Monday, July 18, 2011

Civil Rights Movement Touring with Teachers

From Lexington Herald Leader; by Merlene Davis

Hope Brown, a teacher at Rowan County High School, has a passion for the civil rights movement.

"That passion made me want to be a teacher," she said.

It's also the reason she is accompanying other Kentucky teachers on a road trip through history, stopping at several sites in the South where significant events took place that thrust racial equality to the forefront of America's psyche during the 1950s and 1960s.

There are 19 Kentucky elementary, middle and high school teachers traveling as a part of "Democratic Visions: From Civil War to Civil Rights," a three-year professional development program for fifth-, eighth- and 11th-grade history teachers in Bath, Carter, Estill, Fleming, Menifee, Montgomery, Morgan, Powell, Pulaski, Rockcastle and Rowan counties.

Democratic Visions, in its final year, is a partnership among school districts, the Kentucky Historical Society, professors at the University of Kentucky and Berea College, and the Kentucky Heritage Council. The program is funded by a grant to Powell County Schools from the U.S. Department of Education's Teaching American History initiative. Similar grants, which are targeted at rural communities, have been awarded to Harlan and Letcher counties in recent years.

Twenty-seven people are on the trip, including UK history professor Gerald Smith; Kathi Kern, director of the UK Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, who wrote the grant; and Chad Berry, director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College.

Smith, the lead scholar for this year's program, which is focusing on civil rights, said the group had just left Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., when I called Wednesday. On Dec. 5, 1955, the church was the site of the first mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which directed the Montgomery bus boycott.

"When I was given the opportunity to join three years ago, I looked forward to having the ability to see these sites and share in our shared history," said Chip Manley, a teacher at Montgomery County High School. "Even for me it is like walking on holy ground. You can feel the ghosts of history around you and imagine the struggle."

Holt Street Baptist Church has been abandoned and is in serious disrepair, Kern said. "There is no stewardship," she said. "That congregation has moved on."

Still, she said, "This trip is what we have been looking forward to."

Wednesday's tour also included the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church & Parsonage, where King was pastor from 1954 to 1960 and where he began his civil rights odyssey, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, where the group learned more about Rosa Parks and Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, who worked with Parks to help the bus boycott succeed.

The tour began Monday with a stop in Nashville at Fisk University, where the second wave of Freedom Riders originated. The visit to Birmingham on Tuesday included 16th Street Baptist Church, where a bomb exploded Sept. 15, 1963, killing four little girls who were attending Sunday school, and a trip to Tuskegee University to learn more about Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.

In the coming days, the bus tour will travel to Selma, Ala.; Oxford, Miss.; and finally to Memphis, where they will tour the National Civil Rights Museum and talk with the Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles, who was with King when he was assassinated.

Teachers in Democratic Visions receive a $1,000 stipend or three hours graduate credit for full participation; are taught new teaching techniques; and are given books and teaching materials, in-class assistance and travel opportunities.

Smith is the only African-American on the tour. Rebecca Hanly, Teaching American History project director at the Kentucky Historical Society, said she has worked with the grants in Eastern Kentucky since 2002, and of the 150 teachers who have participated, only one was black.

There simply aren't that many African-American students or teachers in that area of Kentucky, she said. "It's just an interesting side effect," she said.

Manley agreed. "Seeing the experience, the stories and the photos are resources beneficial to not only African-American students, but also white students. This is something for everyone: the fight for justice and to overcome inequality."

The teachers who are participating are an enthusiastic group, Smith said. "You can hear that in their conversations."

It is definitely evident when talking with Rowan County's Brown.

"I'm trying to bring as much passion to the classroom as possible," she said, and nothing brings that home better than a visit to the sites students study in history and social studies classes.

A friend of mine is fond of quoting a Spanish proverb that says, "What the eyes don't see, the heart doesn't feel."

Because 19 teachers have seen for themselves some of the historic sites of the civil rights movements, hundreds of Kentucky students will have a better feel for and tolerance of the struggle for equality.

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