A day in Montgomery
The Southern Poverty Law Center is one stop Gordon has made every year since the Civil Rights Trip began.
Since the 1970s, the SPLC is a building full of lawyers, researchers, activists and community organizers who are extending the work of the Civil Rights Movement into the present day.
Their public education program is aimed at inspiring even more people to become lawyers, researchers, activists and community organizers who will make a difference in their own communities.
The Gordon students were ready for this lesson.
They responded by reading.
They responded by taking notes.
They responded by asking questions.
They responded by listening to one another.
They responded by watching carefully.
They responded by reading the names on the wall.
They responded by imagining the lives behind those names.
And, in the SPLC’s Wall of Tolerance, they were invited to add their own names to a pledge to work for justice and to fight against hate.
Names of signatories from across the years flashed across the walls.
It was thrilling to watch them watch their own names appear.
And those chaperones who have been on the trip many times know to linger a little longer.
Eventually, in the random sea of names, a Gordon friend from years gone by will pop up.
The next two stops today were Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Dr. King was pastor, and the Dexter Parsonage, where he lived with his family.
No photos were allowed inside either stop.
But Ms. Battle, our host at Dexter Church, indulged the photographer by doing her greeting hugs outside the sanctuary.
The church and the parsonage, the faith and the family, were two pillars that sustained Dr. King.
They refreshed the Gordon eighth graders today, too.
The elders at the parsonage welcomed them into King’s home, “100% 1950 middle class Black America,” and made them to feel welcome there.
In a grandmotherly touch, they even asked some of the taller students to help rehang some art on the wall.
And Ms. Battle, in the most maternal way, promised to "hold them close, and then push them out of their comfort zones."
She got their names and made them sing.
She quizzed them on Voting Rights March dates and on the difference between “advocate” and “activist.”
She listened carefully when they defined “non-binary” for her, then thanked and praised them for teaching her something new.
She had them chant the “I Have A Dream” speech.
She told them of her homeless stretch, and her struggles with suicidal ideation.
She made a student dance with her as she sang Edelweiss.
All the time, she was pulling them close and pushing them outside their comfort zones.
They left with a buzz that they carried with them to the parsonage, through the afternoon and long past dinner.
For the last stop of the day, Gordon spent an hour with the First Baptist Church, learning about their community ministries.
It turns out there are two First Baptist Churches in Montgomery; the plan had been to book time with the historically black First Baptist Church, which played a historic role in the tale of the 1961 Freedom Riders.
We got them reversed, though, and so Gordon met with the community ministries leaders of the historically white First Baptist Church - also an active church, just not one with a direct and famous link to the Civil Rights Movement.
At the church’s Caring Center, students learned about the ways this community was taking its mission of service beyond their church’s walls.
It wasn’t a master class in the different cultures of Southern Black and white churches, but there were some noticeable contrasts between the language used here and that Mrs. Battle used at Dexter.
However, the First Baptist hosts echoed Ms. Battle’s hope that students would “stretch themselves and get out of their comfort zones.”
This last visit of the day set these students up for two experiences that are coming their way.
One comes later this spring, when they will have an opportunity to do their four-week service learning at McAuley Ministries and Amos House, two Rhode Island agencies that, like the Caring Center, are run by faith-based groups and serve people of all faiths and backgrounds.
The second experience comes tomorrow, when the eighth grade goes to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum.
The Caring Center’s prison ministries, as presented today, are a community’s earnest effort to serve people in need.
The Equal Justice Initiative’s effort on behalf of prisoners is vastly different work: a deeply researched, historically informed strategy to reveal and dismantle systemic injustices based deeply in American culture and the American economy.
The contrast will make for interesting conversation in the days and weeks ahead.
And Gordon will keep stretching these soon-to-be-graduates…
and holding them close…
...for as long as we have them.
Ahead to day three of the 2023 trip
More on the Civil Rights Trip at www.gordonschool.org/civilrights