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.