The Student News Site of Clayton High School.

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The Student News Site of Clayton High School.

The Globe

The Student News Site of Clayton High School.

The Globe

Becoming activists for social justice

In 1963 in Birmingham, teenagers my age walked fearlessly as a torrent of water drove into their bodies, forcing them to the ground. They stared into the menacing eyes of police dogs, at their shredding teeth, their flailing paws, and their tongues slack and thirsty with the blindness of trained attack.

A statue in Kelly Ingram Park in Brmingham, Alabama commemorates the Childrens’ March of 1963. (Nina Oberman)
A statue in Kelly Ingram Park in Brmingham, Alabama commemorates the Childrens’ March of 1963. (Nina Oberman)

45 years later, I stood on the very same ground that they clung to in determination. A white Jewish girl, I held the hands of my black Christian friends in mutual support of our past and present struggles.  The hoses and dogs are gone—but the march continues.
I was blessed to be able to travel across the country this summer with Cultural Leadership, a yearlong program that trains St. Louis teens to become activists for social justice.
We examine the issues of privilege and injustice through the lens of the African American and Jewish experience, and learn the knowledge and skills needed to make positive change in our communities.
Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, AL was just one stop on our long trip to New York City, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Whitwell, TN; Birmingham, Tuskegee, Montgomery, and Selma, AL; Jackson and many small towns in the Delta of Mississippi, New Orleans, Little Rock and Memphis.
Our journey was not always joyful, for the history of our peoples has been marked by adversity and pain. We saw horrific images—bodies tortured and mutilated, people packed together in cattle cars and slave ships.
Yet perhaps some of the most disturbing images were the drawings generated by humans themselves. In illustrations, Jewish noses can be distorted and eyes can be vexed into malevolent greed. African noses can be flattened, lips can be enlarged, and an entire person can be painted into total blackness.

HangingByAMomentWe discovered that human beings are not only capable of destroying another’s life. They can rip every shred of dignity from a person’s existence.

How, then, do we restore this dignity? How can we piece together the parts of each other that the past has torn apart? The process is long and arduous. We learned that the path stretches long before we were born, and will continue long after we die. At every stop on our trip, we studied the people who worked tirelessly for change in the past, and met with those who are creating profound change today.
We learned of James Meredith, the first African American to enroll at and graduate from the University of Mississippi, who boldly faced violence and isolation to earn his degree.
He opened the door for many to follow, replacing an important piece that had been ripped from the black identity: the right to a quality education. Today, however, there are many, many more tears to be mended.
One man we met is playing an integral part in the fight for educational equity: Geoffrey Canada, the Executive Director of the Harlem Children’s Zone. Canada has accomplished what many believed to be impossible in creating a comprehensive program that effectively relieves the burden of generational poverty.
The 100-block Children’s Zone includes a Baby College that guides new parents in development, health and discipline, a charter school that cultivates an orderly and demanding academic culture, and community programs that build a sense of responsibility and involvement.
The results have been staggering. On a national level, only 7 percent of black eighth graders perform at grade level in math. 97.4 percent of Harlem Children’s Zone eighth graders performed at or above grade level in math for the Spring of 2009.
Canada’s incessant efforts have proven that it is truly possible to piece together what history has ripped apart, bringing us closer to a more just and equitable society.
As a young person, it can often be disenchanting to watch the decisions of adults determine the directions of our society. But a man named Hollis Watkins gave us an important piece of advice in Jackson, Mississippi.
An active member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the 1960s, was repeatedly arrested and jailed as he attempted to register voters. “Young people aren’t just our future,” he told us. “They are part of our present.”
I don’t have to wait until I’m older to begin repairing the world; I can start now.
And as I contemplate the terror that the children in Birmingham must have experienced as they stood before ferocious dogs and powerful hoses, I realize that I have so little to fear. Today, the risks of apathy are far greater than dangers of action. I have so little to fear.

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