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In Their Own Words: Waring Eighth Graders Describe Their Trip to Alabama to "See and Feel the Truth of the Civil Rights Era"

May 2, 2019 10:28:48 AM

*All-School Meeting Transcript - April 19, 2019*

Toni Rose: Social Justice lawyer Bryan Stevenson has said, “You can’t demand truth and reconciliation. You have to demand truth; people have to hear it, and then they have to want to reconcile themselves to that truth.”

Gabe: On March 25, 25 Group 1 students and six chaperones journeyed to Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, Alabama to hear, see, and feel the truth of the Civil Rights Era and its ongoing legacy.

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Colleen: Over the course of five days, we visited museums, attended a Church service, and played soccer with Selma residents.

Chris: We crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in silence and passed the spot where John Lewis was beaten on Bloody Sunday for demanding the right to vote.

Amelia: We saw memorials commemorating the Confederacy and memorials commemorating the heroes of the Civil Rights movement.

Collin: We prepared our own dinners at the Airbnb, hung out at a local youth center, and ate lunch at Mama Sack’s.

Naviah: When we arrived at the airport in Atlanta there were no broken bones.

Toby: By the time we got in the vans to drive to Birmingham, there was a broken bone.

Ari: Peter’s fault

Peter: Ari’s fault

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Grace: We gave presentations about the Civil Rights movement while standing in the very spots where Civil Rights activists protested, demonstrated, and sometimes died.

Adam: Toby taught us about Bull Connor and the Birmingham Campaign when we visited Kelly Ingram Park.

Toby: Eugene “Bull” Connor was a politician who served as Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama. A position that gave him control over the city’s police and fire departments. He was strongly against civil rights and was a extreme segregationist. He used his power to enforce segregation during the Birmingham campaign. In 1963 he ordered the police to use high power hoses and police dogs to attack non-violent protesters. He became a symbol of racism and his violence and intolerance inspired many people to join the Civil Right Movement...

Ananda: Vaughn taught us about the bombing at the 16th St. Baptist Church.

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Vaughn: On September 15, 1963, a bomb was set off outside of a women’s bathroom at a predominantly black church in Birmingham. Four girls were killed and many others injured. This was an act of white supremacist terrorism where four members of the KKK placed around 10 sticks of dynamite outside of the women’s bathroom in attempt to scare off African Americans almost as a “warning shot” to try and send a message saying “you don’t belong here, go home.” The story is told that the KKK was not trying to kill anyone, only scare them. At approximately 10:22am an anonymous caller called the church and 14-year-old secretary Carolyn Maull picked up the phone and the caller said “three minutes” and less than one minute later the bomb detonated killing four girls. The victims of the bombing were Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins all 14 years old and 11 year old Denise McNair...

Rich S: After those four little girls were killed, singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone wrote some of her most politically engaged music. Lou researched her life and art.

Lou: Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933, in Tryon, NC, was a singer/songwriter and civil rights activist throughout her reign from 1954 - 2003. Simone was known as the High Priestess of Soul “but it was a label she deeply resented, seeing in it only a racial classification." She preferred the appellation of a folk singer. Lisa Simone, Nina’s daughter says, “My mother was one of the greatest entertainers of all time, hands down… She was a revolutionary, she found a purpose for the stage, a place from which she could use her voice to speak out for her people. But when the show ended, everyone else went home. People seem to think that when she went out on stage, that was when she became Nina Simone. My mother was Nina Simone 24/7, and that’s where it became a problem...” In 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, was bombed by members of the KKK, killing four young girls. This heinous event prompted Nina to write one of her most famous songs to date, as well as the most controversial. She says, “When the kids got killed in that church… that did it. First you get depressed, and after that, you get mad. And when these kids got bombed, I just sat down and wrote this song.” She titled it, “Mississippi Goddam”...

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Maud: We walked nine miles on our first day in Montgomery. It was hot and some of us got a little sunburned. In the morning, we met Michelle Browder who gave us “more than a tour” of the city.

