[sixties-l] Sharing the Movement

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Mon Apr 02 2001 - 16:29:49 EDT

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    Sharing the Movement

    As part of project HIP-HOP, Boston-area students embark on a 5000-mile
    journey to meet with veterans of the civil rights movement.

    By Nancy Murray

    Rethinking Schools, Volume 15, No. 3 - Spring 2001

    In mid August 1999, a diverse group of Boston-area high school students
    planted a myrtle tree they named "Freedom" at James Cheney's grave on the
    outskirts of Meridian, Miss. Cheney was one of three young civil rights
    workers who were murdered at the start of Mississippi Freedom Summer in
    1964. His grave, repeatedly vandalized in the 1990s,1 symbolizes for these
    students the role played by young people like themselves, and the work left
    undone by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

    The youth are part of a rolling classroom known as Project HIP-HOP
    (Highways Into the Past: History, Organizing & Power), which is based at
    the ACLU of Massachusetts' Bill of Rights Education Project.2 Since our
    first trip South in 1993, 125 participants have made the annual 5,000-mile
    journey to meet movement veterans and see the sites where history was made,
    traveling in mini vans and sleeping on rough church pews and community
    center and museum floors. In 1996 a group of Project HIP-HOP students, who
    had gone South in previous years, journeyed to South Africa to learn
    first-hand about the struggles to overthrow apartheid.3

    On their return, the youth have made presentations to an estimated 25,000
    of their peers in nearly 300 visits to schools, community centers, and
    churches. They have helped create a Project HIP-HOP curriculum for high
    school students, and now have their own newspaper, Rising Times. Started in
    1998, the newspaper features articles about a variety of social and
    educational issues. It has a special focus called ACTION for Justice - "our
    campaign of telling the truth about the racism and plain injustice in the
    criminal justice system, and of demanding decent education, not
    incarceration, for our generation."


    For the group of 15 high school students - of African-American, Latino,
    Asian-American and European-American backgrounds, including some
    first-generation immigrants - and the six drivers who accompany them,4 the
    three-week journey through our nation's painful past demands a level of
    physical and emotional endurance that few are prepared for. Each year,
    before departing from Boston, the group has met with locally-based Movement
    veterans and seen and discussed the Eyes on the Prize series and the film
    Freedom on My Mind. In the summer of 1999, we held a 40-hour-long
    anti-racism training institute for participants, based around the Project
    HIP-HOP Resource for High School Students which a previous year's group had
    helped develop.

    Although the itinerary varies from year to year, certain places are always
    included. After a 12 hour drive from Boston to the Mason-Dixon line, each
    tour kicks off with a visit to Harper's Ferry, where John Brown tried to
    overthrow slavery. Much later the students visit the largest and one of the
    oldest African-American-owned towns, Mound Bayou in the Mississippi Delta,
    where former slaves sought to create a refuge as the promise of
    Reconstruction was destroyed. The students join the family of Caesar Moore
    for his birthday celebration in Philadelphia, Miss., and struggle to come
    to terms with the fact that the man who gave them his warm embrace was born
    in 1896, the year in which the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson declared
    "separate but equal" to be constitutional.5

    Everywhere they go, the students learn about what life was like under Jim
    Crow segregation and about the fear which needed to be overcome for the
    acts of individual resistance to swell into a movement. From the Montgomery
    bus boycott to the Greensboro sit-ins, from the Children's Crusade in
    Birmingham to the Albany movement in Georgia, they learn about what it was
    like to organize and sustain an ongoing defiance of the system of white
    supremacy. They learn this from participants, some who are today well
    known, others who have never before talked publicly about their involvement.

    In Selma, AL, they walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, after hearing from
    Joanne Bland about her attempt to cross the bridge as a child on Bloody
    Sunday in 1965. They trace the steps of the Selma-Montgomery marchers, past
    the monument to Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit housewife who was murdered while
    she drove marchers home, and through Lowndes County, where they learn about
    the formation of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. It adopted a
    Black Panther as its symbol as anger swelled about the high cost of the
    strategy of non-violent direct action to African Americans. In Jackson,
    Miss., they sing freedom songs with SNCC veteran Hollis Watkins, and stand
    spellbound in Medgar Evers' house as Hollis sings a ballad to the murdered
    NAACP leader. In Hattiesburg, Miss., they hear from Ella Dahmer and her
    sons about the night in 1966 when the Klan firebombed her house and killed
    her husband Vernon because he had been helping register his neighbors to
    vote. For 20 years after the m!
    urder, Klan head Sam Bowers taught Sunday School 20 miles down the road
    from Ella Dahmer's house. A few weeks after our 1998 visit to Ella Dahmer,
    Bowers was finally convicted of ordering the firebombing and sentenced to
    life in prison.

