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An English Teacher’s Journey Through Civil Rights Tragedies and Triumphs

By Brooke Leonnig, Upper School English teacher

Note: Over the course of four days in early July, Upper School teachers learned more about the history of America’s struggle with civil rights and social justice as they traveled to sites in Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, Tuskegee, and Birmingham. Organized by Tanya Andrysiak, director of studies, with assistance from the Office of Diversity Planning, the immersive experience is designed to enable conversation about history and current issues within the faculty, and influence curriculum across departments.

The docent’s voice is impassive: “Please have a seat at a stool. Put this headset on. Place your palms flat on the marked places on the counter in front of you. Close your eyes.”

And it begins. A tumult of angry voices rushes in like a roiling river, and I am the rock protruding in their way. They batter my consciousness with taunts and slurs propelled by their hatred, their fear, their ignorance. The counter and my seat back vibrate with their simultaneous (gratefully simulated) physical assault. My fingers curl away into themselves. My eyes shoot open. Surely this is almost over. I’ve made it 30 seconds. Another long minute to go. I squeeze my eyes shut and focus on the task at hand. And the thought: How did the young people who manned their stations at the Greensboro lunch counter (and others across the South) in the 1960s sustain hours of such very real abuse? My experience seems merciful in contrast.

Mercy, the sustained and sometimes desperate search for it, was a theme on our trip. Bryan Stephenson’s book, Just Mercy, which many of us read before or during the trip, had already illuminated for me the plight of the predominantly minority population on death row, sentenced to death less for their crimes than because of the prejudiced institutions that should be delivering justice. As we entered the Legacy Museum that his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, founded in Montgomery, we heard the stories of some of the captives warehoused, in the room where we stood, prior to being sold into the slave trade. The museum’s exhibits draw a clear connection between that terrifying, brutal, and inhumane introduction to North America and the current-day treatment many black Americans face, still bearing up under layers of bias, prejudice, and stereotyping. Fine arts teacher Paul Murphy’s poignant photography of the Legacy Museum’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also called the Lynching Museum, captures the somber and unavoidable truths of lynching’s lasting mark on our society.

Civil Rights Tour Legacy Museum

A tour of contrasts

On my first morning run with Zhenya Arutyunyan (history) and Allison Niekras (math) in Montgomery, we remarked on a gorgeous fountain covered in layers of sculpture—birds, cherubs, the Greek goddess of youth, Hebe—which we later learned had been built some 20 years after the end of the Civil War, to beautify (whitewash?) what had been the site of Montgomery’s all-too thriving slave market. Perhaps Hebe’s crowning of that fountain was to symbolize a brighter, more hopeful future for the city of Montgomery. Sadly, violence and injustice were not through with Montgomery. On those early morning runs, we followed the paths slaves would have taken from their landing on the banks of the Alabama River, past that fountain, past the bus stop where, more than 100 years later, a weary Rosa Parks boarded a city bus for home, on up Dexter Avenue by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s parish at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and the first White House of the Confederacy, and then the Greyhound bus station where a white mob attacked Freedom Riders in 1961.

Edmund Pettus Bridge

These contrasts set a tone for our tour through Alabama. The historical markers explaining the tragedies and triumphs of the region’s and nation’s pursuit of (or obdurate resistance to) civil and human rights for all seemed to keep me spinning. The Southern Poverty Law Center is doing crucial work toward teaching tolerance, fighting hate, and assuring justice—but its building must be clad in metal to protect against attack. The modest Edmund Pettus Bridge soars when one considers it as the backdrop for a resolute group marching to Montgomery for voting rights in 1965. But don’t forget the blood that was shed two Sundays prior on their first attempt to march. The sense of empowerment was palpable at the site where Tuskegee Airmen trained, and the nearby Tuskegee Institute where Booker T. Washington ensured a quality education for African Americans. Of course, we were also all aware of the unethical treatment hundreds of black men received as part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study of the 1930s and beyond. These experiences seem so divergent, so contradictory, but the paradox within them is our responsibility to tangle with.

Tuskegee Airmen

Earlier, I referred to the lunch counter simulation as “the task at hand,” but until we all see this as so much more than that, more than something to pay attention to briefly, or worse, to pay mere lip service to, our country, and even our community here at Country Day cannot thrive. I consider this opportunity to immerse myself in our country’s ugly legacies, and its triumphant victories, as a rare gift. I am grateful for the bravery, fortitude and sacrifice of the history-makers we studied on this tour, for their guts, and sheer willpower. I am grateful for the amazing colleagues to whom I could turn as I tried to digest and make sense of this onslaught of facts, images, and feelings. And I am grateful to Country Day for supporting us on this quest. I look forward to sharing this experience as a teacher, as a colleague, and as a participant in life in this country.

Photo credit: Paul Murphy, Upper School fine arts teacher

Civil Rights Tour Group photo

These faculty and staff members who participated in the Civil Rights Tour, include:

  • Tanya Andrysiak
  • Zhenya Arutyunyan
  • Donna Campbell Patrick
  • Danielle Ferguson
  • Peter Floyd
  • Ben Goeke
  • Christina Ihle
  • Brooke Keane
  • Olympia Koutsokalis
  • Brooke Leonnig
  • Paul Murphy
  • Allison Niekras
  • Warren Sepkowitz
  • Denise Spruill
  • Lyn Tillett
  • Tim Waples
  • Brian Wise