Amelia: Michelle Browder was the spunkiest tour guide I've ever had. I mean who couldn’t love her camo jacket with sparkly red glasses on the back that identically matched the ones on her head. She knew everyone and everyone knew her. Banana Pudding man saluted to her and Blue Suit man stopped and conversed for a few minutes, she hugged all the kids who called to her, and recommended a hot dog street vendor that she knew personally. Cars stopped for her as we jaywalked 7 different times. Her company’s name is MoreThanTours which she explained symbolizes the actual view she would give us of Montgomery.

Peter: First Michelle brought us to the Alabama river where slaves would be brought in by boat and taken to the center of town to be auctioned. She made us bend over and walk three steps forward. Then she made us stand up and she told us that's what slaves would do when they were picking cotton. After every three steps she said, “imagine you have to do this every day from 4 am - 9 pm with no breaks." Even just a couple steps was uncomfortable for me and slaves had to do this everyday.

Andrew: After saying a thankful goodbye to Michelle, we visited the newly opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Toni Rose gave a presentation in the beautiful garden just outside the Memorial.

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Toni Rose: Close your eyes and imagine it was 1919, the middle of the Jim Crow Era. You were seven years old and you had to leave in the middle of the night with your family so your father would not be hanged. Having arrived to start your new life your family friend decided to return back home. They accused him of assaulting a white woman and they planned to publicly lynch him. You found out while reading the paper and finding headlines about his lynching. Another headline caught your eye. It said the mayor claimed he couldn’t do anything about the lynching and therefore wouldn’t stop it. As much as you dreaded it the next day came and 10,000 people arrived to watch the lynching. As he was hanging they dismembered parts of his body to hold as souvenirs to either keep or sell. People in the crowd watching randomly shot around 2,000 bullets at his body and someone accidentally shot the rope knocking him to the ground to be burned at that very spot. No one was ever held accountable for this lynching or most other lynchings ever. You can open your eyes now.

This is one example out of the thousands of examples of lynching in America. This memorial displays 4,000 examples. This is shown by 800 pillars. Each pillar has the name of the county and the names of the African Americans killed in that county. These pillars are to represent the casualties of lynchings. Some are hanging and some holding up the ceiling. Some who have visited the sight interpret that the ones holding up the ceiling represent the African Americans holding up the ceiling.

Criminal justice attorney Bryan Stevenson built this memorial as a way to bring awareness to the horrific lynching stories. It was opened on April 18, 2018. It’s the first memorial that is dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, and African Americans humiliated by racial segregation. I hope you can imagine the terrifying story each pillar tells.

Ari: The memorial went from above ground to below, signifying the switch from life to death. The pillars go from standing, to hanging, to lying down. This might represent the transition from living, to being hanged, to being buried. Without walls, the sun shone on the rust pillars. 800 pillars. Every pillar has at least one name, one death. Every known name laid out for me, and I still can’t get it. It is not just a group of names, it is a kill count. Thousands of names. All dead for some petty reason. There is also a sense of guilt to live in a country where the occupants would do these sorts of things.

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Collin: The peace of the monument beautifully honors the thousands of human beings who died in racial terror lynchings in America. The only sound is the whisper of quiet of running water. The monument’s scale, hundreds of metal memorials hanging from the ceiling or sitting on the floor, gives a sense of scale to the tragic events that took place in this country, and in some parts of the monument the ceiling casts a cooling shadow, adding to the peacefulness of this memorial to truly tragic events.

Olga: The word “unknown” is echoed on almost each of the columns. “Unknown” means a life, a person yet, one so brutally massacred they are unidentifiable.
Plaques lined the sides of the walls. They told stories of people that were brutally lynched.

They were lynched for:
not using Mr. in a sentence,
not running an errand,
knocking on the door,
writing a letter,
having a photo,
moving back home,
reprimanding kids for throwing rocks at them,
talking to white women,
asking for a shovel back from the white woman who stole it,
asking for water.

Ananda: Someone was tortured and killed in Georgia on November 20, 1899. History doesn’t remember their name. We will never know the excuses their killer gave for the hate crime. We can never celebrate their life, we only mourn their death. So for the victims of hate. For the anonymous people that died gruesome and painful deaths. “For the hanged and beaten. For the the shot, drowned and burned. For the tortured, tormented, and terrorized. For those abandoned by rule of law. We will remember.”

