A future touched by a past
Students revisit the Civil Rights movement to glimpse the possibilities ahead for themselves
Monday, May 21, 2007
Marquis Tate, like a lot of young African Americans, knows much about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his "I Have A Dream" speech, the civil rights marches and his assassination.
But Tate, 14, had never been to King’s native Atlanta to see where the civil rights leader grew up or to Memphis where King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.
Until now. This spring, Tate and 45 other eighth-graders at the 4-year-old KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Ascend Charter School left their history books in the classroom and headed south for the school’s annual field lessons. The trip would also take them back to a time when other dreamers sacrificed themselves to make opportunities that the students have today.
The West Side charter school took the kids to historically black colleges, Spelman and Morehouse in Atlanta and Tuskegee in Alabama, to reinforce the message that college is more than just a dream for them.
They visited civil rights locations and museums in Montgomery, Ala., Atlanta and Memphis, Tenn. They experienced a "virtual trip" back in time at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery. They literally listened to and sat at the feet of living civil rights icons as they shared memories of those difficult struggles.
Along the way, they learned even the smallest of things about the people and places they visited.
Tate, for instance, didn’t know King was a smoker and tried to keep that out of the public eye. Tate discovered that little-known tidbit at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which is built onto the Lorraine Motel where King was murdered on April 4, 1968. The museum is like taking a walk back in time.
Beginning in a theater with a film about King, one section of the museum leads to another and then another. Along the way, the story of the civil rights movement—and King—is told.
The sections lead inevitably to Room 306 where King spent his last hours.
Room 306, which is not open to the public but visible through glass, was remodeled to look as it did the day King died.
Even some of King’s personal items—a shaving kit, small mirror and handkerchief—were recreated.
"I liked it because it was historical and I could see where he slept and see the stuff he left behind," Tate says.
The balcony where King was shot is visible through glass but is not accessible to the public. A wreath hangs on the balcony marking the spot.
The museum, one of the last destinations on the trip, brought the journey full circle. The group began at the King Center, in honor of the civil rights leader, in Atlanta.
That’s where KIPP Ascend student Sabrina Estudillo became captivated with authentic Jim Crow documents housed there.
The term Jim Crow dates back to slavery. It refers to "Jump Jim Crow," a minstrel act performed by white actors in blackface, portraying blacks as simple-minded and slow.
Estudillo, 14, stared so closely at the documents underneath a protective glass that her nose almost touched the glass.
Jim Crow was mentioned again in an exhibit at the Rosa Parks Museum, which features a virtual bus. Looking like something out of a science fiction movie—with robot driver and all—the stationary bus moves through hydraulics, has monitors inside and a panoramic screen surrounding the bus on the outside. The virtual tour whips participants back through time to around 1955, the year of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The students also met living civil rights leaders on their trip. At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, they heard from the Rev. Samuel Kyles, who stood next to King just moments before King was shot.
In Montgomery, Ala., they sat in the home of 96-year-old Amelia Boynton Robinson, a civil rights activist who was among those beaten by police in the Bloody Sunday Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights in 1965.
She worked with King before the masses knew who he was and knew Rosa Parks before Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.
They also met another civil rights leader, Ella Bell, during a visit to the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery.
Bell shared memories of her childhood and how her parents tried to shield her from the horrors of segregation and racism.
"I got to know a little bit more about our history and how we evolved up into the present day," says KIPP student Shakiyla Bolden.
Still, Bolden, 14, was surprised to learn that some of those responsible for murdering innocent blacks are not only still alive, but are prominent citizens in Montgomery.
Along their journey of dreams, the students experienced things that few other African American kids will ever get to experience.
Their journey was as much personal as physical. And it was a trip they likely will never forget.