In mid August 1999, a diverse group of Boston-area high school students planted a myrtle tree they named “Freedom” at James Chaney’s grave on the outskirts of Meridian, Miss. Chaney was one of three young civil rights workers who were murdered at the start of Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. His grave, repeatedly vandalized in the 1990s,1 symbolizes for these students the role played by young people like themselves, and the work left undone by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
The youth are part of a rolling classroom known as Project HIP-HOP (Highways Into the Past: History, Organizing & Power), which is based at the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Bill of Rights Education Project.2 Since our first trip South in 1993, 125 participants have made the annual 5,000-mile journey to meet movement veterans and see the sites where history was made, traveling in mini vans and sleeping on rough church pews and community center and museum floors. In 1996 a group of Project HIP-HOP students, who had gone South in previous years, journeyed to South Africa to learn first-hand about the struggles to overthrow apartheid.3
On their return, the youth have made presentations to an estimated 25,000 of their peers in nearly 300 visits to schools, community centers, and churches. They have helped create a Project HIP-HOP curriculum for high school students, and now have their own newspaper, Rising Times. Started in 1998, the newspaper features articles about a variety of social and educational issues. It has a special focus called ACTION for Justice Ð “our campaign of telling the truth about the racism and plain injustice in the criminal justice system, and of demanding decent education, not incarceration, for our generation.”
THE PROJECT HIP-HOP EXPERIENCE
For the group of 15 high school students – of African-American, Latino, Asian-American and European-American backgrounds, including some first-generation immigrants – and the six drivers who accompany them,4 the three-week journey through our nation’s painful past demands a level of physical and emotional endurance that few are prepared for. Each year, before departing from Boston, the group has met with locally-based Movement veterans and seen and discussed the Eyes on the Prize series and the film Freedom on My Mind. In the summer of 1999, we held a 40-hour-long anti-racism training institute for participants, based around the Project HIP-HOP Resource for High School Students which a previous year’s group had helped develop.
Although the itinerary varies from year to year, certain places are always included. After a 12 hour drive from Boston to the Mason-Dixon line, each tour kicks off with a visit to Harper’s Ferry, where John Brown tried to overthrow slavery. Much later the students visit the largest and one of the oldest African-American-owned towns, Mound Bayou in the Mississippi Delta, where former slaves sought to create a refuge as the promise of Reconstruction was destroyed. The students join the family of Ceasar Moore for his birthday celebration in Philadelphia, Miss., and struggle to come to terms with the fact that the man who gave them his warm embrace was born in 1896, the year in which the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson declared “separate but equal” to be constitutional.5
Everywhere they go, the students learn about what life was like under Jim Crow segregation and about the fear which needed to be overcome for the acts of individual resistance to swell into a movement. From the Mont-gomery bus boycott to the Greensboro sit-ins, from the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham to the Albany movement in Georgia, they learn about what it was like to organize and sustain an ongoing defiance of the system of white supremacy. They learn this from participants, some who are today well known, others who have never before talked publicly about their involvement.
In Selma, AL, they walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, after hearing from Joanne Bland about her attempt to cross the bridge as a child on Bloody Sunday in 1965. They trace the steps of the Selma-Montgomery marchers, past the monument to Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit housewife who was murdered while she drove marchers home, and through Lowndes County, where they learn about the formation of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. It adopted a Black Panther as its symbol as anger swelled about the high cost of the strategy of non-violent direct action to African Americans. In Jackson, Miss., they sing freedom songs with SNCC veteran Hollis Watkins, and stand spellbound in Medgar Evers’ house as Hollis sings a ballad to the murdered NAACP leader. In Hatties-burg, Miss., they hear from Ella Dahmer and her sons about the night in 1966 when the Klan firebombed her house and killed her husband Vernon because he had been helping register his neighbors to vote. For 20 years after the murder, Klan head Sam Bowers taught Sunday School 20 miles down the road from Ella Dahmer’s house. A few weeks after our 1998 visit to Ella Dahmer, Bowers was finally convicted of ordering the firebombing and sentenced to life in prison.
The fact that some of the movement martyrs were only a little older than the Project HIP-HOP students themselves gives them a particularly intense feeling of connection to the events of 30 and 40 years ago. They can almost see students flee past them as they stand by the monument to three young people killed by the highway patrol, police, and National Guard in Orangeburg, S.C., and listen to former SNCC program director Cleveland Sellers describe in vivid detail what happened when students returned to the campus of South Carolina State University after picketing a segregated bowling alley in February 1968. The Massachusetts students had just visited the All Star Bowling Alley and interviewed its owner, Henry Floyd – the same man whose refusal to integrate the facilities set the stage for the event known as the Orangeburg massacre, which left scores wounded in addition to the three fatalities. In Orangeburg, and elsewhere, they discover that the South has changed, but also that the past is still present: the reputed murderers of the three civil rights workers killed in Philadelphia, Miss., still live “respectable” lives in Philadelphia and nearby Meridian.
