On the evening that my students and I met the traveling students from Phillips Exeter Academy for the first time, their teacher Olutoyin Augustus-Ikwuakor had a sheet full of activities planned for our two-hour preliminary session. Mrs. Augustus-Ikwuakor and I had corresponded in the spring about their trip from New Hampshire to Alabama, where they would spend four days in late November learning about social justice and Civil Rights issues, and she wanted her students to meet and collaborate with some local students. On the Monday after Thanksgiving, we were gathered in their hotel’s conference room to eat dinner together, to get to know each other, and to do some educational groundwork. As we looked over her list of activities, I asked if I could have a few minutes to talk with them about Southern history, and she replied, a little surprised, “Oh, you want to teach?”
I did want to teach. The history of the Deep South, with respect to social justice issues, cannot be approached casually, for that can easily lead to something like shell-shock. The brutality of this history is evident immediately to anyone who comes to survey a broad spectrum of museum exhibits that include graphic images of the burnt and battered bodies of lynching victims and scenes of police-led mob violence. This would be a lot to digest for a group of teenagers from New England who had given up the latter half of their two-week Thanksgiving break, and for my students, some of whom had only encountered the sanitized overviews in social studies textbooks and school-lunchroom pow-wows that celebrate Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. No, this was the real stuff. What these 27 students would see and hear constitutes the reasons that the Civil Rights movement had to happen, and needs to continue.