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The Gordon School

Civil Rights Trip 2018 day two


Today, Gordon's eighth grade got a master class in this story, in Montgomery and Selma, Alabama,

The day began at the Equal Justice Initiative, led by Bryan Stephenson, lawyer and author of Just Mercy. 

The story of the Equal Justice Initiative is pretty simple.

It began in the 1990s to serve the legal needs of people on death row.

It was centered in Alabama because, at the time, 25% of the executions in the United States took place in Alabama.

As the EJI tried to address some of the systemic abuses of the legal system, their mission expanded.

While their legal advocacy continues, they have also taken on an ambitious community education project, spotlighting the hidden history has led to the present-day era of mass incarceration.

As one of today's presenters explained, one of the first steps in justice is getting the story right.

'Just as it is hard for a judge to make a good decision if they can't consider all of the facts, it is hard to critique a system without knowing the story of how it was built.'

EJI's critique of the criminal justice system connects it directly to slavery, with a post-Reconstruction era of racial terrorism introducing lynching as a precursor today's death penalty.

While disenfranchisement, convict leasing and segregation also play a role in this story, lynching has been the focus of much of the Equal Justice Initiative's scholarship.


Next year, Gordon visitors might not visit the Equal Justice Initiative offices, but instead go to the EJI's lynching memorial, planned as the first ever permanent memorial to the thousands of victims of this particularly virulent strain of racial violence.

The drive to Selma from Montgomery follows, in reverse, the path of the historic 1965 Voting Rights March.

It goes through Lowndes County, an early battleground in the fight for voting rights and the birthplace of the original Black Panther.

Lowndes County is also the site of an ongoing, preventable environmental health crisis that has recently drawn the attention of the United Nations' monitor on extreme poverty and human rights.

The major site in Selma is the Edmund Pettus Bridge; the crossing of the bridge plays a major role in the story of the 1965 Voting Rights March.

Gordon's host in Selma, Joanne Bland, has a riveting personal story to tell about the march across bridge.
But she also has seventy years' worth of other stories about life in Selma.

Bland is hilarious, and a master storyteller, capable of turning from sharply irreverent to solemn in the blink of an eye. 

It's a good approach for the story of life in a segregated city, which can be simultaneously absurd and agonizing. 

Bland describing a street corner: 'That's where SNCC used to meet. And that's where the bootlegger lived when I was little. And those steps? That's where the police grabbed a woman by the hair and threw her down the stairs on a bloody Sunday morning in 1965.'

Bland on being a child during the Civil Rights Movement: 'I was confused when people talked about freedom. There was the boring freedom, where Lincoln freed the slaves, and long meetings. But then, there was the drugstore, Carter's, downtown, where they served ice cream at the counter. And my grandmother saw me looking in the window one day and said 'Girl, when we get our freedom, you'll be able to sit at that counter and eat ice cream alongside all those white children!' So I knew there was a good kind of freedom, too.'

One of the newest monuments on the tour referred to some old history, in the headlines again since last summer's violence in Charlottesville.

Joanne Bland sat down on the edge of Confederate Circle, in the middle of Live Oak Cemetery, and told students the convoluted story of Selma's monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest

Bland began the story with the election of Selma's first black mayor, which was followed shortly thereafter by a drive to erect a memorial to Forrest, a Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader.

There followed a riveting, detailed, frustrating story of court battles, civic politics, civil disobedience and outright vandalism.

Bland's voice rang out through the quiet cemetery as she declared victory: 'Bedford Forrest is where he belongs: in a graveyard!'

Still, Confederate Circle feels disturbingly vital.

The flags are fresh, the plaques are new, and the graves are kept clean.


Someone is clearly still very invested in telling the Confederate story.

Back downtown, Bland told her final story, the story of her participation in the 1965 Voting Rights March.

Then, she implored the students to build on her story.

You are the ones we've been waiting for.

I know it.

Know how I know it?

Because you have to be.

We can't wait any longer.

On the Civil Rights Trip, each day is punctuated with breaks for journal writing and small group conversation

At the east side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge there is a small park.

It has a variety of memorials, formal and informal, from bronze plaques to handmade assemblages.

After walking the bridge, the Gordon students fanned out across the park with their journals.

As the sun went down, they sat for half an hour, getting started on their own stories.
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