Artifacts and symbols of our democracy may reside in D.C., but the struggle for America to live up to its ideals is found in the Heart of Dixie.
Each year, thousands of American eighth grade students from across the nation take a class trip to Washington, D.C. The impact of those trips can be life changing, especially as young people bond with classmates and prepare to chart different paths toward high school and adulthood.
While a trip to D.C. is considered a rite of passage for many, I believe that student travel to Alabama can better tell a story of the United States that speaks to today’s youth.
The story of American democracy is not complete for anyone without understanding the events that led up to and unfolded during the Civil Rights Movement.
The study of this history shows how democracy is not static but a dynamic struggle, one that requires organizing and participation. Further, the Civil Rights Movement is an ultimate case study that reminds us democracy depends on the ongoing work of everyday people, people who insist this country be true to what it says on paper.
Some of those everyday people are my own parents and grandparents who resisted white supremacy in the form of legalized racial segregation through protests, building community, telling stories, raising families, and finding joy while surviving Jim Crow in Alabama. I grew up learning about what it means to build social movements not in schools, but from the people who did it and in the places where it happened.
Now after years of working with young people as a teacher and in nonprofits, I lead civil rights tours to the South so others can learn this way as well. I am able to connect my love of education, my respect for young people, and my heritage of activism through this work which I believe is critical to an American education.
As I reflect over 10 years of leading dozens of groups and hundreds of participants, I believe some of my most impactful trips have been traveling to Alabama with eighth grade classes. Not only do I love the curiosity and energy of that age group, but I’ve also come to appreciate the foresight of the teachers and administrators who make these trips happen. They have taught me that Alabama, more than places like D.C., deeply resonates with Gen Z students and brings their humanities curriculum to life.
“This helped me understand our country’s racism [on] another level and the movement that fights against it.” — Will, 8th grade, Edmund Burke School
In Alabama, we see democracy in action.
In Washington, D.C., students can visit monuments, and even see the actual U.S. Constitution and other founding documents enshrined behind glass. But in Alabama we get to see the holes and the hidden levers of this foundational document. We stand in places where everyday people used those levers to expose and partially fill those gaps.
Collective struggle has been and continues to be required for everyone to have access to the promises of American democracy. In Birmingham, Montgomery, Lowndes County and Selma, we learn about many of the major campaigns that dealt fatal blows to the system of Jim Crow within a mere 10-year period.
In Alabama, we understand that voting rights are not guaranteed.
We face the stark fact that in America voting was not a reality for Black people in the South for 100 years after passage of the 15th Amendment. In Alabama we can walk from Brown A.M.E. church to and across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. As we walk, we remember the first, second and third attempts to march those 53 miles, from Bloody Sunday to the culmination of the third on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol. We understand this work (along with Black organizing in Mississippi) laid the foundation for the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) and that challenges to the VRA today also require organizing and resistance.
In Alabama, we learn about the history of policing.
We see how policing has been used time and time again to intimidate people, suppress dissent and stop social movements. The police murder of unarmed voting rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson is the inspiration for the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March. It is just a fact that state violence through assault, surveillance and incarceration is a part of every single fight for justice during the civil rights era in this state of the United States.
In Alabama, we encounter a humanized MLK.
Traveling through the state brings nuance to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We not only learn about King’s visionary leadership, but also his struggles, his doubts, his incarceration, his critique of white moderates, and the constant threats on his life and his family’s.
In Alabama, we connect the dots between slavery and prisons.
We face how the racial hierarchy in this country has been enforced by brutal dehumanization and violence, which remains with us today in the system of mass incarceration. We directly confront this legacy in Montgomery at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, established by the Equal Justice Initiative under the leadership of Bryan Stevenson. I believe not only 8th graders but every person in the country should pay a visit to these sites in their lifetime.
In Alabama, we confront the history of racially motivated mass shootings.
We can touch the walls of 16th St. Baptist Church, an official location for mass meetings during the 1963 Birmingham Campaign. This church was an organizing space used to plan marches, boycotts and other forms of civil disobedience. In September of 1963, it was targeted and bombed by white supremacists on a Sunday morning killing four girls and blinding a fifth. We not only mourn their deaths but also see how hard it is to find “justice” in the wake of racial violence.
After this visit, I’ve seen students grapple with the more recent memory of the Charleston Church Massacre, the mass shootings Pulse Nightclub and the Tree of Life Synagogue, and other attacks in what were considered safe spaces for oppressed people.
In Alabama, we see young people lead the way.
Today, young people are speaking up and taking action. They are not passive about the daily news cycle but directly addressing today’s most pressing issues, including racial injustice, climate change and gun violence. It is in Alabama where we see this is not new. Young people have been leaders for justice for decades. When many adults were tired and scared, marchers as young as 8 participated in civil disobedience, where they were met with police violence and mass arrests. In Birmingham, monuments in Kelly Ingram Park honor the courage and leadership of young people of the Children’s Crusade. Walking through this park, eighth graders can see their own reflection.
“I learned a lot. I will make my mom do this.” — 8th grade student, San Francisco School
For eighth graders, Alabama only makes sense.
I understand that Washington D.C. has become a destination of choice for many because it aligns with curricular standards that include study of the philosophy behind and the development of the U.S. government, of foundational documents such as the Constitution, and of the role of citizenship. The belief is these standards help young people understand U.S. history and its claim to exceptionalism.
But Alabama also tells the story of our nation, and, arguably, a more complete one. This story is also about citizenship, what it entails and who gets to claim it. It is the story of how and when the government failed to govern everyone. It shows how our foundational documents have been tested.
More than mega monuments and sprawling museums on the Potomac, sites related to the Civil Rights Movement and the Black freedom struggle offer us an incredible amount of insight about who we are and where we are as a country today. Of all the work I do, nothing is more rewarding and impactful than seeing how these trips can transform and shape young people’s perspectives as they begin to imagine the role they will play in the greater world.
I don’t want to knock D.C. This city is also a must-see, especially the National Museum for African American History and Culture. But when I want young people to really understand the history of America, I cast my eyes to Alabama. If you are currently preparing for an eighth-grade class trip in 2022, you should, too.
Mia Henry is the founder of Freedom Lifted, an organization that provides social justice education through Civil Rights tours and online trainings. As an eighth-grader in suburban Memphis, TN, she traveled with her class to Washington, D.C.