The telephone rang. I picked it up and heard my nephew say, “Great one. Is that you?”
“Yes, ‘tis I,” I answered with mock ceremony. I am great-aunt to his twin daughters, Amy and Iris, and we have adopted this pleasurable repartee. We never seem to tire of our courtly charade.
“Would you be willing to speak to Iris’ fifth grade class about your experiences in the civil rights movement?” Leon asked. “They are reading a book about the bombing of the church in Birmingham, Alabama.”
“I think it would be good for the kids.” I answered, after some moments of thought. The idea of involving eleven-year-olds in an experience which had been so meaningful to me was challenging.
“Iris could interview you in front of the class,” Leon added.
“That would be fun. Like Barbara Walters. Or maybe Frost-Nixon,” I answered. We laughed, as I agreed to do it.
As I hung up the telephone, doubts assailed me. What would I say? How could I make my experiences and memories come alive for young people? I called Leon back. “Let’s do a trial interview. When can Iris come to see me?” We made a date. In a few days, Iris and her mother, Lynne, arrived. Iris sat down next to me.
“Why don’t you ask me some questions?” I said to my young interviewer.
“Was it dangerous? Were the freedom schools like regular schools?” were some of her questions.
I made the mistake of simplifying my answers, searching for words that were less complex. I even asked Iris questions to try to make sure that she understood the concepts.
“I’m in fifth grade. We all know what naïve and political mean,” Iris informed me.
I realized that I had taken the wrong approach. I must speak to my young listeners as equals, with no hint of talking down to them.
Iris’ mother suggested that perhaps I should begin by describing my activities in freedom schools and voter registration in Virginia and Mississippi. “Do you have any pictures that you could show the class?” she asked.
After they left, I searched through my photo albums and found one with pictures and newspaper articles that I had saved. There were also observations and comments that I had written at the time. “Amazing!” Iris’ parents said, after I gave them the pictures and readings. “We will scan these and reprint them for the class.”
Looking at these photos and reading my impressions helped me re-experience that time. I eagerly arranged the scrapbook. I also read my notes carefully, so that I could revive and refresh my memories. I enjoyed this preparation for my talk but, still, I had an uneasy feeling. How would I introduce myself? What would I say? Did I need to have beginning words that would attract attention and draw in my listeners, as one does in creative writing? I did not want to write out my words, to read from notes. I knew that I would reach my audience more directly without notes, without the barrier of words that were not spontaneous.
All that week, I thought about the civil rights movement and its origins. I thought about the courage of Brown and his fellow parents to take the memorable “Brown vs. the Board of Education” to the Supreme Court. “No, separate is not equal” the court ruled, and that was the beginning. Like a tidal wave, it spread. I thought of the saying, “There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” Courage was contagious. People of all colors united to achieve justice in the face of great risks. Murders, bombings, and water hoses could not stop the boycotts, the marches, the sit-ins, the voter registration.
I was just a small part of it all, a necessary drop of water to form this immense wave. That’s why it is called a movement, I thought. As one throws a small stone into a pool of quiet water, the ripples extend into wider and wider circles. The movement of the water extends far beyond the stone that started the current. I reflected about those changing times. “And how many years must a people exist, before they’re allowed to be free?” Is justice still “Blowing in the Wind?”
When the morning of my talk arrived, I told myself that I was not nervous, but I could not eat any breakfast. I’ll wait until later, I thought. I arrived early in the schoolyard. We went to the classroom and the day began with the customary recitation of the “Pledge of Allegiance.” With my hand on my heart, I joined the class as we recited the pledge. As we ended with the words “with liberty and justice for all,” my voice broke. Suddenly, I felt these were not just words, but a pledge to right wrongs that still exist. Perhaps I will include this in my speech, I thought.
When I actually faced my young audience, I lost all fear. I spoke to the students in Ms. Michelle Berkovitz’ fifth grade class at PS 116, Manhattan. I explained how the government in Prince Edward County, Virginia, had closed down all public schools, rather than obey the court order to integrate. Private academies were opened for white children. I was part of a group of teachers and college students, sponsored by the United Federation of Teachers and Queens College. We opened summer “freedom schools” for children who were denied the opportunity to attend school because of the color of their skin. The following summer, in Mississippi, I helped African-American adults fill out registration forms so that they could vote.
The girls and boys were eager to learn more about my experiences. They asked many questions and I listened carefully to each one. I observed Iris’ wise warning not to over-simplify but to respect the capacity for deep understanding in my young listeners. They responded with tremendous interest. During my talk, I asked them whether there was indeed “liberty and justice for all” in 2009 in the United States.
I closed by describing how, at the end of our Freedom School classes each day, we often held hands together in a circle, children and adults of different skin colors, different religions, different genders, and different ages. We were united by one feeling, one purpose: to fulfill the goals of American democracy, believing that “All men are created equal,” that we all share a common humanity, that all of us deserve equal respect, equal dignity and equal justice under the law. As we sang “We Shall Overcome” so many times during those years of struggle, I only hoped; I dared not believe. Yet we helped to make change happen, at a time when racism and oppression seemed more powerful than any hopes for future tolerance and equality.
After my talk, many of the students wrote appreciative notes to me, saying that I had opened a door for them to help them understand the racial divide in this country and its history. One student, David Class, wrote, “You really taught me how I can help stop racism.” I hope that I started them thinking, questioning further. I hope that I inspired my young audience to act against injustice, to believe in the value of protest, and to believe that actions can make a difference, even in the face of great odds.