Sunday, April 15
KIPP Ascend Charter School parent Sheila Hooker waited outside the West Side school on a cool early Sunday morning with other parents to see their eighth-graders off.
The students, 46 in all, along with eight adult chaperones, including me, were headed to Atlanta, one of three cities in three southern states they were set to visit for their annual class field trip.
This trip, though, had special meaning. They were set to visit historical civil rights sites and historically black colleges and universities.
“KIPP has been very good by exposing them and taking them on different field trips, which they call ‘field lessons,'” said Hooker, whose daughter Nicole and niece Alleccia were going on the trip.
KIPP Ascend, 715 S. Kildare in Austin, is one of 50 KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) institutions across the country that educates kids in under-served communities. The trips are mostly about education-with fun things to do along the way.
The KIPP crew arrived at their Atlanta hotel around 9 Sunday evening. They would start their day early Monday with a climb up Stone Mountain in Atlanta’s Stone Mountain Park. The nearly 1,700-foot, dome-shaped mountain has a trail leading to a recreational area at the top.
Students and chaperones trekked the roughly 30-minute, 1.3-mile trail of stones, small streams, rocks and dirt. Just beyond the half-way point, the dirt trail ends and the rest of the trek is a walk up steep granite rock.
After the morning excursion, it was on to Spelman and Morehouse colleges. Both were established in the 1800s, and both are part of the same campus complex, along with Clark University.
The next day featured visits to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center and the Jimmy Carter Center in Atlanta.
The King Center not only houses information and historical artifacts related to Dr. King but also those pertaining to other black history in Atlanta.
KIPP student Sabrina Estudillo was focused on the Jim Crow documents. She read several intensely underneath the protective glass. Sabrina, 14, was so close that her nose almost touched the glass. She knew what Jim Crow was but had never seen real documents specifying what blacks could and could not do during the early civil rights era.
“The Jim Crow laws-the actual documents-it looked so authentic,” she said.
The King Center is located near his childhood home at 501 Auburn Ave. NE. Some of the students and chaperones toured the two-story house where Dr. King was born.
Michael Blair, 14, was struck by King’s family and upbringing. He learned that a young Martin Luther King and his brother would sometimes get into trouble. Some people, including Blair, probably have a hard time imagining one of the greatest civil rights leaders running around as kid causing havoc. Michael, however, could relate.
“Me and my brother, even though he’s older than I am, we sometimes get into trouble,” said Michael.
The students wrapped up the day at Underground Atlanta. Its history dates back to slavery but is not, as the name suggests, connected to the Underground Railroad. It was, though, a place where black and white merchants sold goods. Located near downtown Atlanta, it is now a shopping mall.
Thursday, April 19
From Atlanta, we took a two-and-a-half-hour drive to Montgomery, Ala. There, the students had two special stops planned. First up was the Rosa Parks Museum.
Just a few blocks away from the museum is the Civil Rights Memorial Center, operated by the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the early civil rights organizations. Outside near the front entrance is a memorial marking the beginning and end of the Civil Rights Movement.
The first date listed is 1954, the date of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling against segregated schools. The last is April 4, 1968, the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Shaped like a large disk with a slender base, the black granite memorial also lists the names of key blacks who were killed during the Civil Rights Movement, carved on top.
The memorial was inspired by a quote in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
In the center of the memorial, a continuous stream of water flows up and ripples out over the side. The memorial was designed by Maya Lin, who also designed the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.
Students were addressed by Ella Bell, a civil rights activist who today serves on the Alabama State Board of Education. The center, which was closed at the time, was reopened briefly just for us.
Bell noted it was young people just like them who led the movement. She encouraged the students to pick up the mantle.
“It was children who brought this movement to the forefront. Children need to know how important they are.”
The students spent Thursday morning touring the campus of Tuskegee University and the George Washington Carver House and Museum before spending an afternoon with another civil rights pioneer.
Amelia Boynton Robinson, 96 years old, lives just a few miles from Tuskegee’s main campus in a single-story home. She worked with Dr. King before the masses knew who Martin Luther King was. She knew Rosa Park before Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Boynton opened her home to us. The students sat on her living floor and toured her basement, which she has turned into a civil rights museum.
Ms. Robinson was in her 50s at the height of the movement in the 1960s. She told of helping to register blacks to vote as a teen alongside her mother, who was an activist.
Robinson, who turns 97 in August, said she’s learned not to hate.
“Hate weakens you from within,” she said. “Don’t let hate and fear take over. If you think positive all the time, hate will take a back seat.”
Friday, April 20
The student’s final stop was Memphis and the National Civil Rights Museum, built onto the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was murdered on April 4, 1968. The museum is literally like taking a walk back in time. Beginning in an auditorium with a film about King, the museum leads from one section to another and then another. Along the way, the story of the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King is told.
The progression leads inevitably and dramatically to the motel room where King spent his last hours alive.
Room 306, which is not open to the public but visible through glass, was remolded to look as it did on the day King died.
The balcony where he was shot is visible through a large glass window but is also not accessible to the public from inside or outside. A wreath hangs on the balcony railing marking the spot.
Marquis Tate, 14, said he learned a lot from seeing where King had stayed.
“I liked it because it was historical and I could see where he slept and see the stuff he left behind,” he said. “I thought that was really exciting.”
Two others were with King in the room at that time-Rev. Ralph Abernathy, co-founder with King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Rev. Samuel Kyles, who stood with King on the balcony of the hotel moments before the shot. Kyles, the only survivor of the three-Abernathy died in 1990-spoke with students about that day.
“There are no words to express now what I felt, and there were no words then to describe what I felt,” said Kyles. “I thought I was having a nightmare, but I was awake. I wasn’t asleep.”