“One of the learning goals for our study of the Civil Rights Era has been for my students to see examples of young people making change and for them to realize they are never too young to effect change,” said sixth-grade humanities teacher Evan Bartz.
On May 15, students in Evan’s class welcomed two guests to their class: civil rights activists Judy Richardson and Courtland Cox.
“I had the opportunity to attend professional development over Zoom two weeks ago through the Zinn Education Project, and heard Judy Richardson and Courtland Cox speak about their experience being a part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC),” Evan said. “It was an incredible experience to hear their stories.”
Evan immediately recognized the power of Judy and Courtland’s words and their stories’ connection to the current focus of his class. His sixth-grade humanities class has been learning about the Civil Rights Movement as part of a larger conversation around student activism.
“We’ve talked about systems of oppression and how throughout history certain people have either supported or dismantled these systems,” Evan explained.
During the May 15 conversation, Judy and Courtland shared brief stories of hope and perseverance that they experienced during their time as part of SNCC and then took questions from the students. Judy shared a story about a time she was jailed for her involvement in demonstrations and she was in a cell beside activist and leader Annie Pearl.
“It was 2 a.m. and really, really cold, and I’m lying on the cement floor,” Judy said. “Suddenly, I hear Annie Pearl whistling Nina Simone’s song, ‘Since I Fell for You.’ Now I hear this and I think, ‘OK, Annie Pearl is here.’ It was like fear had just been lifted from me. It was the music, and the sense of a SNCC band of brothers.”
Courtland spoke about a number of experiences that helped form his political values—“the same values I have today,” he said.
He recalled the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, when he was just 13 years old.
He said, “There was a sense of burden lifted on the community. People felt it; people talked about it. Even though I didn’t understand it fully, the adults were all talking about it.”
Both guests shared a number of other stories that resonated with Evan’s students.
One student shared, “I was surprised at how brave they were, doing the things they were doing. You could tell that they were still angry at the injustice back then, still fighting, but also still sharing funny or happy memories of that time as well. I was surprised that they could see all the good in that horrible time.”
Another reflected, “I appreciated that they were very truthful with us, and they told us their true feelings.”
Middle School Division Liza Raynal, who joined the class as an observer, told Judy and Courtland, “Thank you so much for joining us. I’m so moved by you being here, and our students getting to learn from you is such a gift.”
Judy replied, “We owe it to the young people now to share our stories. People did the same thing for us. We would not be who we are if a whole group of people hadn’t done this for us. An older activist once told me, ‘Do nothing, and nothing changes.’ I may not see all the changes that I’m working for, but I’m doing this for my kids and grandkids so that they don’t have to go through the same things I did.”
In addition to hearing stories about SNCC from past members, students also researched and presented about three key issues SNCC actually had to tackle during the Civil Rights Era: direct action vs. a focus on voter registration; whether SNCC should have allowed 1,000 white volunteers to demonstrate with them; and whether SNCC members should carry guns.
“I am a huge believer in inquiry-based learning,” Evan said. “Every unit I teach begins with a question and ends with a question. That my students were able to share their presentations with Judy and Courtland lets them know that their learning really matters to the greater community.”
“I did not recognize how involved the students were in the movement,” one student shared. “I had thought that they were part of it, but when I heard Judy and Cortland sharing stories from when they were in eighth and ninth grades, I realized how the movement was really made possible by the students, and that was very inspirational.”
Evan added, “I feel so empowered as an educator to be teaching this to my students. They are getting a more accurate picture of history —a history that makes space for people’s stories who we don’t traditionally hear from.”