As the school year ends and families look ahead to summer plans, I hope many will be able to consider travel that is not just a vacation, but an education and inspiration. Several years ago I had the opportunity to take my granddaughters with me to Selma, Alabama, where they got to meet Mrs. Amelia Boynton Robinson and other civil rights s/heroes during celebrations commemorating the historic 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery. Over age 100, Mrs. Boynton was still feisty and lucid in her wheelchair, and told her listeners in the audience: “Stop telling me you stand on my shoulders—get off my shoulders and start building the next roads to freedom.” What a powerful lesson for my granddaughters and all children to hear!
That trip inspired me to return to the South with all four of my grandchildren and their parents to see some of the places that shaped me as a student and young lawyer and ultimately transformed our nation during the Civil Rights Movement. I wish every child and parent had the same chance to visit these sacred spaces so that the Civil Rights Movement would not be just an abstract chapter in their history books. A tour like this can help them see it instead as living, breathing, ongoing history and inspire them to do their part in the movement for freedom and justice today.
I was especially grateful that my grandchildren were blessed to meet many precious and generous elders who took so much time with them and shared such joy in seeing and sharing with them. We began our tour in Atlanta and were blessed to start with a visit to Hank and Billye Aaron’s home, which I had kept as a surprise for the multigenerational group of baseball fanatics in my family. The adult men were as starry eyed as the children and grabbed the baseballs he signed for them with 12-year-old joy! This was also an immediate reminder how people from all walks of life have used their talents to break barriers in their own fields and redefine the definition of who our American heroes are.
We then visited with several dear friends who had been my long haul colleagues in the fight for justice, including Andrew Young, John Lewis, and C.T. Vivian. Andy Young joined us for breakfast. We met John Lewis for lunch at Paschal’s Restaurant, bringing back memories of the old Paschal’s (with the best fried chicken ever) that was one of our two primary off-campus secret planning places for student sit-ins during my time at Spelman College. I later showed my grandchildren City Hall where I was arrested during those student sit-ins, and we took a long walk around Spelman, Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University and the historic Atlanta University Center Consortium. Finally we toured the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. homesite and Ebenezer Baptist Church, cornerstones of any civil rights history visit to Atlanta, and showed them the front of Dr. King’s very modest SCLC office.
Our next stop was Montgomery where we went first to the Freedom Rides Museum, the former Greyhound bus station where Black and White Freedom Riders were arrested during the 1961 protests helping end racial segregation in public transportation. We then were blessed to attend a dinner with civil rights veterans hosted by wonderful Children’s Defense Fund board member Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative’s offices, where he explained how their work continues the civil rights legacy. All Americans must visit Montgomery today and experience EJI’s powerful Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Our second day in Montgomery we visited the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and parsonage where 26-year-old pastor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first gained national prominence while helping organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The children got a chance to stand at his old pulpit and pretend to preach. We then visited the Southern Poverty Law Center and its Maya Lin-designed Civil Rights Memorial displaying the names of many of our civil rights martyrs.
Our family’s next stop was Tuskegee University, learning there about the legacies of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver before continuing on to Mississippi. The children were able to meet James Meredith, who courageously integrated the University of Mississippi, as he spoke at a local church. We then went to Jackson, Mississippi, where we visited slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers’s home, now a national historic preservation site.
We were blessed that his daughter Reena was in town and met us, and to the consternation of the National Park Service guides I requested that she lead our tour. She shared with us what life was like for her and her siblings as children growing up there and the rules of survival they were taught, including instructions when strange cars full of White people prowled the street in front of their house. They were instructed to run to the bathroom and get in the tub. Today Medgar’s bloodstains remain on the driveway where her father was assassinated as he stepped out of his car while his family waited for him inside.
Later we visited historic Farish Street, the headquarters for most civil rights groups in Jackson, where my own NAACP Legal Defense Fund law office was located above a local pool hall. The next day we went on to Philadelphia, Mississippi, where my family heard the details described of the horrific murders of the three young civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. Our last Mississippi stop was in Oxford, where we heard about James Meredith’s historic admission to “Ole Miss” and walked around the campus. Finally we traveled to the last stop of our family tour: Memphis, Tennessee, and the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. King’s assassination.
My grandchildren will never forget these experiences. I hope many families will be able to take a trip like this someday soon with their children, but it is also important for all of us, family and non-family, to help expose children to our history through historic sites in our states and communities and our own backyards that represent all of the large and small milestones in our country’s long and ongoing journey to live up to its promise.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund