One car, three teachers, seven days, 10 states, and 2,850 miles. In late July, we journeyed through the Deep South as curious learners with goals of connecting places with the content of our courses.
The Civil Rights Movement and key events of that era from southern states are essential to the U.S. History courses I teach at Como Park High School. My fellow travelers were my former Como colleague Brian McCarthy (who now teaches AP Human Geography at Two Rivers High School), and Dave Stahlman (who recently retired after 25 years of social studies instruction at Como).
Our shared interests inspired us to navigate states less traveled, where courageous actions by leaders and citizens inspire while the history of Jim Crow simultaneously marks the cities, towns, and countryside across the region.
Our ambitious agenda took us through Iowa and Missouri to reach Little Rock, Ark. on our first day. We began day two with a visit to the state capitol where a monument honoring the Little Rock Nine stands today.
The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case desegrated public schools. But implementation was slow. White resistance in southern states was fierce. The first nine African American students to try and integrate Little Rock Central High School in 1957 were denied entry by White students, parents, and the governor.
The bravery and resiliency of the Little Rock Nine were eventually aided by President Eisenhower’s deployment of federal troops who escorted the students through the doors and into Central High School three weeks later.
We made our way over to the infamous school and walked through those doors. A flood of feelings accompanied my steps into the building that we so easily accessed – a building that was shut down for the 1958 school year by the White residents of Little Rock who preferred no school over school with Black students.
Change was slow. The arc of civil rights gains has never been a consistent upward trajectory. There was one issue and battle after another as our trip destinations revealed.
After some time in the interpretive center across the corner from Central High School, we visited the Clinton Presidential Center in downtown Little Rock. Limiting social studies teacher time in a presidential library is challenging, but a couple hours later, we were on the road to Memphis, Tenn.
Beyond historical sites and museums, we were excited to experience the music and culture of the south and interact with everyday people. A night of blues music on Beale Street accelerated that goal as we enjoyed the sounds of Earl “The Pearl” Banks at the Blues City Band Box.
Our plans for day three were built around the Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. A wreath adorns the spot on the balcony outside Room 306 where King was killed. A placard below explains the tragedy. The motel’s exterior has been preserved in its 1968 style and the interior converted into the museum.
Due to an overnight storm, the museum’s air conditioning wasn’t working and the building was closed. Disappointing since we heard such positive reviews about it, but to stand and see that place where Dr. King’s life was taken profoundly impacted me.
We used the day to meander through the Mississippi Delta. The agriculture of the expansive plain was fascinating for my geography colleague, and the roadside markers reminded us we were traveling through the birthplace of the blues. We ate southern barbeque in Clarksdale and stopped in the Grammy Museum in the small town of Cleveland before lodging in Mississippi’s capital city of Jackson.
On day four, we traveled along the Natchez Trace – a corridor used by Native Americans for centuries. The Choctaw were Indigenous people of the land before European colonization and forced removal, and our time at the Choctaw Cultural Center of Mississippi provided education about its effect. We left with new knowledge of Choctaw customs and the return of over 10,000 tribal members during recent decades.
We crossed over into Alabama and headed further south toward Selma. Many know the story. For those unfamiliar, the voting rights of African Americans were denied across the south into the 1960s and Selma became a flashpoint in 1965.
African American leaders and citizens attempting to peacefully cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge were beaten back by law enforcement on what became known as Bloody Sunday. Marchers tried again two days later, but turned around before confrontation.
Two weeks later with the world watching, an integrated group of over 3,000 marchers were able to walk across the bridge toward the capital of Montgomery and rally with a crowd that grew to 25,000.
Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma was spiritual and humbling for me. My thoughts raced to the brutality marchers endured, the fear they faced, the prayers they offered up, and the ultimate triumph of the federal Voting Rights Act passing five months later.
Day five began by walking the marchers’ route in Montgomery, which happened to pass the corner where Rosa Parks famously stayed seated on the bus in 1955 – 10 years before the march.
The Rosa Parks Museum and simulation provided insight to the Montgomery Bus Boycott that will elevate my class discussion.
We walked on to the Civil Rights Museum founded by the Southern Poverty Law Center which honors 40 martyrs, followed by a tour of the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church where Reverend King was the pastor from 1954-1960 and the first bus boycott meeting was held after Parks’ arrest.
A parishioner shared the church’s stories and King’s leadership there, but what enhanced my time in the sanctuary were conversations with the welcoming people who were visiting as part of two different family reunions.
They had unique connections to the place, had grandparents who attended the church, knew the same people, or even received piano lessons from the church organist. There was a shared history and connection evidenced through infectious smiles. And while we White men from Minnesota weren’t connected to Dexter Ave. Baptist Church, we were welcomed in just the same.
After concluding the walk to Alabama’s capitol steps, we returned to our vehicle bound for Birmingham. We walked the city at night to try and get a feel for it, knowing we would spend the next day reviewing its sins.
Day six started with walking through the sculptures depicting the civil rights struggles in Birmingham. Horrific events broadcast on television in 1963 such as dogs and water cannons being unleashed on Black citizens and children teach or remind visitors of the vicious policing.
The sculptures stand in the shadow of the 16th St. Baptist Church, which was bombed on a Sunday morning in 1961, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute which concludes with a nod to justice. Eventually the church bombers were caught, tried, and convicted, leading the civil rights activist and Birmingham minister Fred Shuttlesworth to say, “Justice will shine for Black and White people now.”
Shuttlesworth said that in 2002. Have we regressed? Are we a work in progress? Our journey to America’s Deep South produced more questions than answers. Some were discussed on our long ride that afternoon from Birmingham to Louisville, Ky. where we’d stay the night. Countless thoughts drifted in and out of our minds on day seven as we drove through Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa on our return to St. Paul.
One consistent thought was this – being in a new place is powerful. Connecting history with a place and its people is informative and energizing. I’ll be bringing the information and energy I gained into my classroom to enhance the learning of my students.