the Road and out of the Box: Teaching the Civil Rights Movement
from a Chrysler Minivan
and Joseph J. Gonzalez
Each trip had its "moments."
In March 2000, we heard Mamie Till describe why she had demanded
an open casket for her son Emmett, lynched in 1955: "So that
everyone could see what they did to my boy." In 2001, Julian
Bond read his student poetry, and John Lewis described how he and
Bond resurrected their friendship after both ran for the same congressional
seat in 1986. In the Mississippi Delta, the lawyer Jaribu Hill explained
why she defends the rights of the poor, rejecting a lucrative private
practice: "What do I have to worry about? Some of my clients
don't have indoor plumbing, or even front doors."
Each trip had its "moments"--but such moments do not
come cheap. In order to appreciate them, we had to implement two
experiential learning courses on the civil rights movement, connect
with an activist community, and balance academic and experiential
learning while writing our dissertations. The effort was worth it.
Our first trip, during spring break 2000, was a success, and the
second, during spring break 2001, was even better. This year, we
will be on the road again, eating fast food, evading speeding tickets,
and searching for moments of clarity.
I "Wasted" My Spring Breaks Teaching
"Our spring break is almost over . . . and we wasted it
--Jeb Singer, spring break 2000
I "wasted" two spring breaks teaching, and I could not
be more satisfied. I had to do it. Years into my doctoral studies,
I had taught several writing courses at the University of Michigan.
I enjoyed teaching and my students but felt frustrated. Though charming
and competent, my students seemed passive, more like guests than
participants, learning only enough to write their essays. Their
learning--and my teaching--stopped at the classroom door.
Fortunately, I found the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program (LHSP) in
1999. LHSP is a residential learning community at the University
of Michigan. Knowing that its director, Professor David Potter,
encourages innovative teaching, I proposed to lead a historical
tour of the civil rights movement. The request surprised us both.
My knowledge of the civil rights movement rested on a few books
hurriedly read for preliminary exams. I knew no one in the movement
and had never taught an experiential course, though Douglas Brinkley's
The Majic Bus provided an inspiring example. But I knew that
my students needed to connect their experience with the process
of historical change. The civil rights movement, many of its leaders
still active and its sites still preserved, seemed ideal for this
purpose. In addition, the movement presented a story of heroic struggle
and ambiguous results, the legacy of which my students confront
David agreed, and I began planning a one-credit trip for spring
break, aided by my wife, Teresa Buckwalter, a graduate student in
landscape architecture and teacher in LHSP, and Alyssa Picard, a
fellow doctoral candidate in history and teacher in LHSP whose experiments
in democratic pedagogy had inspired me. Wanting to emphasize experience,
I assigned no reading and adopted a "run and gun" method
of lecturing during the trip: "Here's where we are, and here's
what happened." Hoping to encourage participation, I asked
the students to decide our itinerary and some of our policies.
On February 26, 2000, we left Ann Arbor with nine students. We
visited Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, and Memphis. The
trip's high point came at its end, as Mamie Till spoke in front
of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. Then we sang "We
Shall Overcome" arm-in-arm with Coretta Scott King and Rep.
John Lewis, former chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee, who was leading his own civil rights tour that day.2
Members of the 2000 trip meet Coretta Scott King at the
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery,
Alabama. Photograph by Michael Simon.
Our students returned tired but energized. Having seen the movement,
they wanted to make the movement part of their lives. Four of them
formed an organization to promote understanding between Jews and
African Americans on campus, while others joined established activist
groups. Just as gratifying, our students referred to the class as
"our trip." Having assumed a voice in the class, they
were participants, not guests.
But we made some mistakes. On the trip, we found the "run
and gun" method no substitute for reading. During the trip,
I also did too much administration and too little teaching. Finally,
we had not seen enough people. The power of Mamie Till's story and
the eloquence of John Lewis's testimony inspired me to find more
people who were there. After some discussion, we decided to require
the members of the next trip to take a semester-long course on the
history of the movement, which I would teach. I also resolved to
hire an administrative assistant and find more contacts within the
civil rights community.
