When Students From Boston Go South To Study Civil Rights

In a little over three weeks I will be heading out with roughly 35 students on a civil rights tour of the South. Our trip will take us from Atlanta, Georgia to Memphis, Tennessee. Along the way we will stop at some of the most important sites related to the civil rights struggle and talk with various participants, including a Freedom Rider who was on the bus that was firebombed in Anniston, Alabama. My primary responsibility along the way will be to help students make connections with the Civil War and Reconstruction era through the interpretation of various public sites including monuments and buildings. It promises to be an enlightening and enjoyable trip for all involved and yet I have some concerns.

Most of the students on this trip have never traveled extensively through the South beyond the usual tourist spots. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a group of kids from Boston through the South, but I worry that this trip will leave them with a distorted picture of both the civil rights movement and the problem of race in America as a distinctly Southern problem. I am not attempting to minimize the importance of the history attached to these places, but we could just as easily organize a civil rights tour of the Boston area and a host of other Northern cities.

I fear that seeing discrimination and the legacy of Jim Crow as a distinctly Southern problem at such a young age will push further from view the history of their own communities. More importantly, students will be inadequately equipped to understand the inequities of one of the most racially segregated cities in the country.

For these reasons and others, this year I decided to focus my civil rights unit in my survey course on the Boston Bus Boycott. I am still looking for an accessible collection of primary sources so please feel free to offer recommendations. As for this trip, I am very much looking forward to it, but I am going to give some thought to how I can address some of these issues of balance along the way.

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39 thoughts on “When Students From Boston Go South To Study Civil Rights

  1. Sam Vanderburg

    Heck – they should have seen McCroy, Arkansas, as I did trough the eyes of an 11 yr. old as I did when we first moved there in the fall of ’66. I told my dad I wanted a drink of the “Colored Water” in the back of the store. He quickly quieted me and said he would later explain. He did. It made me feel real small that people would treat others that way. It was my first taste of that kind of animosity and to this day I do not understand it. It still makes me mad.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Heck – they should have seen McCroy, Arkansas, as I did trough the eyes of an 11 yr. old as I did when we first moved there in the fall of ’66.

      Absolutely. These students will have the opportunity to consider multiple perspectives from people who lived through this era and this is one of the benefits of traveling as opposed to reading about it in a book. I just don’t want them to miss an opportunity to interact with folks who can offer insight into the civil rights movement that took place in their own backyard. Thanks for the comment.

      Reply
  2. Jared

    Kevin,

    Have you seen “78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City” by Bill Reynolds? It is a pretty good look at the various events that played out in Boston that year.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks for the reference. On the Boston sports front there is an excellent article on race and Larry Bird in the Massachusetts Historical Review (Vol. 13, 2011) titled, “Gifts That God Didn’t Give”: White Hopes, Basketball, and the Legend of Larry Bird”.

      Reply
  3. Jennifer Gross

    Thought I teach at Jacksonville State, I live in Anniston and have been part of some of the recent efforts to commemorate the bus burning. I’m not sure what your plans are with regard to Anniston, but I’d be happy to make myself available to you and your students if you haven’t already made plans. Just let me know.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Jennifer,

      Thanks so much for the kind offer. We are on a pretty tight schedule, but I will let you know if we have some time available for a meeting.

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  4. Dan Weinfeld

    I believe you are overly sensitive to the accusation of hypocrisy. From my experience growing up in Boston’s west suburbs, I doubt that your students will (or should) feel chastened or shamed by being reminded of racial conflicts that largely played out in Boston’s “working class” neighborhoods (i.e., Southie, Dorchester, Roxbury, Charleston) nearly 40 years ago. From your students’ perspective, the world of Louise Day Hicks might as well as be in Alabama for all the connection and identification they will feel with that time and place. You definitely should find excerpts from “Common Ground” for your unit.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Dan,

      Thanks for the comment and perspective. I wouldn’t describe it as “hypocrisy” at all. It seems to me that Americans have a regional bias when it comes to the civil rights movement. No doubt, many of the events that took place in the South were important to the trajectory of the national. My goal in focusing on local history is to help my students to better understand why the larger community in which they live came to be this way.

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    2. Patrick Young

      Good point about them not associating with the working class conflict in Southie, Dan, though I think that story should be taught. Perhaps the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict in New York which involved a confrontation between a mostly black school board and the teachers union and came to symbolize black-Jewish animosities might also be included. It is important for kids to understand that racial animosities are not regionally or ethnically restricted. That “people like them” might be involved.

      In the racial hate crime case that I have worked on, the killing of Marcelo Lucero in an anti-immigrant hate crime in 2008, the attackers included young men from Irish, German, Jewish, and mixed-race backgrounds. All were brought up in New York State and were from various levels of the Middle Class.

      Reply
  5. Doug Didier

    It’s my understanding Robert Moses lives in the boston area. Perhaps winters in Miami .. I’d recommend touching base with him..

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  6. Gdbrasher

    Kevin, I hope you are bringing them to Birmingham. As you are aware, my hometown was the scene of events that I would argue played the biggest role in creating the morale crisis that pushed JFK into proposing the Civil Rights Bill. It is my hometown, so of course I am going to push for Birmingham, but we have a very fine museum at the Civil Rights Institute that sits in Kelly Ingram Park (the main spot where the firehouses were used and which now features some nice monuments memorializing the event) and is across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church (which also has tours). Please tell me you are bringing them to Birmingham!?

