Children of the Civil Rights
I’m stepping out of my comfort zone for this post. No vouchers. No education policy or funding calculations. Nothing on the teacher shortage, even. Instead, I’m going to discuss a presentation that I had the privilege to enjoy with several co-workers and several hundred freshmen from our three Mid-Del high schools this morning.
This started for me in January when I heard Julia Clifford present at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast in Midwest City. She spoke about the children who orchestrated the first lunch counter sit-in at Katz Drug Store in Oklahoma City in 1958. She showed the trailer for the documentary that she had produced, Children of the Civil Rights. With her were some of the children who sat at those lunch counters and participated in countless peaceful marches throughout Oklahoma City. Here’s the trailer for her film:
After seeing it, I turned to my assistant superintendent, Kathy Dunn, and said, we have to have this. Kathy and her staff coordinated with Rose State College to get us the Hudiburg Chevrolet Center and bring the film in today. Rose State kept the costs as low as possible. Our foundation picked up the bill. Other than saying we have to have this, I really did nothing, which highlights the great people I have around me.
I was born in 1970 – six years after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. I grew up with, from a legal perspective, all of the basics of equality already being settled. My mom could tell me stories of watching the march from Selma to Birmingham on the news during dinner, or the March on Washington, or even of hearing about the deaths of President Kennedy and Dr. King. These were current events for her. By the time I knew much of anything about the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King had been gone 15 years.
I’ve always been saddened and fascinated by this piece of our nation’s history. How could people treat each other this way? It just seems unnatural. My step-father was a psychology professor at the University of Oklahoma. His main body of research was on this very thing. We all have biases. We learned them as we developed. The trick is unlearning them. I don’t know what his key research findings were, but growing up I knew I wanted to know as much about the history of the fight for equality as I could.
For me, seeing this film is part of my own ongoing education. For our participating students – most of whom are at least 30 years younger than I am – this might have been an introduction to the movement. For all of us, it was an opportunity to see our larger community in a different light.
The hour-long film includes archival footage of Clara Luper and interviews with several of the participants from the sit-in. It also includes interviews with local and national journalists from the time, and former Congressman John Lewis, who marched with Dr. King to Birmingham. At the conclusion of the film, we had another hour for questions with four people on the stage.
On the left (in the picture below) is Bill Clifford, the filmmaker’s father. He was one of the first white people to participate in the Oklahoma City protests. In between him and his daughter were Joyce Jackson and Joyce Henderson – two of the original 13 protesters from Katz.
There was no shortage of student questions. I know their teachers prepped them before they came over, but most of their curiosity was of the in-the-moment variety. Were you scared? What was jail like? My favorite student question of the morning was simple, and I wish I weren’t paraphrasing. It was essentially, How did you carry on when the whole world was against you? Regardless of time, location, and prejudice, haven’t all of us had that feeling at some point? Haven’t all of us had that existential moment when we simply ask, How? Especially when we were teens?
The truth is, for most of us, we’ve only felt as if the whole world was against us. For these protestors, it really was. Maybe it wasn’t the whole world, but it was more of a critical mass than I’ve ever faced.
We all have different upbringings and experiences. We’re raised with different values. We all have different triggers for our various emotions. We all have different thresholds for losing our cool. Poise and grace are qualities that have to be practiced. For some, they seem to come naturally, but don’t we all have breaking points?
Today’s presentation and panel discussion was a great reminder that we as a nation have moved forward. To those of us in my generation and later, these stories are history. To the people on the stage today, however, it was life. In either case, these are memories we need to collectively preserve.
It was also a reminder that sometimes adults overthink things. To the 13 original protesters, what they needed to do was obvious. Their actions spoke volumes. So do their words now. As educators, when we listen to our students, we can see the world (and even ourselves) through their eyes. We don’t always like what they see, but it is what they see.
After the questions, before we sent our students back to school, I had the honor of joining our guests on stage. I looked at them and called them heroes. That’s not a word I toss around lightly, either. Sure, my three children are all named after basketball stars, but these two ladies did more to move this city forward – as children – than Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook ever will. (I say that firmly believing that this is the best place for them to spend their entire careers and hoping they win five championships.)
What I take away from today, more than anything else, is that we can either keep moving forward or we can go back in time. Congressman Lewis was beaten in Alabama because he wanted to register young African Americans to vote. How many of us now take our right to vote for granted? How much do we really know about the candidates we choose? How far are we willing to walk to let our voices be heard? What are our limits? How do we know what we really value?
I never thought I’d have the chance to stand on stage and sing We Shall Overcome with actual legends of the Civil Rights Movement. Today I did. And I thanked them – for what they did as children, and what they continue doing today.
Keep moving forward.