BRACK: Teaching more about civil rights era will bring us together

At a corner in Selma, Ala., near the National Park Service’s Selma Interpretative Center. The youths on the trip can be seen in the background.

By Andy Brack, editor and publisher  |  A teenager almost started to cry Jan. 14 as she read a passage from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  Her white peers, normally boisterous, were markedly subdued as they witnessed stark museum displays of what life was like for black Southerners during civil rights struggles.

One thing was clear for more than two dozen Charleston youths on a church trip to learn about the South’s special kind of past apartheid:  They had no real understanding about what it was like to live in the Jim Crow South of 60 years ago.  They didn’t learn it from textbooks and lessons in school.  They had no real concept of the flashes of vitriol, hate and anger that rocked many Southern communities as they wrestled with civil rights and big cultural changes following World War II.

“They know about Martin Luther King and maybe Rosa Parks – a brief history – but I think that’s where it stops,” observed the Rev. Canon Caleb Lee, a pastor at Grace Church Cathedral in Charleston who led the youths on the four-day pilgrimage to Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery.

These kids didn’t know how bad it was in some parts of the South when their grandparents – or great-grandparents – were their same age.  They didn’t know about drooling, snarling attack dogs that police turned on blacks in Alabama.  They didn’t know about the deaths, the arrests, the non-violent protests turned into melees.  They didn’t know about the firehoses, the colored water fountains and the starkly different classrooms for blacks compared to whites.  They didn’t really understand much about  earlier decades of lynching or the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four girls died.  They didn’t know about all of the violence, the hate, and the conflict that ripped apart towns and cities for more than a decade.

In one sense, maybe it’s good these students didn’t know until now about the South’s bloody civil rights history.  They are growing up in a time when helicoptering parents offer bubbles of protection from all sorts of bad things that happen in the world.   They’re members of an always-connected tech generation who seem to have cell phones surgically attached to their bodies.  They live in an era of acceptance that is much different from the divisions of three generations ago that increasingly but slowly became more tolerant.

This banner hangs in downtown Montgomery, Ala.

To say the trip was eye-opening is an understatement.

“They learned that there’s a whole lot in the world they don’t know about,” said Lee, an Episcopal priest in his 30s.  “I learned there’s a whole lot I don’t know.

“To experience it was profound,” he said.  “To go to that church and go to that museum [Birmingham Civil Rights Institute] and walk the bridge [in Selma, Ala.] and ride that road they walked and end up in Montgomery. …  It brings the importance to the forefront.  When you experience something, it’s a whole other level.  I won’t forget it.”

Unfortunately, too  many kids across the South don’t get such a first-hand encounter with our civil rights past.  They get a day off of school or hear about the past from parents and grandparents.  It’s not visceral.

Today, there’s no point in wallowing in our Southern past, but it is important for us to understand how far we’ve come – and how far we still have to go.  If we forget the past, we may be destined to slip back into the intolerance and racism that separated us.

A modern parallel is the Holocaust, which happened a dozen years before America’s civil rights struggles began.  Fewer and fewer survivors are around to tell of the horrors of Nazi Germany.  And what has erupted as time passed on?  Holocaust deniers who claim the deaths of millions of Jews never really happened.

For the South, a region enamored with a moonlight and magnolia history, it’s vital that we continue to connect with our recent past and not forget it.  It can help bring us together more.  Let’s also hope communities and schools across the South start teaching more about moral courage and our struggles for civil rights than the old, dead history of a civil war that has torn us apart for more than a century.

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One Comment

  1. Yvette R. Murray says:

    This is a GREAT article. It’s so poignant it almost hurts! We must tell the truth. Especially our Southern truth and we must tell it loudly. Thanks for writing it.