Day two of the 2020 Civil Rights Trip
In Alabama, fourth graders study state history.
A visit to the Alabama State Capitol is required.
The building served as the first Capitol of the Confederate States of America, and most of the interiors are maintained to appear as they would have one hundred and fifty years ago.
In a short tour like the one Gordon had today, the guide brings the group to two chambers.
The House chamber is described as the one in where the order to secede from the Union was drawn up in January 1861.
The Governor delivers the annual State of the State while sitting beneath a plaque commemorating this event.
The Senate chamber is explained as the space where the other seceding states gathered to draw up the Confederate States of America in February 1861.
The only people of color represented anywhere, doing anything, are African Americans hauling cotton and indigenous people surrendering to Andrew Jackson.
They are on murals alongside Jefferson Davis's inauguration as the president of the Confederate States of America.
Today, an eighth grader asked about the murals: "How do people in Alabama feel about this history? Is this being presented with pride?"
The answer was an unambiguous yes: "They view this history with pride."
Back on the bus, the students had a lot to process.
In an intense improvised seminar, they gave voice to their confusion and surprise about it all: the centrality of the Confederacy, the odd language used to describe slavery, the marginalization of indigenous people, the reluctance to discuss the Civil Rights Movement, the condescending dismissiveness about Dr. King, and more.
Their responses were clear, candid and forceful.
Their teachers listened and watched them work it out for themselves.
Across downtown at the Civil Rights Monument at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a very different Alabama history was being told.
The hosts were explicit: "We are very intentional about celebrating the people who are not in history books."
It means putting the names of museum visitors on the wall alongside historical legends.
It's a form of storytelling that the Gordon students are much more familiar with.
By way of closure, one of the guides shared that she was a lifelong Alabama citizen.
Her Alabama history was one rife with lynchings, Klan terror, witness intimidation and voter suppression.
And, she explained, she was proud.
It wasn't a boast.
It was a challenge.
What does it mean to love a place while understanding its flaws?
In Selma, Sheyann Webb-Christburg had a different story to tell.
She grew up around the Civil Rights Movement.
She was eight when she participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches.
She saw Reverend Reeb on the day he was murdered.
Viola Liuzzo pierced her ears.
And today, she met with Gordon’s eighth grade at Selma’s Brown Chapel AME.
The chapel had been a rallying point in the 1960s, and it was a gathering place for presidential candidates on this past Sunday as Selma recognized the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights March.
The story she had to share was familiar, but deeply personal.
She worked hard to make a connection.
That same earnestness was present throughout the Voting Rights Museum she led the eighth grade to.
More than any other stop on the trip, this was a place created by a community, about a community.
It houses five thousand oral histories, collected from residents by residents.
Famous faces are on the wall, in homemade paintings and anonymous snapshots.
Marchers had donated their shoes.
Foot soldiers had left their footprints.
It was flawed, straightforward, and full of pride.
At the end of the day, back at the hotel, students gathered in family groups to talk about stories, and tell a few of their own.
Some of the prompts:
How was your day?
Where were there places when you felt uncomfortable? Perhaps you wanted to ask a question but couldn’t find the words or maybe you were frustrated or confused by what a presenter or classmate said?
Where do you think those feelings come from?
What is the impact of the way that the state house framed history?
For white people? For people of color?
Think about the stories that we tell, as individuals or institutions.
Think about Pastor Jimmy’s story from yesterday as an example. What stories do we tell as a country?
How can sharing stories be healing?
How might stories conceal truths?
What is possible when people and countries are truthful about their stories?