    The fact that some of the movement martyrs were only a little older than
    the Project HIP-HOP students themselves gives them a particularly intense
    feeling of connection to the events of 30 and 40 years ago. They can almost
    see students flee past them as they stand by the monument to three young
    people killed by the highway patrol, police, and National Guard in
    Orangeburg, S.C., and listen to former SNCC program director Cleveland
    Sellers describe in vivid detail what happened when students returned to
    the campus of South Carolina State University after picketing a segregated
    bowling alley in February 1968. The Massachusetts students had just visited
    the All Star Bowling Alley and interviewed its owner, Henry Floyd - the
    same man whose refusal to integrate the facilities set the stage for the
    event known as the Orangeburg massacre, which left scores wounded in
    addition to the three fatalities. In Orangeburg, and elsewhere, they
    discover that the South has changed, but also that!
      the past is still present: the reputed murderers of the three civil
    rights workers killed in Philadelphia, Miss., still live "respectable"
    lives in Philadelphia and nearby Meridian.

    In the last week of the trip, Project HIP-HOP visits the Lorraine Motel,
    now the National Civil Rights Museum, and spends the night only yards away
    from the spot where Dr. King was assassinated. "I did not expect that the
    faint stain of Dr. Martin Luther King's blood on the balcony would touch my
    heart the way it did," wrote one participant. Hearing about Dr. King's last
    days from Rev. Harold Middlebrook, one of his associates who was present
    when he died, makes the young people feel a very special connection to a
    historical figure they had learned to tune out during yearly recitals of
    the "I Have A Dream" speech. The Dr. King they encounter in Memphis, and
    later in Knoxville, during the emotional hours with Rev. Middlebrook, was
    speaking directly to the world most of them could still recognize when he
    said that the Civil Rights Movement had made only superficial changes which
    left the foundation of racism virtually untouched.

    By the time the group reaches the Highlander Center in New Market, Tenn.,
    for a tour debriefing, the youth are looking at the world around them with
    new eyes. They feel that the torch has been passed to them by movement
    veterans, and with it the responsibility to make a better society.

    "We were put in touch not just with the struggles of the past," wrote
    Feliciano Tavares, "but with the urgent tasks of the present and future,
    and now see ourselves as critical pieces in the puzzle of how to achieve
    social justice."6


    Ever since our pilot trip in 1993, we have been struggling with the
    question of how to select the 15 or so students who travel South each year.
    Initially, we wanted to create a microcosm of the broader society. We
    concentrated on putting together groups of equal numbers of male and female
    15, 16 and 17 year olds that would be as diverse as possible, with
    suburban, urban, public and private school students riding in the vans side
    by side.

    By the late 1990s, once Project HIP-HOP had developed its own newspaper and
    was holding weekly meetings, we decided to limit our selection to students
    from the Greater Boston area. By this time we had plentiful evidence of the
    transforming impact of Project HIP-HOP on youth, mostly low income, for
    whom school had been at best a marginal activity. They became our priority

    How do participants describe what the trip has meant to them immediately on
    their return? "I no longer feel like an outcast in society," wrote
    17-year-old Jonathan Adames, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic and
    traveled South with Project HIP-HOP in the summer of 1999. "Through this
    summer, I have become more than just a 'kid.' I have broken out of the
    mould that society has put me in and have become a working part of society
    itself. Now I am part of 'we, the people,' the people the Constitution was
    created to serve and protect, and I refuse to let it be twisted up and used
    against me."7

    In describing Project HIP-HOP as a "wake up call" Jonathan is expressing a
    view which we have heard from each group of returning students. They come
    back with a feeling of connection to each other, to history, and to the
    world around them, and a determination to walk in the footsteps of those
    who have made momentous changes. In reflecting on her 1995 journey,
    16-year-old Sandra Marcelino recognized that it would take work to sustain
    that feeling of empowerment: "Today there is a common feeling of apathy
    that needs to be overcome. How many times have you felt like you as an
    individual have no strength to make changes? We have to learn not to give
    in to that sense of helplessness - I know for certain that my personal
    journey of discovery has just begun."8

    The youth carry the excitement of that personal journey of discovery into
    middle and high schools and community centers around the commonwealth when
    they make slide presentations - sometimes to small groups, sometimes to
    hundreds of students in school-wide assemblies. The feedback we have
    received about these presentations leaves no doubt about the power of this
    model of peer-to-peer outreach. Over the years, the students of Project
    HIP-HOP have addressed tens of thousands of students.


    By 1996, a youth leadership had emerged from the groups that had traveled
    South during the three previous summers. These nine young people undertook
    the strenuous work of helping raise funds for a three-week journey to South
    Africa, accompanied by myself and former SNCC activist and Freedom Singer
    Hollis Watkins.9

    At the age of 19 Hollis Watkins was the first student in Mississippi to
    join SNCC's voter registration campaign, and has remained involved in the
    work of voter registration and accountability, redistricting, and fighting
    for people's power ever since. Twelve years ago he founded an organization
    in Jackson, Miss., called Southern Echo, to train a grassroots leadership
    up and down the Delta. Over the last few years Project HIP-HOP students
    have served internships at Southern Echo, which embodies Hollis' belief
    that the Movement made a major mistake in its reliance on sporadic
    mobilizing rather than solid organizing. He imparted this and other lessons
    to the youth during the three weeks they spent traveling around South
    Africa with local students, learning about the struggles against apartheid
    and especially about the role played by young people. By the time they
    returned to the United States, they were eager to involve themselves in
    organizing around issues of pressing concern t!
    o youth.

