Voices from the Civil Rights Movement

Danny Stock

GDS has had the honor of hosting a number of expert voices from the civil rights movement this winter. In ways large and small—from headline, all-GDS events to single-grade guest speakers—our community of learners has benefited from their storytelling. As they have reflected on their personal experiences during the movement, they have also shared some of the wisdom gained that guides the way to engage with our current movement.

Daughters of the Civil Rights Movement 

As part of the 75th Anniversary Speaker Series, GDS presented “Daughters of the Civil Rights Movement,” which featured an intimate discussion with those who know those historic figures best, two daughters of the movement: Paula Young Shelton, daughter of activist Andrew Young, GDS 1st grade and HS teacher, and author of Child of the Civil Rights Movement and Karen Gray Houston, daughter of protest leader Thomas Gray, niece of MLK lawyer Fred D. Gray, and author of Daughter of the Boycott: Carrying on a Montgomery Family’s Civil Rights Legacy. The evening event was moderated by Middle School history teacher Toussaint Lacoste and brought an eclectic audience of current parents, alumni, alumni parents, current faculty/staff, former faculty/staff, and current students, including several of Paula’s 1st graders. In his introduction to the event, Head of School Russell Shaw described the event series as “multi-generational living room gatherings.”

Though many of the names and faces of the heroes of the civil rights movement are familiar, the panelists introduced some of the unsung heroes of the movement. They spoke about civil rights leaders Jo Ann Robinson, E.D. Nixon, A. Philip Randolph, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, and Myrlie Evers-Williams.

“Even the Black women in the movement didn’t write about their involvement until many decades later,” Houston said. She also recalled Rosa Parks and her father saying, “We’re going to kill segregation [even] if it kills us.” 

Paula recalled growing up amongst all her aunts and uncles—Uncle Martin and Aunt Corretta, Aunt Juanita and Uncle Ralph (Abernathy). She continues to be inspired by Ella Baker starting SNCC, Dianne Nash’s work with the Freedom Riders, and her personal favorite, Fannie Lou Hamer.

The panelists also discussed the Black Lives Matter movement from a half century removed vantage point, considering both the guiding, nonviolent principles of the civil rights movement and the fact that not nearly enough has changed in the intervening years. How must “the strategies be revamped?” Houston wondered. They offered advice on getting involved. “Notice what’s happening around you,” Paula said. “Get involved with a group...You need to be prepared and knowledgeable before you act.”

And what can parents do to support their children—their youthful activist children? “There are other risks that your children have to endure in order to express their views publicly [now], but I think we have to be supportive of them,” Paula said, even as she reflected on her own GDS alum son participating in the thick of the protests. “It was students that led the civil rights movement. It was students in the sit-ins. It was students in the Freedom Rides. It was students in Birmingham that changed the tide. We have to be supportive, but we have to help them be prepared.”

Watch the full event recording.

Fifth Grade Welcomed Two Voices from the Movement

Reverend Dr. Lanther Mills, Senior Pastor of Asbury Methodist Church, and Ms. Davis from the Asbury congregation joined the 5th grade during their “changemakers” period to speak to the students about the predominantly African-American church's founding in 1836, its role on the Underground Railroad and during the civil rights movement, and why the church displayed and will continue to display the Black Lives Matter banner. Just weeks before, the BLM banner at the church was destroyed. Dr. Mills also happened to mention the story of The Pearl, a schooner on which 77 enslaved Americans attempted to escape bondage in Washington, DC. The 5th grade students will return to a deeper discussion of the Pearl Incident (among other events in the history of emancipation) later in their civil rights curriculum. Watch the conversation.

Even more recently, the 5th grade hosted Barbara and David Lipman (grandparents of 5th grader Tessa), who were part of the civil rights movement as a teacher and lawyer, respectively. They spoke about their time living in Greenwood and Sunflower, Mississippi, the center of the cotton industry, teaching in country schools, and advocating for the Black residents beleaguered by white supremacists, economic oppression, and the denial of civil rights. 

A city school principal told Barbara he would never give her a job, she recalled. Being “civil rights people” was enough to make them a pariah to the powers that be in the South. Fannie Lou Hamer began bringing cases to “Lawyer Lipton,” as she affectionately called him. Their relationship continued as they took on civil rights cases to integrate school districts together.

Students and teachers also learned lessons that continue to be important today with particular poignancy given the efforts to restrict voting rights in several states. From the individual stories of the people they helped to the leaders of the movement they partnered with, the Lipmans painted a vivid picture of what it means to be a co-conspirator in the fight for racial justice and civil rights. Watch the conversation.

From the Movement to The Great Migration

The Great Migration was driven by many of the same forces that fueled the civil rights movement and overlapped by nearly 20 years. This year, the 3rd grade grew its social studies curriculum to include a study of The Great Migration, the development of which was guided in part by Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. (For an introduction to The Great Migration, watch Isabel Wilkerson’s TED Talk.)

For years, the 3rd grade has examined various waves of migration into the United States, from the forced migration of enslaved Africans, to the Ellis Island experiences of Europeans, to the restricted immigration of Asians through Angel Island in the West, to contemporary immigration stories of community members and others who are entering our country in the present day. 

Students examine the motivations and causes for the migration, the experiences on the journey, the realities of life in the new country or region, the strength and resilience of those who made the journey, and the lasting effects (positive whenever possible) that the immigrants have had on their new communities and the country as a whole. Now, as they have added the voices and stories of The Great Migration, the teachers worked to explore many of the same themes.

The study welcomed first-person and expert accounts from community members and friends, including 5th grade teacher Judy Brown who shared her family’s experience (watch here) and Lower School counselor Meryl Heyliger’s friend, Dr. MaultsBy, who made a video, just for the GDS third graders, about how the Great Migration affected music. 

GDS transportation coordinator Chris France, who is also a docent at the B&O Railroad Museum, talked to students about how different rail lines applied or didn't apply Jim Crow laws when moving through different parts of the country. Chris also talked about how Black Pullman Porters helped spread news and fought for workers rights. 

They read the book Overground Railroad in which a young girl traveling north during The Great Migration compares her family’s journey to the abolitionist movement. They learned about The Chicago Defender, the preeminent Chicago-based African-American newspaper and its role in spreading the word about opportunities for Black people in the North. 

They deepened their understanding of the multiple layers of this massive movement of people with poetry by Eloise Greenfield, a study of Jacob Lawrence’s art, the story of chef Edna Lewis, blues music by Muddy Waters, and the story of Richard Wright’s yearning for books and his own journey to Chicago to seek opportunities. They learned about The Green Book that helped Black motorists navigate traveling through a segregated nation and matched imaginary travel routes with historic Green Book sites using this interactive map
 
In another powerful connection between the civil rights movement and The Great Migration, students learned about journalist and activist Ethel Payne, noticing how her story overlaps with so many other aspects of the Great Migration, such as railways, The Chicago Defender, and marches for civil rights. 

Curriculum innovation during the pandemic has been both challenging and absolutely necessary to meet the needs of the students and the importance of this moment in the history of our country. The 3rd grade took a long-held aspiration to bring the history of The Great Migration to the Lower School curriculum and actualized it richly populated with guest speakers, geography, the arts, online and physical resources, and a commitment to continue growing.
 

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