In many public and private school across our country, civil rights history is a neglected topic because of the sensitive nature of discussions focused around race. Understanding the sensitivity in exploring themes of equal rights, racism, segregation and protest, the teachers at Lake & Park were careful to design a curriculum focused on facilitating the development of empathy and care for people of all races.
Cautious about placing adult burdens and worries on young minds, we considered how we could explore themes of racial segregation and the social injustice within the civil rights movement. How could we create a balance between learning the history of the civil rights movement without creating unnecessary awareness and fear of racial injustice? As we often do at Lake & Park, we began our unit on civil rights by considering questions about race:
Why does racism exist?
What if we were all born with racism? Maybe it was passed on? What if it was possible to delete it from our bodies?
What does it mean to be privileged?
I wonder if when we were first evolving, we split up and our skin color changed?
Who were the people that helped to stop racial segregation in our country?
What are examples of racism that still exist today?
What can we do in our day to day lives to make sure people are treated equally regardless of their race?
“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
After listening to the above words in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech”, Leah asked, “What is soul force?” To which Elan responded, “What is a soul?” To which Gus responded, “It’s what’s left after everything else is taken away.”
“What is soul force?” I asked. After a moment of silence, Max said, “It’s the force that’s the strongest and can fight anything.”
For the next few months, we questioned how one’s “soul force” is inspired and awakened by the power of words, music and art within the context of fighting for racial equality.
As We Resist Social and Racial Injustice, What Purpose Does Marching Serve?
The entire school launched our study on civil rights in celebration of Martin Luther King Day in early January. After studying the timeline of his life and the powerful impact he made in extinguishing racial segregation in our country, the children painted enormous signs and took to the streets of Mt. Baker neighborhood to march in support of his efforts.
“We help other people by marching and we continue to march today. It was kind of scary in my experience…but it’s really cool that you’re marching for a good cause. With all the adrenaline rushing throughout, it’s really fun. Some of the signs really show people’s feelings. It’s really powerful, even though I may not understand all the signs.” -Griffin
How Does the Courage to Break Unfair Rules and do that Which we Think we Cannot Lead to Long-term Change?
Reading the stories of Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges and John Lewis helped us recognize the necessity of courage when fighting against injustice. Students read stories about Rosa Parks throughout the school and re-enacted scenes of what it might be like to ride a bus in segregated states. In literacy groups, students read about Ruby Bridges and the courage she carried to walk into a newly desegregated school. We all watched John Lewis address thousands of people at the Lincoln Memorial and learned about his courageous role in leading people on a historical, peaceful march in Selma. Students in the North Room studied slavery and were awed by the daring acts and endless perseverance of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. We learned that to fight for what’s fair, it often takes one person to take the first step into the unknown towards justice.
“MLK said that ‘Faith is taking the first step when you do not see the whole staircase,’ which I think means you’ve got to have trust with yourself. MLK helped us remember that if we don’t have a voice in our country, it’d be like we’re not even here.” – Keefe
How Can Music Unite People in the Midst of Social Injustice?
As the entire school marched throughout the neighborhood and later through the streets of Seattle with family and teachers, they sang songs of peace and hope such as “We Shall Overcome”, “Freight Train”, “This Little Light of Mine” and “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus”, understanding the power of music to unite people in times of struggle and fear. As we marched in song, members of our neighborhood community stopped to listen to our words and some even joined in with the singing.
How Does Poetry and Expressive Oration Inspire Change?
“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” -Langston Hughes
As we learning of Martin Luther King’s role in the attempt to end segregation, we listened closely to his most famous speeches and considered the power of language to inspire resistance and action against racial injustice. Children throughout the school watched his famous “I Have a Dream” and “Mountaintop” speeches. One afternoon, the upstairs classrooms walked to nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park to make crayon rubbings of his quotes engraved into stone walls. We returned to school with these pieces of art which filled our stairwell. Students wrote their own dreams for the future of social justice and racial equality across the globe and filled the classrooms with these thoughts. Our consideration of the power of words to evoke action led older students to listen to the speeches of President Kennedy, Johnson and Obama. The poetry of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou inspired powerfully expressive paintings on the easels.
“The most meaningful thing I learned about civil rights was MLK’s Mountaintop speech because he had emotion in his voice and expressed what he felt. He made me feel passionate about civil rights. -Gus S.”
How Can Art Evoke Emotion That Leads to Action?
The artist Jacob Lawrence was a focus throughout our civil rights study. Children traveled in small groups to the Seattle Art Museum to see his Migration Series. Children in the upstairs classrooms closely studied his piece, “The Dixie Land Cafe” and responded with collage art of their own. Within these art pieces, they attempted to create faces with two tones of construction paper to give the illusion of a race-less human being.
“I’ve always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the public schools…I don’t see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the Negro. I didn’t [paint] just as a historical thing, but because I believe these things tie up with the Negro today. We don’t have a physical slavery, but an economic slavery. If these people, who were so much worse off than the people today, could conquer their slavery, we can certainly do the same thing….I am not a politician. I’m an artist, just trying to do my part to bring this thing about….” -Jacob Lawrence
In an addition response to the art of Jacob Lawrence, children covered white paper with shades of crayon and then covered the crayon in black paint. They then used tools to scratch away an image of a person and wrote powerful words to convey that it is only when we look beneath the surface of an individual that we begin to see the person they are.
“If we didn’t label people right away as black or white people, if we saw them then we would think of them as skeletons or just humans. We wouldn’t have slaves or racism.”
How Has Our Study of Civil Rights Transformed Us?
After two months of studying the history of civil rights and the key figures that ignited change in attitude and perspective in our country, we sat down to consider any remaining questions we had. River asked, “I still wonder what it would be like to be black.” The class sat in silence considering her question for several quiet moments until another students said, “it will be impossible to know.” Though we can never quite know another’s experience, the act of continuously wondering about it; willingly and vulnerably placing ourselves in another’s position because we care so much about their perspective may be one of the greatest lessons we can learn. To develop that sense of wondering for another’s existence at such a young age, is truly remarkable.
“Do to us what you will and we will still love you…. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.” -Martin Luther King Jr.