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… Green, 1877
Alice Green, 1895
Sam Green 1905
King Green, 1909
Jim Green, 1913
William Green, 1914
Eugene Green, 1919
Powell Green, 1919
Shadrick Green, 1927
Alleen Green, 1930
George Green, 1933
Tom Green, 1938
Ernest Green, 1942

13 of my possible relatives.
Grace Evelyn Laverty-Green-Sullivan-DeGrace
13 Possible Relatives: not including all those “Unknown’s”
All the unresolved crimes, the families who will never know, some who were unrecognizable due to the violence done unto them.

Rowan: We saw memorials everywhere we went. In some places, memorials to Confederate leaders stood next to memorials to the Civil Rights leaders.

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Cecily: The Jefferson Davis statue still adorns the lawn of the Alabama State House. Only a painted black spot on the sidewalk below marks the spot where MLK spoke after the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery.

Collin: Montgomery is a city where a monument to a march for freedom lies alongside a monument to a march celebrating oppression in the form of the Confederacy. Churches where African Americans organized against their oppressors are a few blocks from where enslaved peoples were sold at auction.
On the very footsteps of the statehouse is a statue of James Marion Sims, whom a plaque describes as a pioneer in surgical techniques. Our tour guide, Michelle Browder, reveals the truth. Sims experimented on slaves without anesthesia.

Ananda: The pedestal that Jefferson Davis is revered upon reads “Soldier, Scholar, Statesman.” The names of the states that joined the Confederacy rim the base of the pedestal. No mention of the hundreds of thousands of people he fought a war to keep in shackles.

Grace: Multiple statues of former slaveholders and confederates stand at the state building. These statues overlook the whole city: where people protested, marched, boycotted, fought for freedom. They did all this while their former oppressors loomed over them, as if still trying to prevent their advancement from beyond the grave.

We cannot advance in civil rights while these statues still loom over American cities.

Owen R: Maya Lin’s memorial to the heroes and martyrs of the Civil Rights movement is just a short walk from the statue of Jefferson Davis.

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Maud: The Maya Lin memorial is a lot different than others as you can touch it and try to be connected to their names and remember them. The fact that you can touch their names also reminds you that they were a person by giving you something you can put your hands on. It was the water that really completed the memorial as the fact that it was always flowing tells us that people are still dying for the right to vote. The civil rights movement is not over until no more lives are lost for equal rights.

Kellen: At the Live Oak Cemetery in Selma, we saw a monument celebrating the life of Confederate General Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the KKK.

Cecily: I’m still dumbfounded by the absolute beauty of the place, with all of the dangling Spanish moss and the Southern Magnolias, dogwoods, and vibrantly colored bushes all in bloom.

There’s just about as many Confederate flags as there are enchanting blooming bushes full of pink, white, and red flowers. The bust that depicts the leader (or “wizard”) of the KKK doesn’t even mention the existence of slavery or the KKK. The bad side of the past should be shown, too.

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Gabe: While I was at the cemetery I was upset at who the statues were for and the deeds done by the people being memorialized. I couldn’t imagine how I would feel if I was a person of color walking through this cemetery. To know that people who would treat you as less than human and enslave you for the color of your skin are being honored by many to this day is a feeling I will never be able to describe.

Owen C.: Can a memorial be built as a place to remember all the people that died in this war, not as the Confederate soldiers or generals that they died as, but as the human beings that they were as well. We learned from Frederick Douglass that both the masters and the slaves were corrupted by slavery, so is it possible to honor the innocent child inside of those Confederate soldiers that died to the disease of slavery? Or maybe it isn’t possible to separate these people from the ideas that they represent at all.

Rowan: The power of a memorial comes from its grandeur. You have to look up to a statue to see it, and you can’t change those words engraved in stone and the noble, heroic pose of the memorial. It holds an unchangeable permanence that seems to carry on the ideas of their cause, even if they are dead. If you take away the imposing and ominous statue but leave the pedestal or the base, it can serve as a reminder without that sense of power. The power of a statue is gone when there’s just a slab of stone. This could be a way to remember the past without honoring it. We need to rethink how we look at history before we write it.