On February 25, 2001, we left Ann Arbor with twenty-one students;
Alyssa, on a dissertation fellowship, could not join us. Nonetheless,
the trip was better. Having already studied the movement in the
classroom, the students understood better the people and places
they saw. We met more participants, some famous, such as Julian
Bond and Taylor Branch, and some not so famous, such as those who
marched in Selma's "bloody Sunday" in 1965 or walked during
Montgomery's 1955 bus boycott. We also met present-day activists,
including lawyers from both the Southern Poverty Law Center and
the Mississippi Workers' Center for Human Rights.
Our second group arrived home as energized as our first. Two students
worked for Jaribu Hill the following summer, while others moved
into campus activism and internships. For my part, I was no longer
the frustrated teacher. After two years of trial and error, I saw
students who connected history with their own lives; their learning,
and my teaching, only began in the classroom. Perhaps most important,
I saw a cohort devoted to living the values of the movement. Students,
I now know, are neither naturally passive nor inherently unreceptive
to learning; they do, however, need to define their educations and
understand historical change inside and outside the classroom. Such
an approach may make for better students, but I am not sure. I only
know that the civil rights trips made my students better citizens--and
me a better teacher.
Democracy Rising: What Our Students Taught
The greatest lesson of both the civil rights movement and our civil
rights trip is that what young people do (and, therefore, what teachers
do with them) really matters. Among the Montgomery bus boycotters,
the marchers in Selma, and the freedom riders were college students,
high school students, and young teachers and parents who risked
their lives because they did not want their children to grow up
under Jim Crow. The past happened because its makers, some of whom
were just our students' age, sought to affect the future: as history
teachers and conscientious historians, we are obligated to bring
our knowledge of, and respect for, this fact to bear on our relationships
with our students. Even when they are quiescent today, they have
the potential to be powerful beyond their--and our--wildest imaginations.
For me, as for many political and pedagogical progressives, helping
students realize that power is one of the central purposes of teaching
The trip was part of my larger experiment with democratic pedagogy,
spurred by my visceral identification with John Dewey's claim that
education for democracy demands active participation by students
and by my reading of Ira Shor's When Students Have Power.
Shor writes that teachers' sharing of power with students in the
classroom creates "the desire and imagination of change while
also creating the experience and skills for it."3
We hoped that our travels with our students would help them to realize,
through study and through experience, that social and political
change are not only desirable but possible and that young people
can, and have, made change happen. In Shor's and Dewey's views,
such a lesson can only be taught when students share responsibility
for, and authority over, their educational environments. Learning
does not get any more participatory than these travel classes: for
a time we resided, quite literally, where the rubber of pedagogy
hits the road of social change.
Members of the 2001 trip on the front porch of the Martin
Luther King Parsonage in Montgomery, Alabama. King lived there
during his time in Montgomery, from 1954 to 1960. Photograph
by Brett Mountain.
But in that first year we assumed too much of students' ability
to prepare themselves intellectually independent of any guidance
from us. Some of our students, particularly the ones who self-identified
as political progressives, did advance reading, and I saw several
dog-eared copies of the Martin Luther King reader A Testament
of Hope circulating around the vans in which we were traveling.4
Yet only the most motivated students had the level of knowledge
we would have liked. So when we found ourselves standing across
from, say, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama,
where four young women were killed and twenty others injured in
the Ku Klux Klan's 1963 bombing, one of us would have to launch
into an explanation of what had happened there, trying--and sometimes
failing--to convey both factual knowledge and the emotional responses
we felt to the place.
Moreover, these sites are living places, not "anachronistic
spaces."5 Worshipers still attend services in the
Sixteenth Street Church and at King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in
Atlanta--and people still drive across the Edmund Pettus Bridge
in Selma, where in 1965 marchers demonstrating for voting rights
were attacked by Alabama state troopers wielding clubs and tear
gas, every day.6 We did not want the people who lived
in the places we visited to feel that we were treating their hometowns
like living history museums--especially because our students were
mostly white northerners, with all the historical baggage that entails.
