It’s not even Black History Month anymore, but in the course of a recent week we were invited to do three different school presentations on The Civil Rights Movement and our experiences in Mississippi. What better way to spend the week before Passover, the commemoration of the Jews’ liberation from slavery? Talking with students promised to be a lot more uplifting than the ritual cleaning and the removal of all impurities that we commit ourselves to the week before the holiday.
The three classrooms were almost unimaginably different, as if they were selected by a political party looking to put forward a diverse ticket of candidates. The first was a largely Latinx middle school classroom in Los Angeles. This is a class I’ve been visiting since early in the school year. Their teacher Alex Krueger is a former student in the teacher preparation program I worked with at the University. In an earlier blog I wrote about the trajectory of her growth as a teacher over her first six or seven years. She may have been my student as some point in the distant past, but by now the authority curve has flattened and we are colleagues. She has been doing a unit on protest and change and asked if I would be willing to recap a talk about my Mississippi experiences that I had done for her classes in Chicago.
Alex is always good at priming students for special activities like this, so before my virtual visit she had them submit questions based on the work they had already done and the little bit she told them about me. As you might expect the list she sent me from her eighth graders ranged from off-topic (Do you write poetry?) to voyeuristic (Did you ever see anyone get killed? What’s the craziest thing that happened to you?) to profound enough to give me pause (Did your views of integration change because of your experience? Did you have Black friends growing up? Have you ever been able to change someone else’s mind?)
The session was successful enough to result in an invitation for a follow-up visit and a request from Alex to repeat the talk for her other classes. I’m not denying that we have an interesting story to tell, but I’ve always contended that students love to engage with adults other than their teachers, people who can bring the real world into the classroom that represents something different from those teachers who may be nice enough but who are all too familiar. It doesn’t matter whether they’re jockeys or plumbers, as long as they have stories to tell about their work and their lives. We had the advantage of being able to connect our own personal story to the historical moment they were examining, breathing life into an otherwise remote topic.
Our second stop was closer to home. Francis Parker is an elite K-12 school, rooted in the philosophy of John Dewey and committed to the pursuit of social justice. Its students are predominantly white and well-off. A friend who had taught there recommended us to a current faculty member who had asked for suggestions of people who had been in Mississippi in the Civil Rights years. The teacher’s original request tended toward the academic, focusing on issues like the training for Freedom Summer and other topics that could be best addressed by someone much more inside groups like SNCC than we were. We suggested instead that we focus on our own personal stories, centered around the historically Black college outside of Jackson where we taught and the anti-poverty program I worked for during the final period of our time in Mississippi, a direct outgrowth of the Movement’s work that preceded it. We sent photos of the three Civil Rights workers who were missing when we first arrived in the summer of 1964 and whose disappearance was responsible for reinforcing the fear that colored our years in the state. We – I say we because Rosellen joined me for this presentation and the one that followed – also sent some photos of Unita Blackwell – a legendary activist who made the amazing leap from the life of a sharecropper to being the vice-chairman of the state Democratic party. She also happened to be our daughter’s godmother and one of the pictures showed her cradling the newborn Adina in her arms. As part of their unit the teacher had asked the students to write about one key figure in the movement and it happened that one of them had chosen Unita!
This was a class mostly of graduating seniors who had completed their course work for graduation and had chosen to take this course purely out of interest. There’s a term in Hebrew called torah l’shma – study for its own sake. Their decision to be there in this time of BLM and George Floyd is a credit to their presence on our Zoom screen. Their questions were sophisticated and complex, as one would expect from their age and the exposure to the topic that preceded our visit. They were a far cry from the fifth graders to whom I had presented years earlier, one of whom asked if I had been present when Lincoln (or was it MLK?) freed the slaves. I always have to remind myself of how distant these events are in the lives of the students we were addressing, most of whom were born 45 years ago. At their age, I was situated at that distance from the Spanish-American War!
Our final virtual return to Mississippi was particularly fraught with meaning for me. Roxana Enriquez and I had collaborated for several years around the work in her middle school classroom in Chicago. She had relocated to Brooklyn to a school that was located just three blocks from where I spent my first 21 years, in an area sometimes called Brownsville and sometimes East Flatbush, depending on what your class aspirations were. In my time it was an almost entirely Jewish area but was now predominantly Haitian. One of the teachers informed me that my former elementary school, PS. 189, is now referred to as “1-Haiti-9.” There was a civil rights story to be told right there, without focusing on faraway Mississippi. My parents participated in the white flight from the neighborhood that flipped it almost instantly from white to Black, despite the fact that the new residents were more middle class than the people who were fleeing because of their presence.
The incredibly polite comments the students sent in response to Roxana’s request to write to us about what they had learned proved once again that it’s the stories that stay with them – the time someone who disapproved of our integration work poured sugar in our gas tank and the time white patrons in the local movie theater rained assorted missiles on our integrated group of students and teachers for daring to sit in what had previously been a whites only section. The following is one of my favorite student comments because it showed that one of the points we have emphasized with all the groups with whom we’ve spoken had made an impression, that the movement went forward thanks to the courage of local people who dared to stand up in the face of extreme danger.
It wasn’t really something I learned but I realized that we really don’t learn the names of the activists that did just as much as the bigger names did. It’s not that I didn’t learn anything else, that’s just the part that resonated with me the most.
One of most difficult things about doing talks like these is avoiding the impression that our actions were heroic and that we were at the center of these historic events. It’s also exceedingly odd to have become a historical relic, a museum piece, soon to be gone from the stage like the remaining Holocaust survivors. Like them, it’s a privilege and a responsibility to bear witness to the violent racism that continues today, albeit in different garb. We came away from the week primed to tell the story of the Jews’ liberation from slavery which we’re obligated to tell as if we were present at the events. In our case, how lucky we were to participate in this modern-day liberation.