    To get momentum going, they helped organize a retreat which brought
    together representatives from nine Boston-area youth groups. Retreat
    participants constituted themselves as ACTION and created the following
    mission statement: "As young people angered by injustice and attempts by
    society to label us as the "lost generation," we have united in ACTION
    (Achieving Community through Involvement in Organizing Now). ACTION is a
    youth-led coalition of organizations and individuals, with adults as
    allies. Our purpose is to unite around a common agenda of activism to
    combat educational, social and economic oppression, and to create healthy
    communities." After the retreat was over, the youth held weekly
    meetings, but could not overcome basic structural problems. The question of
    which organizations were willing to be part of the ACTION coalition was
    never satisfactorily resolved. Nor could participants - who came together
    from different urban neighborhoods - agree on a program of act!
    ion beyond self-education and general consciousness-raising. After most of
    those who had taken part in the retreat graduated from high school, the
    meetings faded away.

    They resumed in 1998 when Project HIP-HOP students and others outside the
    group decided to launch an ACTION for Justice campaign to work against the
    prevailing mentality that is depriving so many young people, already deemed
    expendable by their schools, of any sort of viable future. After
    considerable discussion about how so many social problems are
    interconnected, they decided to concentrate on the intersection between the
    way many urban youth are "locked out" of opportunities because of an
    inadequate education system, and "locked down" in growing numbers in the
    nation's expanding prison system. The racism disfiguring the criminal
    justice system has presented them with a compelling target.

    By this time Project HIP-HOP had started its own newspaper, Rising Times.
    The first few issues of the paper dealt with such issues as youth
    organizing, affirmative action, civil rights history, the gap between rich
    and poor, racism and white privilege, the war on drugs, prisons and the
    police, the inadequacies of Boston Public Schools, standardized tests,
    abortion, sexual preference, domestic violence, culture and identity, and
    US foreign policy. Before long, they decided to set aside a two-page
    section of each issue for ACTION for Justice.


    Our "rolling classroom" South has developed the sort of momentum we never
    anticipated eight years ago. The positive features of the program have
    always outweighed the negatives, but these too must be acknowledged: the
    time-consuming and labor-intensive nature of the program, which is still
    undertaken by the Bill of Rights Education Project with its single staff
    person; the months spent fund-raising for a trip involving a relatively
    small number of students; risks and liability issues; and the fact that,
    for a myriad of reasons, only about two-thirds of those who go South
    participate in post-tour activities.

    What is it like to come back from such an intense journey to familiar
    haunts and old limited horizons? The young people return seeing the world
    around them with new eyes, and then are forced to deal with the world as it
    was before they mentally moved on. For a few, the return from a wide open
    journey of discovery to the dead end circumstances to which the society has
    consigned them has led to depression and disengagement. Some want to remain
    fully engaged, but find it hard to sustain an active commitment in a world
    in which "social change" is regarded with incomprehension and suspicion.
    Many need to work after school, or look after younger brothers and sisters,
    and cannot come to our weekly meetings. A few have failed to escape the
    day-to-day perils of the streets, and have themselves become statistics in
    the criminal justice system.

    To help us make decisions about the program's future, we held a reunion in
    August 1999 attended by 40 Project HIP-HOP veterans. We received surveys
    back from others who could not be present. In all, we heard from 60 percent
    of the youth who had made the journey South since 1993.

    What is perhaps most striking about the feedback we received about the
    Project HIP-HOP experience is its extraordinary hold on participants, which
    appears to grow stronger as the years go by. Participants write about how
    the trip changed their lives and opened their eyes, of its "dramatic
    impact" on their way of seeing the world, of how it is constantly in their
    minds, influencing the way they learn and live. For example, one
    African-American female who made the journey in 1998 wrote, "HIP-HOP has
    definitely influenced my life. I've become aware of the type of person that
    I aspire to be - an activist. I've opened my eyes and have become more
    aware of the world around me. I've learned to do my own research, develop
    my own opinions, and stand up for what I believe in. Before I went on the
    trip South I always thought that I was too young, too uneducated, to
    initiate change. Learning about and meeting some of the student activists
    of the sixties helped me realize that activism has no age requirement."

    Project HIP-HOP has always been as dynamic as its youth component. They set
    its tone and direction. Its momentum has been a natural outgrowth of their
    commitment. We are now in the process of building a structure which can
    give broader decision-making power and leadership to the young people who
    have grown up with the program.

    We trust that for the foreseeable future their dedication will keep our
    "rolling classroom" on the road, since they are all too aware that the
    movement veterans who share their memories and insights with us are not
    going to be around forever. They are passing on a precious oral resource
    for us to learn from and make available to others. How can we possibly turn
    away this gift?

    [Nancy Murray is director of the Bill of Rights Education Project at the
    American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts. She can be reached
    at numurray@aol.com.]

    The above is condensed from an article in Radical Teacher number 57. The
    footnotes to this article can be found with the version that appears on
    Rethinking Schools Online: www.rethinkingschools.org

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