Notes from the Field: American South
by Judith Wombwell
On reflection, the American Civil Rights Immersion Program maintained a three-pronged mission. To walk in the footsteps of the heroes of the historical Civil Rights Movement, to relate historical events to current human and civil rights issues, and to provide a partnership opportunity for students at Phillips Academy to connect with students from a dramatically different region in the country, the Mississippi Delta. Key to the success of this trip was a wonderful group of students. They were eager to investigate the issues and eager to “road trip.” Our cultural immersion included a wide variety of foods including fried green tomatoes and fried snickers bars. We had a perfect sized group. The 10 students along with faculty members Allen Grim and Damany Fisher could fit easily around one table at a restaurant, or into one hotel room for our nightly debriefs. In these nightly talks, run by the students, we would discuss experiences of the day then move into deeper discussions about race, poverty, incarceration and education.
As the leader of the group this year, I was a little nervous that the material would be too heavy, and I would need to provide more “fun.” But I quickly found that this group of students came to learn. They really appreciated the time we had to think and talk together more deeply about important issues. We were not rushed in our discussions, and we all loved spending time together in conversation. One dominant theme in our discussions was the presence of confederate statues and the Confederate flags displayed proudly numerous places, the most disturbing perhaps on the grounds of the state capitol in Alabama. We traveled to Montgomery to visit the iconic civil rights sites, but you cannot avoid the display and glorification of confederate values bumping up against the Civil Rights Memorial and Dexter Ave Baptist church. One student asked me why these monuments are not knocked down—a good question—and perhaps the answer would be the same reason why you can walk freely in and among these statues and the White House of the confederacy, but the Civil Rights Monument and the Southern Poverty Law Center need constant protection by armed guards. Also in Montgomery the students visited the Equal Justice Initiative. This visit had a dual impact because it modeled young adults who chose a profession linked directly to human and civil rights campaigns, and I know the students could see this as a viable option in their future. We learned much about their work with people on death row, and about the importance of tracing racism to its roots in slavery, Jim Crow, lynching and the benefit of fighting racism by exposing injustices in our history instead of glossing over them. As we moved through Birmingham to Memphis and in preparation for our visit to the Sunflower Freedom Project, our discussion started to turn toward the dire condition of public education. In Birmingham, alum Scott Brande attended our debrief session and joined us on our tour of the Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park. He spoke about his experience in public education at the higher ed level. In Memphis, we were joined by Meka Egwuekwe who shared information about the attempts and counter-attempts to improve the racial balance in the Memphis City School system. Meka joined us as we toured the stunning renovation of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. We later learned that public schools in Mississippi are nearly 100% students of color, while private schools are nearly 100% white, and that the public schools were grossly underfunded. The highlight of our trip was our visit to Sunflower, MS, to work with students attending the Sunflower Freedom Project. Modeled on the Freedom Schools established in 1964, this school is open year round and works with students from the surrounding area who have the goal of going to college. During the summer, the students work on academics in the morning, and then arts classes and physical fitness in the afternoons (since the public school system does not offer any). The school operates on the LEAD principles: Love, Education, Action, and Discipline, and every lesson taught reflect these principles. While at the school our students participated in the drama classes, played theater games and shared pieces from the Facing Our Truths and Hands Up. We also worked with the students in their study sessions, in physical fitness, and in their garden where they study nutrition and good eating habits. Our students became very attached to the middle schoolers and were also impacted and inspired by the staff and fellows who choose to devote part of their life teaching in this setting. You can’t study the Civil Rights Movement without going to black churches. We visited Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Brown Chapel AME church in Selma, the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, and Dexter Ave Baptist church in Montgomery. We attended service at St Andrew AME in Memphis, on family day where the whole service was led by children on the theme, “I Matter.” We were welcomed with open and loving arms by pastors Reverends Kenneth and Marilynn Robinson and the whole congregation. We were praised for our journey. It was only three days later that we learned the news that a white racist entered the AME church in Charleston to intentionally murder, take black lives, and start a race war. We were walking in the footsteps of those who fought injustice, but others still walk in the footsteps of the terrorists who bombed the church in Birmingham killing four little girls, and who bombed Dr. King’s parsonage in Montgomery, and who attacked marchers on the bridge at Selma. Racism is real—it cannot be glossed over—and we cannot minimize the importance of fighting racism. It is insidious and it must be rooted out and dealt with. We see it in the cases of police brutality, we see it in mass incarceration rates, we see it in the number of people of color living under the poverty line, we see it in symbols that glorify the culture of the confederacy. There are many loving and caring people of all races ready to do this work. I believe we should fight racism on an individual level, an institutional level and a national level with reconciliation and reparation programs. Traveling with such caring and motivated students and colleagues was inspirational to me. I don’t think any of us will ever forget this trip, the bonds made and the lessons learned.
Several alums helped me plan the trip or visited us along the way. I want to thank Jeff Howard for all his advice leading up to the trip, Scott Brande and Jeff Hanson for joining us in Birmingham, Meka Egwuekwe in Memphis, Les Callahan in Atlanta. I would also like to thank the Abbot Academy Association for funding the trip this year and the scouting trip in the previous year along with the Learning in the World program for all their support.