal off to the printer. Going back through the  poems, stories, essays, and comics the students have written over the past year reminded me of the real power of creativity to speak to universal truths and connect us to each other.

Then, as if I wasn’t riding high enough, I encountered two projects out in the city which are using creative writing to change kids’ lives in fundamental ways.

In mid-May, I attended the Muse of Fire First Class Plays performance at the Hamilton County Public Library.  Named for the lines in Shakespeare’s Henry V (Oh for a muse of fire that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention/A kingdom for a stage, princes to act/And monarchs to behold the swelling scene.), the Muse of Fire Project takes kids from local elementary schools through a 10-week play writing workshop. By the end, each child has a 10-minute play, which is then performed by professional actors (“real grown-ups!” as it says in the promotional literature.)  The project was started by Kate Forbes Dallimore and Stevie Ray Dallimore, both accomplished actors who relocated to Chattanooga from New York City last July as part of the phenomenal ArtsMove program. Good gracious, I love this city.

Kate invited me to come, so I went to the Saturday night performance, unsure exactly what to expect.  It was brilliant. The plays had titles like “Pac Man’s Life Game,” and they were about as imaginative as anything I’ve encountered at any level.  The one I remember best starred a trail marker who was friends with a mushroom and confided in said mushroom quite often. The trail marker was pretty sad because she was in love with the pine tree she was attached to, but he had an extremely wooden personality (ha!) and never noticed her.  Isn’t that brilliant? All the plays were like that. And, while watching the actors was fun, it was even more fun to watch the young playwrights react to the performances of their work (they were sitting off to the side of the stage) Like most writers, they started out timid and ended up thrilled.  These kids are from all types of public schools and all walks of life, and they have now shared the experience of drafting and worrying over work, seeing it interpreted and performed, and receiving all the applause and accolades it deserved.  Even if they never write another word (which I doubt will happen), there’s no way they’ll forget the triumph that comes from working hard, fussing over details, and letting their imaginations lead the way. Bravo! Fellow ‘Noogans, I implore you to check out the next round of performances, whenever those may be.  Or volunteer. Their facebook page can keep you connected.

Just a couple days after those performances, I read about Black & Bright!  – a literary journal run by 5th graders at Calvin Donaldson School.   The article I’ve linked to speaks to the power of that project.  Basically, two years ago, no child in that school, a school which is frequenly maligned as being dangerous and sub-par, would ever have identified themselves as a writer. Test scores were abysmal. Thanks largely to the efforts of volunteers and writing coach Kim Honeycutt, writing is now ingrained in the culture of the school. Test scores are up by 30 percentile points, and, more importantly, these children feel like they have a voice. That’s remarkable.

The arts are being sacrificed in schools across the country in the name of test scores and budgets, but Black & Bright!  proves that such moves are folly. Creative writing, creativity in general, teaches students in a way that nothing else can.

There are projects like these going on all around the country. In Montana, I did a little work with the Missoula Writing Collaborative. New York City abounds with creativity outreach projects – from the 52nd Street Project  to Girls Write Now.

I am so glad that I encountered about these efforts to reach out to students in Chattanooga. Next year, I plan to help. With any luck, I’ll get my own students in on the fun as well. May is a time when things wrap up, but new ideas start to form.

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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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In the summer of 1998, I took a job as an intern reporter at the newspaper in Picayune, Mississippi, not far from the Gulf Coast and New Orleans.  This isn’t a scenario where I needed a job and the only one I could find was in Mississippi – I wanted to be there. I’d never been to the Deep South and the Robert Duvall movie, The Apostle, had come out that winter, piquing my curiosity about the region.  So, I looked for jobs and found one and off I went that May.

My father drove down with me to help me get settled in. My clearest memory of that long-ago road trip was actually crossing into Mississippi. Bolted under the Welcome to Mississippi sign, in that standard highway green and blocky white font, was another sign which read, “Only ‘Positive Mississippi’ Spoken Here.”

Dad and I hooted. We guffawed. We swung into a litany of one-liners about that slogan and the poor state of any state which feels compelled to ask passers-through to think of its self-esteem.

To a degree, I understood exactly why that sign was there. Being a Tennessean, I was familiar with the saying, “At least we’re not Mississippi,” something we had to repeat any time statistics on public schools, obesity, or any other number of issues pertaining to public well-being were released.  I knew that Mississippi had a complicated image. On the one hand, blues and Faulkner. On the other, poverty in both wealth and education. One thing I did not think much about was the Civil Rights Movement and all the atrocities which had occurred within the state.  That, surely, for generations of travellers, was wrapped up and intoned in “Only ‘Positive Mississippi’ Spoken Here.”

I did, obviously, learn more about the Civil Rights Movement and the Freedom Summer later, and that has become part of my mental landscape when I think on my summer there.  But at the time, I didn’t know much more than what you would tell a grade school child in the 1980s – which is to say, not enough.

And now, Haley Barbour, the governor of this state with the troubled past, has announced his intention to run for President in 2012.

NPR recently ran an interesting story about how Barbour will need to overcome “scrutiny on race” if he wishes to clinch the nomination. The article quotes a GOP political consultant who says, “It just haunts the South. It’s just the specter that haunts every politician I believe and it’s haunting him.”

Race is the specter that haunts every Southerner, every American. Politicians, being public figures, serve as the public mouthpiece and sounding board for our own debates, our own unconfronted turmoil.

As disturbing as some of Barbour’s comments have been, I have to say that I’ve heard nothing from him that I haven’t heard from other white people in his generation (and even younger). The notion that White Citizens’ Councils did more than intimidate black citizens out of seeking their rights, the idea that the desegregation process “wasn’t that bad,” (a phrase and approach so fraught with assumptions that one doesn’t even know where to deconstruct it) – I’ve heard all of this before.  It’s the way the story has emerged from the past and been presented to many Southerners of my generation, the lens through which so many whites who lived through the actual time have chosen to frame it.

Incidently, one of Willie Morris’ lesser-known tomes is Yazoo: Integration in a Deep Southern Town.  I’ve not read all of it, but it was one that I referenced as I wrote my own book, and I plan to go back to it this summer. Yazoo City is the hometown of both Morris and Barbour, and Morris clarifies the picture past the “it wasn’t that bad” phenomenon.

If Barbour makes it very far into the nomination process,  we will be hearing a national debate on phrases and ideals that are part of the verbal landscape in this part of the country.  Stay tuned.

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I will return tomorrow with updates about my Nashville readings, but I was just reading the Times Free Press and this article caught my eye. It seems that this is destined to be a week where I get to learn about young people doing some pretty cool things because of the vision and dedication of a small group of people. This photography camp seems like a great idea and a lovely testament to the real world power of art education. I wish I’d known about it sooner.

Chattanoogans, note that the Girls Inc. campers will be displaying their photos from the week at an exhibition tomorrow (Friday) at 5 p.m. at First Lutheran Church on McCallie Ave.  I will be unable to make it myself, but I hope some of you can go.

Also, I couldn’t help but notice that line in the article about the the girls sharing cameras. Hmm, I’m pretty willing to do my part to rectify that situation. I wonder how many they might need to have one child to a camera?

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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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