In the last week of the trip, Project HIP-HOP visits the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, and spends the night only yards away from the spot where Dr. King was assassinated. “I did not expect that the faint stain of Dr. Martin Luther King’s blood on the balcony would touch my heart the way it did,” wrote one participant. Hearing about Dr. King’s last days from Rev. Harold Middlebrook, one of his associates who was present when he died, makes the young people feel a very special connection to a historical figure they had learned to tune out during yearly recitals of the “I Have A Dream” speech. The Dr. King they encounter in Memphis, and later in Knoxville, during the emotional hours with Rev. Middlebrook, was speaking directly to the world most of them could still recognize when he said that the Civil Rights Movement had made only superficial changes which left the foundation of racism virtually untouched.
By the time the group reaches the Highlander Center in New Market, Tenn., for a tour debriefing, the youth are looking at the world around them with new eyes. They feel that the torch has been passed to them by movement veterans, and with it the responsibility to make a better society.
“We were put in touch not just with the struggles of the past,” wrote Feliciano Tavares, “but with the urgent tasks of the present and future, and now see ourselves as critical pieces in the puzzle of how to achieve social justice.”6
‘WE THE PEOPLE’
Ever since our pilot trip in 1993, we have been struggling with the question of how to select the 15 or so students who travel South each year. Initially, we wanted to create a microcosm of the broader society. We concentrated on putting together groups of equal numbers of male and female 15, 16 and 17 year olds that would be as diverse as possible, with suburban, urban, public and private school students riding in the vans side by side.
By the late 1990s, once Project HIP-HOP had developed its own newspaper and was holding weekly meetings, we decided to limit our selection to students from the Greater Boston area. By this time we had plentiful evidence of the transforming impact of Project HIP-HOP on youth, mostly low income, for whom school had been at best a marginal activity. They became our priority group.
How do participants describe what the trip has meant to them immediately on their return? “I no longer feel like an outcast in society,” wrote 17-year-old Jonathan Adames, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic and traveled South with Project HIP-HOP in the summer of 1999. “Through this summer, I have become more than just a ‘kid.’ I have broken out of the mould that society has put me in and have become a working part of society itself. Now I am part of ‘we, the people,’ the people the Constitution was created to serve and protect, and I refuse to let it be twisted up and used against me.”7
In describing Project HIP-HOP as a “wake up call” Jonathan is expressing a view which we have heard from each group of returning students. They come back with a feeling of connection to each other, to history, and to the world around them, and a determination to walk in the footsteps of those who have made momentous changes. In reflecting on her 1995 journey, 16-year-old Sandra Marcelino recognized that it would take work to sustain that feeling of empowerment: “Today there is a common feeling of apathy that needs to be overcome. How many times have you felt like you as an individual have no strength to make changes? We have to learn not to give in to that sense of helplessness. I know for certain that my personal journey of discovery has just begun.”8
The youth carry the excitement of that personal journey of discovery into middle and high schools and community centers around the commonwealth when they make slide presentations – sometimes to small groups, sometimes to hundreds of students in school-wide assemblies. The feedback we have received about these presentations leaves no doubt about the power of this model of peer-to-peer outreach. Over the years, the students of Project HIP-HOP have addressed tens of thousands of students.
THE PROGRAM EVOLVES
By 1996, a youth leadership had emerged from the groups that had traveled South during the three previous summers. These nine young people undertook the strenuous work of helping raise funds for a three-week journey to South Africa, accompanied by myself and former SNCC activist and Freedom Singer Hollis Watkins.9
At the age of 19 Hollis Watkins was the first student in Mississippi to join SNCC’s voter registration campaign, and has remained involved in the work of voter registration and accountability, redistricting, and fighting for people’s power ever since. Twelve years ago he founded an organization in Jackson, Miss., called Southern Echo, to train a grassroots leadership up and down the Delta. Over the last few years Project HIP-HOP students have served internships at Southern Echo, which embodies Hollis’ belief that the Movement made a major mistake in its reliance on sporadic mobilizing rather than solid organizing. He imparted this and other lessons to the youth during the three weeks they spent traveling around South Africa with local students, learning about the struggles against apartheid and especially about the role played by young people. By the time they returned to the United States, they were eager to involve themselves in organizing around issues of pressing concern to youth.
