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The Gordon School

Day two of the 2019 Civil Rights Trip

In the eighteen years of the Civil Rights Trip, there have been two annual constants: a visit to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, and an afternoon in Selma.


There was a time when the security at the SPLC seemed strange and dramatic.


The SPLC's work against hate groups used to seem exotic.


Sadly, neither of those things are true today.


Gordon's first speaker at the SPLC had been in Newport last week.


She'd been invited by a church group, to speak about hate groups in Rhode Island.


Despite the best efforts of groups like the SPLC, hate has gone mainstream.


The Gordon students had been told that the SPLC has high expectations for them.


"Our hosts are taking time out of their work to speak with you," they were briefed, "because they know you come armed with background information, you're going to pay attention, and you will use what you learn."


The eighth graders did not disappoint, taking notes and asking smart questions.


Things got even more animated with the second speaker, a former prosecutor who is working to dismantle the many barriers to voter participation in Alabama.


He began by diving deeply into the quirks of the Alabama state constitution and the outsized power of the legislature.


He went on parse the distinctions between felonies and crimes of moral turpitude, between statutes and constitutional mandates, and between the ways Mississippi and Alabama each handle the relationship that the secretary of state's office has with the state legislature. 


He was ready to review the process of certifying class action lawsuits.


He wanted to talk about marginalized people being underrepresented in the sport of bouldering.


His energy was infectious.


The Gordon students were with him all the way. 


As the students toured the rest of the SPLC, and visited the Civil Rights Memorial outside, they processed the presenters' stories.


In both presentations, there was a larger message for the students.


The promise was: "you could do this."


These people were making a positive difference in the world.


And they were making it look like a lot of fun.


Both SPLC presenters had grown up outside of Alabama.


Gordon's host in Selma, Alabama, Joanne Bland, has lived in that city all of her life.


At the heart of her story is her participation in the Voting Rights Marches of 1965, which had originated in Selma.


Her tour began, as the marches had, on the steps of Brown Chapel AME.


It ended by retracing the marchers' path across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.


But over the course of the afternoon, a larger portrait of a committed community activist emerged.


In 1965, at age eleven, Joanne Bland had made "good trouble" that happened to make national news.


But then, she continued.


To drive through Selma with Joanne Bland is to follow a stream of consciousness through fights large and small.


There's the storefront she helped rehabilitate.


There's the monument she corrected.


There's the supermarket that served the black neighborhood, the "nastiest, stinkiest store I'd ever gone to in my life," that didn't turn around until Ms. Bland confronted the owner in public and embarrassed him.


There's the cotton-era mansion, built by slaves, where Ms. Bland pauses with every tour group, to present her own narrative that counters the one told by the preservationists.


She's a strong personality, and it is clear that she has tested the patience of foes and allies.


In a town full of memorials, it is anybody's guess how Joanne Bland will be remembered someday.


But she is mentioned on at least one historic plaque.


It is in the Confederate soldier section of the town's oldest white cemetery.


After Selma elected its first black mayor in 2001 - immediately after - the town erected a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard.


Ms. Bland helped lead the effort to have the monument relocated to the cemetery, because, as she says, "the only place he belongs is in a graveyard!"


A plaque by the monument explains, sourly, that the statue was moved due to "the protests of a few intolerant, self-styled activists".


Those activists, of course, included Ms. Bland.


It's worth noting that Ms. Bland did not point out the phrase to students today.


But it's just the kind of anonymous, contrary tribute she would probably approve of.


As the students got to know her today, they saw some of what a world-class wit could accomplish when unleashed selflessly on a small city in Alabama


And they found one more model for how to live life as a force for positive change.


back to day one

ahead to day three


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