Riverdale Country School

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Civil Rights History in Birmingham
Posted 10/13/2015 02:52PM

Riverdale students outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.


A group of 21 Middle and Upper School students traveled to Alabama last week for a trip that provided insights into the history of Civil Rights as well as opportunities to learn from a s service project.

Assistant Head of School and Middle School Head Milton Sipp along with Susan Polise of the Spanish department and Elizabeth Pillsbury of the History department provided this report on the group's activities on Oct. 11: 

Our drivers Matthew Seals and Ron Tucker took us to Birmingham to meet Patricia DeLain, our tour guide and a Social Studies teacher at a local high school. She took us around Kelley Ingram Park, explaining how this place had been the center of the Civil Rights Movement. We learned about the history of the Children's Crusade in May of 1963, when high school and middle school students walked out of school to protest segregation in Alabama.

As we learned how students marched for their own freedom and for that of others, we were horrified to try to understand how the police in Birmingham could have turned dogs and water hoses on children. The horror and power of that moment was driven home for us as we learned that one of our bus drivers, Ron Tucker, had actually been a part of that protest as a middle schooler, and that he found himself on the other side of those powerful hoses that were said to have been so strong as to take off skin from one's body!

Later in the day, Ron and Matthew talked with us about their experiences during the Civil Rights Movement. They were some of the first African Americans to integrate white high schools and to attend the University of Alabama (an institution of which they are both enormous supporters). Their personal descriptions of the movement allowed all of us to understand in a much more immediate way the experience of living under segregation, of working to protest an unjust system, and then of navigating the aftermath. As they both described being attacked verbally and physically in their goal to attend school, the horror of the situation they faced in Alabama in the 1960s was driven home. However, as both of them said throughout the trip, they love Alabama today this is their state, their home, and they are so eager to share their local knowledge with us. In fact, Ron said that had he to do it all over again, to fight for justice and be a part of such a powerful movement, he would, without hesitation!

We learned too about the critical role that ministers and churches played in the Civil Rights Movement . Matthew Seals's childhood minister actually led many of the protests, and we marveled at the power of the human spirit in the face of the terrorism of white supremacy organizations throughout the 1950s and 1960s. This was brought home as we visited the memorial to the the four girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in September 1963, and to the two African-American boys shot by men as the assailants were leaving a Klan rally on the same day.  

We then attended church service at the historically African American 16th Street Baptist Church. In the pastor's  sermon, there was a lot of talk about Satan — ask your students.  But then also ask them about the children's choir and how joyful and friendly the members of the congregation were as they came up to greet us half-way through the service. One thing that resonated with the students was when the pastor of the church asked the members to find those of of us who were visiting, and to greet them with a hello and welcome. In fact, our school was recognized during the service, and we were asked to stand up! There was great music, and we found ourselves clapping and singing often. Although we all may have varying religious and political beliefs, it  was wonderful to know that everyone could feel welcome in a place like 16th Street Baptist Church, and that there is a common language of love and peace that is at the core of those different beliefs.

In the afternoon, we visited the Civil Rights Institute, and to a person, we were captivated by the powerful exhibitions and videos. We know our students have lots to report, so ask them what they learned. In all Alabama, the CRI is the most visited of any of the museums in the state, and it is easy to see why this is the case. It is an a very powerful place that seems to have captured the mood and significance of that time, and whose messages still resonate today.

During the trip, students worked on a Habitat for Humanity project that is building a home for a family that lost their home in Hurricane Katrina, and attended a football game at the University of Alabama. This is the school's second trip to Alabama, which was inspired in part by Jamie Tisch, a parent and member of the Board of Trustees. 

This trip joins the annual trip to New Orleans — now in its 10th year — as part of Riverdale's effort to introduce students to efforts to rebuild the South after Katrina and to learn more about issues related to Civil Rights, urban redevelopment, and regional cultural differences. A new trip to Detroit for Upper Schoolers is planned for the spring. 

Riverdale Country School

Mind • Character • Community



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Bronx, NY 10471
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