I still have some work to do. Summer is almost here, and I still have work to do. Last week, we finished our lessons on the Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1963, some eight, hard years after the negotiated desegregation agreement in Montgomery, Rosa Parks seemed almost a distant memory. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, under the guidance of Dr. King, needed a fresh victory.
The Albany Movement in Albany, Georgia had stalled in 1962. A crafty local sheriff, an impulsive young adults brigade, a flawed local strategy, and a fickle national press bumped the Movement against a wall. Without significant progress, the weary would soon become weak.
Reverend Shuttlesworth, a local legend, volunteered Birmingham, the “most segregated city in America” as the next testing ground. Eugene “Bull” Connor was waiting. So was history. A divided, white local government distracted each other with rhetoric and provided a window of opportunity. But local white clergy, black businessmen, moderate politicians, and even Attorney General Robert Kennedy questioned the decision of Dr. King to press for freedom right away. “Give it time,” they suggested.
Not even Dr. King’s solitary confinement ]tilted the balance. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” while compelling, did not substantially shift the terrain. In 1963, it seemed the call for civil rights had become yesterday’s news. Then the miraculous happened again. My students learned in the last two weeks. about how the fiery Reverend James Bevel devised a plan to bypass the economic and psychological barriers shackling adults. He recruited children, junior college students, high schoolers, and middle schoolers. to take up the march.
It was never an easy decision. Dr. King and others struggled with the implications and the dangers. But once the children learned they were needed, there was no holding back. By the time it was over, over 5,000 young people had been arrested. By the eighth day, the children accomplished what some adults–those who protested–had failed to achieve. Since Reverend Shuttlesworth first tried to organize civil resistance in Birmingham in 1956, violent retaliation had ruled the day.
The children brought Birmingham to its knees. They defied understandable parental resistance, angry police, fire hoses, dogs, and, most of all, fear. The evaporation of fear created conversation. Despite whatever racial animas would continue, the nation would never be the same again.
On June 11,in a national address, President Kennedy told America it was being unfair, that the life of race-based, post-slavery restrictions would never hold, not if the nation’s promise and foundation would not devolve into myth. His assassination five months and eleven days later did not deter his exceptional successor, Lydon Baines Johnson, from ensuring the start of the better days Dr. King foretold.
We learned all of this last week and then some. While they watched the footage of ancient peers taking steps toward self-determination, they openly wished that time and feeling would come back today. “I would do it,” one student said, and then another, and another. “It looked like fun.”
And in someways it was, despite the turmoil. We read and annotated a packet on the historic unfolding while also watching live videos. Many became angry when I stopped the tape to add some observation or another. They wanted to feel it for themselves. Finally, I let them just inhale it. Then I explained our writing assignment for this week.
“Was Dr. King’s decision to use children in the Birmingham protest both strategic and justified?” This week, I will review my remarks on their last persuasive essay on the necessity of Emmett Till’s murder, and reiterate the structure such an essay requires. We will revisit thesis statements, essay maps, context, and background. I will go over the placement and goal of the oppositional paragraph where conflicting opinions are acknowledged and then disarmed.
It reminds me of my past days as a debate coach. I will never forget the amazing growth we had. My students won seven consecutive DC Urban Debate League championships, besting magnate, private, and charter schools along the way. I remember one year the title hung in the balance, and our team. composed of large football players, sparred with two petite, young ladies from a tony private school. Even before the round began, everyone could see the assumption of triumph on their faces. Those students didn’t think we had a chance–until we beat them. As I recall it, it wasn’t even close I might be wrong about the memory, but the end result is true. That day, both our opponents and my students learned that excellence, like change, is never out of reach once the fear is gone.
Friday afternoon, after school ended, a few boys with some years yet to mature entered my classroom yelling something about white hate, and their behavior is really what told me about the work still to be done. I understand now why so many of my colleagues feel so uncomfortable celebrating Black History Month, especially the hard parts that came before and after Dr. King’s dream. But I intend to make my students see that the past only died because enough people agreed to let it go–from every stripe and direction. President Obama won two terms not because of the black vote, but because of the American vote, of which we were a part.
Clearly, the Civil Rights Movement is an American story, as fundamental as it gets. We all have risen in its wake, like a submarine cleared to surface. The only remaining danger lies within. Most of my students, if not all, have already declared their essay intention. They will defend Dr. King’s decision. They believe children are more than vessels. They believe children have an active role to play in making today, tomorrow.
No where should that capability be more apparent than the classroom. So we read and write and consider. We train our minds to do our thoughts justice. But, to do so, we must be prepared, like families, towns, suburbs cities, states, and nations, to disclose our trespasses, mend our wounds, and heal.
Spring is everywhere in DC. As I pointed to the sunshine draping the windows on Thursday, I prayed with my students, “Lord, thank you for teaching us that winter is never always. Help us to embrace and appreciate the sun and warmth You sent our way. Help us not only to cherish the blossoms unfolding outside, but also to feed the flower within.”
“Amen,” they answered in every class. Amen, indeed.
–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)