But in locations designed for commemoration, we felt more comfortable
reflecting on local history: on the fly, we downloaded a copy of
King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, which he
delivered for the last time to Memphis sanitation workers the night
before he was assassinated, and read it, round-robin fashion, in
the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel, where he was killed (and
where the National Civil Rights Memorial Museum now stands). The
moment underlined the tragedy of King's assassination, the power
of his literary and oratorical gift, and the complexity of commemoration
all in one fell swoop.7
I was glad when Joe nestled the trip into a semester-long course,
and I am looking forward to teaching the class myself in 2002 as
a co-requisite for the spring break trip. My version of the class
will explore how the writing of history relates to the making of
it: students will spend a lot of time learning how to read and evaluate
primary source documents, will meet and ask questions of the historians
who have documented the movement, and will consider the ways in
which civil rights commemorations (monuments, museums, and other
cultural productions) construct conflicting narratives of the origins,
course, and fate of the movement. I will also focus on the centrality
of religion to the civil rights movement. During the 2000 trip,
we had some memorable exchanges about faith, one of which took place
when a student who professed to admire King and wanted to follow
in his footsteps dismissed the contemporary religious faith of one
of her born-again classmates as "Bible crap." Then, on
our last night in Montgomery, the commemoration of the Selma-Montgomery
march coincided with the Southern Cultural Independence Heritage
Festival being held by several thousand Confederate-flag-toting
Rebels on the lawn of the Alabama state house. At our motel, one
of the students reported having seen a man carrying an armful of
small Confederate flags on sticks and a set of white satin robes
into the room next to his. Some students immediately started strategizing
about soaping the man's truck windows, letting the air out of his
tires so he could not make it to the rally, and other acts of vandalism
they could commit to let him know that his politics were unacceptable
to them. It was clear to me that the students had not realized the
centrality of Christianity to King's program or of nonviolence and
love to his religious teaching.
Conclusion: What the Teachers Learned
Our methods and our pedagogy worked well for our course, but they
might be used to study many other geographic, social, and political
movements in their geographic contexts--the Great Migration, the
Trail of Tears, the twentieth-century labor movement.8
One of the strengths of travel courses is that they preclude the
construction of triumphal narratives of days gone by: in every location,
and in every application, contemporary travel will reflect the ambiguous
legacy of the past. But, perhaps more important, every travel class
is indelibly marked with the imprint of the students who take it.
We feel privileged to have lived and traveled with some very bright,
committed, and reflective young people, and we recommend the experience
highly to those who feel, as we do, that the past and the future
are profitably brought into contact in the present.
Alyssa Picard and Joseph J. Gonzalez are Ph.D. candidates in history
at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. We wish to thank Carol
Lasser and Gary J. Kornblith, whose editing improved our piece,
and the University of Michigan, whose support made these trips
affordable for all students. We also thank our students, who made
us better teachers. For more information on the civil rights trips,
visit our Web site at <www.umich.edu/~onthebus>.
1 Douglas Brinkley, The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey
(New York, 1993).
2 For more on John Lewis, see John Lewis, Walking
with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (New York, 1998).
3 Ira Shor, When Students Have Power: Negotiating
Authority in a Critical Pedagogy (Chicago, 1996), 176.
4 Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The
Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., ed.
James Melvin Washington (San Francisco, 1991).
5 Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender,
and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York, 1995), 30.
6 Our students were fortunate enough to have participated
in the thirty-fifth anniversary reenactment of the march during
the 2000 trip. When the reenactors reached the crest of the bridge
that year, they encountered lines of Alabama state troopers saluting
7 In Memphis, we confronted the continuing controversy
surrounding the building of the National Civil Rights Memorial Museum,
which epitomizes the ways in which the urge to commemorate past
successes can foster complacency about ongoing problems: in spring
2000, Jacqueline Smith, a homeless black woman, stood outside the
museum protesting Memphis's shortage of low-income housing. She
handed out literature arguing that King would have wanted the motel
converted into a place in which she and others left behind in the
much-vaunted economic growth of the 1990s could have lived affordably--and
she was right.