In celebration of Black History Month, 6th graders began with a viewing of The Children’s March, a documentary which enlightened them on the significant involvement of children, many of whom were their ages and younger, in the Civil Rights Movement. It was a real eye-opener. Then we read poems from Randall Horton’s The Definition of Place focusing on profiles of the four girls killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing and the two boys who were killed that same day in separate racially motivated incidents. They also viewed Selma, Lord Selma, a movie based on the experiences of a young girl, Sheyann Webb, when Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Selma and she marched along with him across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Both of these films prepared them for a visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute where they saw exhibits and artifacts chronicling the history of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.
Later in the month, along with the 5th grade classes, they joined millions of others nationally as they participated in the African American Read-In by choosing and reading poems written by African Americans. An initiative of the Black Caucus of the NCTE, the Read-In was initiated for the purpose of making literacy a significant part of Black History Month activities.
Seventh graders also participated in African American Read-In. They read poems from a list that included Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Robert Hayden, Elizabeth Alexander, Countee Cullen, and Natasha Trethewey.
To enhance their study of Black history, they traveled to Montgomery where they visited the Civil Rights Memorial Center. After watching and discussing a short video, they were invited to sign the Wall of Tolerance, pledging to confront violence and prejudice in their own life experiences. The visit ended with an opportunity to place their hands in the water of the Memorial, a circular black granite table that records the names of martyrs of the Movement in lines that radiate like the hands of a clock.
From there they moved to the Freedom Rides Memorial, previously Montgomery’s historic Greyhound bus station. Having been introduced to the major players, such as college students John Lewis and Gloria Nash, through a video they had watched at school, the students learned even more about the horrific events in Birmingham and Anniston related to an attempt by activists to challenge the segregation of buses traveling interstate. The students saw exhibits, read transcripts, and heard stories from the tour guides of those brave individuals.
The information to which all of the students were exposed during Black History Month was sobering and uncomfortable, to say the least, yet vital to an understanding and appreciation of how our past, as painful as it may be, impacts our present.