Rev. Clementa Pinckney was known to say that while "across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history, we haven't always had a deep appreciation of each other's history" — words repeated by President Barack Obama last month in eulogizing Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was among nine people gunned down at a Charleston, S.C., church in what police characterize as a racially motivated massacre.
The president noted that history "must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past — how to break the cycle. A roadway to a better world" and made a plea for finding commonality in the history of others. "Justice," he said, "grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other."
A group of eighth graders at a Glen Burnie charter school recently learned this lesson well, becoming unlikely ambassadors for civil rights.
The Monarch Academy students had engaged in a year-long study of social injustice, exploring the civil rights movement with an emphasis on Baltimore. The students worked in groups to record oral history interviews with more than 20 people, black and white, and donated their efforts to the Maryland Historical Society's library so others can listen and develop a personal appreciation of the past, as well as insights for the road forward.
Most interviewees had participated in civil rights protests; all were affected by race-based discrimination. I was among those interviewed because I wrote a book about Baltimore's civil rights history that students used as a resource.
On June 16th, the young people eloquently presented their work. A representative from each interview team gave an overview of the discussion and highlighted anecdotes that made especially strong impressions. In most cases, they were personal stories that let students imagine what it felt like to live with segregation.
Judge Tom Gene Curtis told them of his first encounter with segregation at age seven. While visiting a store with his father as a little boy, he tried on clothes, something African Americans were not allowed to do in many local shops in the 1950s. Police were called, and the startled youngster was banned from the premises — an event that startled the eighth grade interviewers, too.
Civil rights activist Stuart Wechsler talked of growing up a white kid in Brooklyn, N.Y. He said he wasn't aware of racism until he went to a Brooklyn Dodgers game as a young boy and was shocked by the "nasty names" shouted at Jackie Robinson, the team's only black player, every time Robinson came up to bat.
Margot Rund recalled that she had once been reprimanded by her supervisor at a hospital for using the courtesy titles "Mr." and "Mrs." when speaking with African American patients. And Charles Culver recounted being turned down repeatedly for jobs for which he was qualified. He went on to become one of Washington, D.C.'s first African American fire fighters.
The 14 year old who reported on this interview, Arthur Thomas, was struck by Mr. Culver's determination: "This man is full of willpower," the teenager said. He ended his comments the same way each student presenter did, by saying of the interviewee, "Your story matters."
Student Jewels Odendahl, also 14, said that doing these interviews helped her realize "the importance of each individual story. Each story is different, but every story matters. We may have different skin colors but we are all the same on the inside. We all have a heart and a brain and millions of cells that make us up. We are equal."
Classmate Rhoda Alaban-Tafon, 15, added, "We learned about social injustice because our teacher wanted our generation not to live in the past but to make the world a better place."
President Obama would be proud.
Amy Nathan is the author of "Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement" (Paul Dry Books, 2011). Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.