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      This comment tells us more about you than anything having to do with my interest in Northern racism.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          “Racism is racism.” Not necessarily. How it manifests itself in various regions of the country depends on a host of factors. You notice things when you study history.

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          1. Ryan

            I too study history. I also have the distinct advantage of having grown up and lived my entire life in an actual northern city and not a seaside vacation hamlet – which gives me more insight than any book you could possibly pick up on the subject. That was a cheap shot… but seriously, when you say that you are worried that your students are going to see the race issue in America as a distinctly Southern problem after you take them on a tour of the South, you sound completely out of touch, irrelevant and extremely regionally prejudiced.

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            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              I also have the distinct advantage of having grown up and lived my entire life in an actual northern city and not a seaside vacation hamlet – which gives me more insight than any book you could possibly pick up on the subject.

              You obviously know nothing about the history of Atlantic City. The rest of your comment isn’t worth a response. That is all.

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              1. Ryan

                You obviously can’t respond because you are clueless – that’s why the only time you provide an actual response to anyone is if they are agreeing with you. Otherwise you leave some smart ass comment. I’ll leave you and the rest of your bespectacled cream puff admirers to it.

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                1. Kevin Levin Post author

                  That’s fine. I still have no idea what your criticism actually involves. All I expressed in the post was the concern that my students don’t complete this trip thinking that racism is a problem distinct to one region of the country. What exactly are you taking issue with?

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                  1. Ryan

                    I guess your post just seemed pretentious to me Kevin. To think that anyone in this country, even the young and impressionable, could think that our race problems are Southern specific just seems completely ridiculous to me. I am very familiar with Atlantic City, it’s history and the history of the whole region from Cape May north to AC and beyond. I grew up in Philadelphia and still spend my Summer’s in the Sea Isle area. My point with regard to growing up in the inner city is that when one does not have this experience they sometimes do not realize how bad the “race problem” is here. I work for the railroad and have traveled to most regions of this country and I can say with total confidence that I perceive far LESS racism and racial tension in many if not most regions of the South than we have here.

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                    1. Kevin Levin Post author

                      To think that anyone in this country, even the young and impressionable, could think that our race problems are Southern specific just seems completely ridiculous to me.

                      Apparently, you have not spent much time in the classrooms of private schools.

                  1. Ryan

                    I never stepped foot into a private school until college but those are exactly the type of entitled, out of touch sort I was referring to. Maybe they would be better off if you took them on a tour of the major cities on the Northeast Corridor and educated them about what was going on right under their noses… Thanks for the reply.

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                    1. Kevin Levin Post author

                      …but those are exactly the type of entitled, out of touch sort I was referring to.

                      I wouldn’t describe my students as “out of touch” in any way. In fact, quite the opposite.

  7. Parker

    Regional bias is a very real social dilemma. I know that in the Southern areas in which I grew up, we were absolutely convinced that racial prejudiced was an exclusively Northern phenomena. We were either taught about, or witnessed, the shocking discrimination and bitterly violent race-riots in Detroit, Newark, New York, Boston, Camden, Trenton, and Philadlphia, and St. Louis. At times, it seemed like all New Jersey was aflame in racial antagonism. And when we talked about the Klan and lynching, it was Indiana and that awful series of photographs from Marion that came immediately into our minds. As far as we were concerned, while the South had its own problems reading race-relations, they were quite minimalist compared to the North. So inter-regional study is probably a good idea.

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    1. Ryan

      Could not agree more with you Parker. If the Civil Rights era is the focus then sure, there are many important sites throughout the South but if the study is to include contemporary race issues these students would be far better served by focusing on problems closer to home.

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  8. Ryan

    …but those are exactly the type of entitled, out of touch sort I was referring to.

    “I wouldn’t describe my students as “out of touch” in any way. In fact, quite the opposite.”

    So your students believe that racism is a southern issue but you do not think they are out of touch? Or are you deliberately talking in circles?

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      1. Ryan

        Thank you for proving that you are biased, prejudiced and have an agenda and that your blog is a huge waste of time to anyone but the pedantic intellectuals who visit it for the sole purpose of stroking you and engaging in mutual back patting.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          I am “biased, prejudiced and have an agenda.” Well, you certainly covered a lot of ground with that. Thanks again for stopping by, Ryan. :-)

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  9. Parker

    Ryan, it’s funny you observe that in many ways, race-relations are better in the South than in the North. DeTocqueville made the same observation in the 19th century. Nevertheless, despite being taught in my youth about the severe racial prejudices that exist in the North, it is clear enough that bigotry and prejudice know no geographic limitations.

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  10. CLM

    It sounds like a wonderful trip; something I would have enjoyed at that age. If you are interested in having my father come talk to them in the spring about his work in Mississippi for the Kennedy Justice Department, I am sure he would be delighted and it would be a good follow up to the trip (at that age, the post-trip learning might help frame their experience). His book is called Count Them One by One, and he lives in Boston. Here is a link to a GMA appearance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKcV7PdQ8TA

    Reply

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