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Chris: You see Nathaniel Bedford Forrest looking down at you with all his “accomplishments” written on the side of his statue: “Untutored genius” “Defender of Selma” “The first with the most.” Paragraphs depict him valiantly defending the south as Abraham Lincoln tried to force them back into the Union. Then you go to a park and see a statue of MLK. He stands looking not down, but outwards. Looking forwards to the future. He stands humbly holding a book. He’s not a giant imposing figure forcing you to look up to him. He wants you to look with him, forwards.

Olga: At the same time that Civil Rights leaders pushed for racial equality, other activists advocated for women and the LGBTQ community.

Jordie: In 1963, author Betty Friedan wrote the Feminine Mystique. In this book, Friedan sheds lights on the plight of the American woman during the 1950s and 1960s. Friedan’s argument stated that the admired image of the domestic housewife created a national identity crisis between all American women. American women were socially pressured into becoming homemakers by what Friedan called; the “feminine mystique:" an idealized image of domestic femininity that arose in the 1950s after WWII The feminine mystique was reinforced through education, popular media, and academic theories. Friedan also talks about the "problem with no name" which she argues is the dissatisfaction among all American women, specifically middle class women bored with the home. Friedan argued that both men and women must reject the feminine mystique,” to control the “problem with no name.” The Feminine Mystique book sparked second wave feminism. While the first wave, ending with the 19th amendment focused on legal rights, second wave feminism was about more than just enfranchisement. After that, the third wave of feminism began in the early 90s, it’s ideals based on intersectionality, this is the wave where the Riot Grrrl movement begun. During the 3rd wave, feminist theorist and author bell hooks criticized Friedan’s lack of intersectionality and classist and racist assumptions within the Feminine Mystique. Right now, we are in the 4th wave of feminism, which began with the Me Too movement. Without the Feminine mystique, we would not have the 2nd wave of feminism, which in turn would have created a total butterfly effect.

Ananda: Before leaving Montgomery, we visited the Freedom Rides Museum and the Rosa Parks museum. Andrew gave his presentation in front of a bus station that was bombed and Naviah gave her presentation on the very spot that Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat.

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Andrew: In 1946 and 1960 the Supreme Court ruled in the cases Morgan v. Virginia and Boynton v. Virginia that Jim Crow seating for interstate passengers was unconstitutional. These rulings were ignored in southern states. The federal government did nothing to enforce the rulings. The Freedom Riders followed and were inspired by The Journey of Reconciliation, a group of four men that wanted to, “test application of the Supreme Court’s 1946 decision in Morgan v. Virginia outlawing Jim Crow seating for interstate passengers” ... In May 14, 1961 one of the most well known freedom rides occurred... This group was going fine until they reached just south of Anniston. A southbound Greyhound bus driver told the driver of the Freedom Riders to pull over. Then a white man ran to the window of their bus and yelled “There's an angry and unruly group gathered at Anniston." Then a group of fifty people holding metal pipes clubs and chains surrounded the bus. The Anniston Klan leader William Chappel rushed the bus. The Freedom Riders were petrified. Their nightmares were a reality. The group of angry rioters hit the bus and threw rocks at the windows. Then one member ran and threw a flaming rag inside the window of the bus. It exploded and the bus caught on fire. The bus filled with dark grey smoke, and the riders choked and could not breath. Klan members pushed their faces against the glass and screamed at the choking riders... They were all lucky enough to live...

Diane Nash, who was a Nashville college student was the a leader of the Nashville Student Movement and SNCC. She fought to find replacements to resume the rides. “On May 17, a new set of riders, 10 students from Nashville who were active in the Nashville Student Movement, took a bus to Birmingham, where they were arrested by Bull Connor and jailed.”

... The Freedom Riders brought Supreme Court rulings and ideas to life. They pushed the federal government to do something about the issue. They were a great example to others...

Naviah: Rosa Parks, an African American woman, was an activist in the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, in the mid 1950s. The early 1950s were very segregated. People were separated by race from the day they were born in segregated hospitals to the day they died in segregated cemeteries and all the years in between...

In 1943, Rosa Parks entered a bus and paid. The bus driver told her that she had to get off and re-enter through the black door. Rosa refused and the driver threw her off the bus. He left her on the sidewalk and kept the money. The same year Rosa joined the NAACP. She realized after this experience that this was an important organization that strives for equality for all people...

