A dozen Morgan Park Academy seventh- and eighth-grade students experienced a life-changing trip to the American South from Feb. 16-22, 2020, as they traveled with The Nation and filmmaker Andre Robert Lee to experience the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
Traveling from Jackson, Mississippi, through the Mississippi Delta to Little Rock, Arkansas, and on to Memphis, Tennessee, students visited the sites and talked with some of the leaders of this important era of U.S. history. From there we went to Alabama — Birmingham, Selma, and ending our journey in Montgomery at the Lynching Museum and the Equal Justice Initiative.
On this trip I discovered so many important stories that make up the narrative of American history. Stories that are left out of the telling of America’s past. And these stories matter. They are an important part of the collective narrative we share as Americans. They tell us who we were, they help define who we are, and they steer us to who we are going to be.
Too often, the stories that made up this trip were sobering, and sad. But what was amazing to me was the perseverance and strength they revealed about the regular people, the foot soldiers, who made up this movement.
We heard stories from Geno Lee, the owner of the Big Apple Inn, about his great-grandfather, an immigrant from Mexico who fed and housed the Freedom Riders at risk to his own safety and business.
We learned of his young, brave, principled mother Freedom Rider Mary Harrison, a 21-year-old Filipino-American student at Tougaloo College who helped lead a sit-in in the bus station for which she was arrested and jailed.
We heard stories from Hezikiah Watkins, Mississippi’s youngest Freedom Rider, who at 13 was put on death row for his participation in the Civil Rights Movement.
He shared his story of how he accidentally became a Freedom Rider and talked with us about the prices paid, big and small, by all of the Civil Rights activists and impressed upon us the power and responsibility we have to make a difference in this world. We visited the Greyhound bus station in Jackson where his life changed forever.
We met Sylvester and Mary Hoover, who run the Mississippi Delta Museum in Money, Mississippi.
Sylvester grew up on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta as a sharecropper. He told us about growing up under this poverty-creating system. Mary, his wife, prepared a lunch for us of soul food — “dirt road cooking,” as he called it — including ribs, chicken, sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, corn bread, her famous butter rolls, and more.
Mary reminded us that learning about slavery is important, but its horrors shouldn’t cause us to lose our love for our fellow humans. She told us many things. How her landing a minor role in the hit movie The Help felt like an angel tapping on her shoulder. How it felt to live through the prejudice of black people against darker-skinned black people when she was younger. She reminisced over the food of her youth, where it came from, and how it was prepared, and told us how she took care of premature white babies who grew up to love her as her own grandchildren do.
“Love is love” was Mary’s message and her recipe!
Sylvester joined us on the bus after lunch and took us to his hometown of Baptist Town, Mississippi, where he advised our students to ask their families about their roots, impressed upon them the importance of learning their family history, and wagered that many of them would have roots from this area as so many black people left the Delta for Chicago in search for a better life. Lo and behold, a few of our students discovered that they did have roots in this area!
Baptist Town left an indelible impression on all of us as we learned about stark contrast between white and black lives, then and now, and confronted the reality of extreme poverty in the United States. We were further troubled by the story of Emmett Till’s brutal murder in 1955 — and the lack of a memorial at Bryant’s Grocery Store, where the Civil Rights Movement began, stirred up a lot of stories from Sylvester about the prejudices that still exist in this part of the South.
Our journey continued to Little Rock High School, where we met with Sybil Jordan Hampton, one of the first students to integrate the school. Hampton matriculated to what was then called Little Rock Central two years after the Little Rock Nine forced a national test of Brown v. Board of Education and anti-integration protests and violence caused the city to close all of its high schools for the 1958–59 school year.
Hampton told us of the importance of her parents’ support and the importance of the NAACP. She recalled how she was made to feel invisible upon entering the high school and how she was made to feel as if she didn’t matter.
“I didn’t exist. People didn’t look at me. People didn’t speak to me. And that went on from the first day to the last day. No one in my homeroom ever spoke to me.”
She shared stories of how she persevered despite being ignored.
At Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, we learned about slaves coming to the United States, their treatment, the separations of families, and brave stories of the home’s owner, German immigrant Jacob Burke, who helped take a stand against slavery by risking his life to help escapees make their way north.
At 16th Street Baptist Church we spoke with Rev. Dr. Carolyn McKinstry, who shared the scary reality of what life was like growing up as a young black girl in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s; her memories as a survivor of the church bombing that killed four of her friends; and the role of complicity in these events and events of today. We then walked the Freedom Trail with her and learned about the numerous people and events that chipped away at the segregation laws in Birmingham.
After marching over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, we stopped at a memorial for Viola Luizzo, who was another victim in the struggle for equal justice. She came from Michigan to participate in the Selma to Montgomery march after Bloody Sunday and was murdered by the KKK.
In the Lynching Museum in Montgomery we learned some of the thousands of stories of people whose lives were cut too short by hatred, racial laws, and general American complicity. Confronting the thousands of lynchings that took place in the United States evoked a range of emotions from outrage to shame to sadness to grief.
Stories lined the memorial telling about a person whose life was taken suddenly and violently and without due process. Throughout the memorial hung 800 stone memorials 6 feet tall, one for each county in the U.S. where a known lynching took place. The person’s name and date of murder was carved into the large rectangle monument. Confronting this reality was difficult.
Believe me, there were lots of other stories that were shared on this trip: Emmett Till’s murder and trial, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination at the Lorraine Hotel, and all the stories in the museum there, the story of Medgar Evers’ assassination and stories of his family from his home in Jackson, Mississippi, and so many more.
Confronting a dark era of our history, recognizing the individual actions that so many people took to bend the arc toward justice, seeing ourselves in them, and sharing these experiences is what will help us heal and move forward together as a nation. Stories surrounded us.
Lucky for us, our students’ stories were recorded too as part of a documentary film that The Nation is making to teach others about the stories of Civil Rights history and how we can use them to come to terms with our past.
Storytelling plays an important role in giving people an identity. When we share stories together we create national memory. Creating a narrative that includes all of our stories is vital in moving forward together.
In her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the power of storytelling and the importance of telling many stories about a people. Not just one. As I traveled with our students last month, I could not help but think about her talk and these lines:
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispose and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower and humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also be used to repair that broken dignity.”
By honestly and thoughtfully telling the story of the Civil Rights Movement, especially to our young people, perhaps we took a small step in repairing that broken dignity.
By Colleen Amberg
Mrs. Amberg teaches sixth-grade English and social studies, leads development of our social studies curriculum, and directs our Global Studies program for Middle School.