Why Every 8th Grade Class Should Go to Alabama

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.

Students standing in circle with adult woman with fists in the air
8th grade students from the San Francisco School with Civil Rights Movement Veteran Joanne Bland in Selma Image Credit: Nancy Nagramada

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.

Left: Sign in 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham Middle: 8th Grade students talking with 1961 Freedom Rider Catherine Burks Brooks. Right: Sign in Selma on the route between Brown A.M.E. church and the Edmund Pettus Bridge Image Credit: Author

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.

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.

Left: Students at sign at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Right: Sign advocating to fight for voting rights in 2020 Image Credit: Araceli Quezada

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.

Students at the Equal Justice Initiative Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery Image Credit: Araceli Quezada

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.

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.

Top left: 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham Top Right: Statue at Kelly Ingram Park Bottom Left: Students on campus tour of Tuskegee University Bottom Right: Two students take a moment before following marchers’ steps in Selma Image Credit: Araceli Quezada

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.

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