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The Gordon School

Day three of the 2017 Civil Rights Trip

Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of Montgomery’s Equal Justice Initiative, is a bit of a social justice celebrity. 

Gordon’s tour bus accidently blocked in his car when it arrived at the EJI.

When he appeared on the sidewalk near Gordon’s bus, students pressed up against the window, and teachers rushed over to shake his hand.

The Hank Williams Museum is next door to the Equal Justice Initiative.

None of the Gordon students expressed any curiosity about Hank Williams.

At the EJI, students met with three members of the legal staff.

The Equal Justice Initiative is an advocacy group working to reform the criminal justice system.

Their direct work is in Alabama, but they have a vision for systemic change that has a broad historical lens.

For their workshop with Gordon, the lawyers covered a lot of ground.

One idea: the legal system is not a magic justice machine. 

Justice requires work. It is a product of people’s choices, susceptible to bias and open to change.

With that frame, the lawyers explained how judicial override, elected judges, and prosecutorial discretion can distort justice.

Another idea: the thirteenth amendment abolished slavery, but it did not abolish the idea that some people’s lives are worth more than others.

That’s why slavery was not replaced by justice, but instead by white terrorism, segregation and, today, mass incarceration.

As long as the racist narrative continues, there cannot be justice.

It was a big idea, but the students kept up.

Along the way, Gordon’s eighth grade got to demonstrate that they knew the forgotten history of the century between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement: the failures of reconstruction, the lynchings, Jim Crow laws and the invention of convict leasing.

It was a powerful lesson, led by lawyers, fueled by Middle Schoolers’ questions.

The educators in the room gave the hosts a standing ovation.

One of the final questions was about the emotional toll of the work: how do the lawyers keep motivated when they’re working in such a powerfully dehumanizing field?

Part of the answer was: We never do anything alone.

Whether it’s a training, or a legal case, or a visit with a client, we have someone else there.

It means that when things go well, we have someone to share it with, and when things go badly, there’s someone there to help us keep hoping.

Gordon spent the afternoon in Tuskegee, a key site in African American history and the hometown of attorney Fred Gray.

Since he began his career in 1954, Fred Gray has had a hand in dozens of landmark legal cases.

As his biography states, his work has touched in areas including jury selection, farm subsidies, interstate commerce, medicine and ethics. 

The common thread has been racial justice, a promise he made to himself in college that he would “destroy everything about segregation.”

It seemed Mr. Gray had given this presentation before, many times.

When the students started asking questions, however, he broke character and his face lit up.

Asked about Thurgood Marshall, he talked about how the legal legend had helped him out when Gray got in over his head early in his career: “I am so glad I knew I needed help and knew enough to ask.”

It was a tidy echo of the community and teamwork the EJI lawyers had described hours before.


Almost in spite of himself, Gray could not stop connecting with the students.

Downstairs, as he politely signed autographs, one student’s journal caught his eye.

Ever the scholar, Gray pored over the student’s notes, asking clarifying questions and appraising the Civil Rights Trip itinerary.

Tuskegee’s mayor was on hand to greet Gordon at Tuskegee University.

So was the former mayor of Tuskegee.

The two are friends, and their enthusiasm for their city was contagious.

“Tuskegee brings out the best in people,” they said, explaining how it had brought out the best in Lionel Richie and Ralph Ellison. 

Fueled by the students’ questions, they worked in a recitation of George Washington Carver’s favorite poem and an interactive demonstration of how gerrymandering operates.

The busy conversation took place in front of the sculpture “Lifting the Veil,” a romantic portrayal of Booker T. Washington as an educator.

Earlier this year, many of the Gordon students had read the passage from Invisible Man where Ralph Ellison offers a skeptical critique of the sculpture.

So, even as the mayors gave one reading of the sculpture, the students knew there was another way to tell the story.

It was the kind of critical connection Joanne Bland had been pressing them to make in front of Brown Chapel AME Church the day before.

The mayors had covered much of the history that the Tuskegee student tour guide had planned to present.

She found her own way to connect with the students.

Since September, Gordon’s eighth graders have been looking ahead to high school.

Many high school admission letters begin arriving in the coming weeks, and many students will face a number of big decisions.

On this trip, many of them are beginning to peek around the corner at what lies beyond ninth grade.

This week, every one of Gordon’s hosts talked about the choices they made that shaped their lives.

They laid out a wide range of model for Gordon students to follow.

But there was one common theme: in order to work for justice, they’ll need need teamwork. They’ll need collaborators. And they’ll need to keep on making personal connections.

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