To get momentum going, they helped organize a retreat which brought together representatives from nine Boston-area youth groups. Retreat participants constituted themselves as ACTION and created the following mission statement: “As young people angered by injustice and attempts by society to label us as the “lost generation,” we have united in ACTION (Achieving Community through Involvement in Organizing Now). ACTION is a youth-led coalition of organizations and individuals, with adults as allies. Our purpose is to unite around a common agenda of activism to combat educational, social and economic oppression, and to create healthy communities.”
After the retreat was over, the youth held weekly meetings, but could not overcome basic structural problems. The question of which organizations were willing to be part of the ACTION coalition was never satisfactorily resolved. Nor could participants – who came together from different urban neighborhoods – agree on a program of action beyond self-education and general consciousness-raising. After most of those who had taken part in the retreat graduated from high school, the meetings faded away.
They resumed in 1998 when Project HIP-HOP students and others outside the group decided to launch an ACTION for Justice campaign to work against the prevailing mentality that is depriving so many young people, already deemed expendable by their schools, of any sort of viable future. After considerable discussion about how so many social problems are interconnected, they decided to concentrate on the intersection between the way many urban youth are “locked out” of opportunities because of an inadequate education system, and “locked down” in growing numbers in the nation’s expanding prison system. The racism disfiguring the criminal justice system has presented them with a compelling target.
By this time Project HIP-HOP had started its own newspaper, Rising Times. The first few issues of the paper dealt with such issues as youth organizing, affirmative action, civil rights history, the gap between rich and poor, racism and white privilege, the war on drugs, prisons and the police, the inadequacies of Boston Public Schools, standardized tests, abortion, sexual preference, domestic violence, culture and identity, and US foreign policy. Before long, they decided to set aside a two-page section of each issue for ACTION for Justice.
BACK IN THE ‘REAL WORLD’
Our “rolling classroom” South has developed the sort of momentum we never anticipated eight years ago. The positive features of the program have always outweighed the negatives, but these too must be acknowledged: the time-consuming and labor-intensive nature of the program, which is still undertaken by the Bill of Rights Education Project with its single staff person; the months spent fund-raising for a trip involving a relatively small number of students; risks and liability issues; and the fact that, for a myriad of reasons, only about two-thirds of those who go South participate in post-tour activities.
What is it like to come back from such an intense journey to familiar haunts and old limited horizons? The young people return seeing the world around them with new eyes, and then are forced to deal with the world as it was before they mentally moved on. For a few, the return from a wide open journey of discovery to the dead end circumstances to which the society has consigned them has led to depression and disengagement. Some want to remain fully engaged, but find it hard to sustain an active commitment in a world in which “social change” is regarded with incomprehension and suspicion. Many need to work after school, or look after younger brothers and sisters, and cannot come to our weekly meetings. A few have failed to escape the day-to-day perils of the streets, and have themselves become statistics in the criminal justice system.
To help us make decisions about the program’s future, we held a reunion in August 1999 attended by 40 Project HIP-HOP veterans. We received surveys back from others who could not be present. In all, we heard from 60 percent of the youth who had made the journey South since 1993.
What is perhaps most striking about the feedback we received about the Project HIP-HOP experience is its extraordinary hold on participants, which appears to grow stronger as the years go by. Participants write about how the trip changed their lives and opened their eyes, of its “dramatic impact” on their way of seeing the world, of how it is constantly in their minds, influencing the way they learn and live. For example, one African-American female who made the journey in 1998 wrote, “HIP-HOP has definitely influenced my life. I’ve become aware of the type of person that I aspire to be an activist. I’ve opened my eyes and have become more aware of the world around me. I’ve learned to do my own research, develop my own opinions, and stand up for what I believe in. Before I went on the trip South I always thought that I was too young, too uneducated, to initiate change. Learning about and meeting some of the student activists of the sixties helped me realize that activism has no age requirement.”
Project HIP-HOP has always been as dynamic as its youth component. They set its tone and direction. Its momentum has been a natural outgrowth of their commitment. We are now in the process of building a structure which can give broader decision-making power and leadership to the young people who have grown up with the program.
We trust that for the foreseeable future their dedication will keep our “rolling classroom” on the road, since they are all too aware that the movement veterans who share their memories and insights with us are not going to be around forever. They are passing on a precious oral resource for us to learn from and make available to others. How can we possibly turn away this gift?
The above is condensed from an article in Radical Teacher number 57. Reprinted with permission.
The footnotes to this article can be found with the version that appears on Rethinking Schools Online: www.rethinkingschools.org