On December 1, 1955, Rosa boarded a bus and when she was paying she realized that she recognized the driver. He was the same person who evicted her 12 years earlier. She sat down in the first row for the black people right behind the white section next to four other people. On the next stop more people came on the bus and the white section was full. The driver told the first few rows in the black section to move to the back and stand. Everyone in the row moved to the back except Rosa. She got arrested. She asked the police officer why they always push them around but he just said, “I don't know but the law is the law.” She was only 43 years old when she got arrested. Rosa said,“I don't think any segregation law angered black people in Montgomery more than bus segregation.” When people would ask about what happened everyone would say that Rosa was just tired. But Rosa said, “The only tired I was was tired of giving in.” When she was in the local jail Rosa’s mother called Ed Nixon from the NAACP. They believed that she was the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her arrest for civil disobedience in violating Alabama segregation laws. They helped Rosa get out of jail.

Because of what Rosa Parks did, other civil rights activists were starting to get arrested using civil disobedience in order to get in the news to get noticed...

Sunday morning, we split up and visited three different church services. One group went to Old Ship, an African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Toni Rose: We walked in late. Josh had gotten the time wrong. The service started at 10:30 and it was now 11:00. We could hear the loud music from where we were parked. I walked in awkwardly, not knowing where to sit, what to think or do. Trying not to be a bother we received our programs quietly and started listening to the music. Most of the lyrics were about praising the lord and how he’s good to us. I didn’t know how to feel at first. I’m not religious so I had never been to a church service before. I don’t personally believe that there’s a god who controls us all, but trying to see and understand people who do is very interesting.

Adam: The music made the entire room full of life, and it sounded more like jazz or blues rather than normal church music, which has the organ playing and a whole choir. The music at this church was simple with only two instruments and vocals. My favorite part of the whole experience was when the man at the piano started to put his heart and soul into the music.

Amelia: During the service we said the Affirmation of Faith. As an atheist, it was difficult to speak those words, knowing they don’t belong to me. The words were put in my mouth even if I didn't agree with them. It was odd and unusual experience I really never had before but somehow I didn't feel out of place. I had told them before that I was unaffiliated, but they didn't really seem to care. In their eyes I was still a child of God.

Cecily: The hospitality they gave us was immeasurable, they acted as though we were old friends returning from a long trip. The reverend talked passionately about a widow who completely devoted herself to God by staying in the temple day and night (physically prepared), praying all day (spiritually prepared), and thinking of nothing but God (mentally prepared). It was an inspiring metaphor for devoting yourself wholly to your goals so as to achieve them, and I think it’s applicable through the lens of any religion or belief.

Peter: The thing that struck me the most was the sense of close community throughout the entire service. Going in I thought the Reverend would be out of touch with the people in the church. However, when the church service started going, it was clear that she ran her services more inclusively, which let the people at the service feel like they had a home there.

Jordie: Another group visited a Baptist Church.

Kellen: It wasn’t just the message that got to me but the way Speller spoke. His voice was like a train, going at a constant speed which was pretty fast, and not easily stopped. Where in other groups the congregation would ask questions about the sermon, this man started and didn’t stop until it was over. His voice would rise up and fall throughout the sermon. At points his voice sounded like hammer blows, three words emphasized and then bam he would raise his voice on the fourth.

Chris: After the service I talked to a woman named Sophie Harrison. I asked why she decided to come to the church and she said that in her childhood her house was firebombed. She and the rest of her family were forced to live in a tiny shack and relied on the town for their food and drink. It made her consider killing all the people responsible for doing this to her. Sophie had become a very good shot with her father’s shotgun from using it to hunt dinner. She had her revenge all planned out but then she heard either the voice of Jesus, MLK, or her mother who said, “if you kill then you are no better than the bombers or the K.K.K.”

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Vaughn: On our trip back to Atlanta we stopped at the airfield where the Tuskegee Airmen trained for their heroic service during WWII. They weren’t allowed to fly with white pilots.

Amelia: We were different people when we landed in Boston than we were when we left. We had heard and seen the truth about our nation’s past.

Owen R.: Michelle Browder said that you can't leave Alabama the same way you came in. I think that's very true. If I had not been previously learning about slavery then all I would think about Alabama was that it was warm, sunny, and everyone was nice without knowing that it had not always been that way.

Waring Student
Written by Waring Student