High school students soak up Greensboro civil rights history

by Jordan Green

Chandra Christmas-Rouse, Daniel Miller, Sivan Bruce and Jake Ross (l-r) were among a group of high school students who heard a presentation from longtime Greensboro civil rights activist Lewis Brandon. (photo by Jordan Green)

They filed into the meeting room at the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, 25 high school students — all rising seniors — from Washington DC and Maryland, their skins a mixture of brown and white hues. They settled into chairs with easy smiles and giggled at each other as a round of introductions was made.

On Sunday, they had driven all day from New York City, after absorbing the rarified air of Riverside Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous 1967 speech denouncing the Vietnam War, and walking the streets of Crown Heights in Brooklyn to get a sense of the intertwined destinies of African Americans and Jews.

They were in the South, now, and they could practically feel the history of the civil rights movement — the thudding oppression of limited opportunities, the violent lash of repression and the thrill of challenging an old order — black and white together, we shall not be moved.

“This is the beginning of our civil rights education,” said Joanna Kramer, a student at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Montgomery County said. “This is where it happened. I’m excited to see all the monuments.”

Sure enough, on Tuesday, they would get to see the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, where some of that iconic civil rights history is enshrined. They would see the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter where four NC A&T students sat down and insisted on being served the same as any other citizen. They would see a replica of the dorm room where they resolved to be men.

Their itinerary for Monday included the bust of the great civil rights leader at the corner of Martin Luther King Drive and South Elm Street and the historical marker commemorating the last cabinet meeting of the Confederacy at the same intersection. They planned to see Dudley High School and NC A&T University, along with the Greensboro Historical Museum, which once housed a Confederate hospital. They would meet with Signe Waller-Foxworth, one of the survivors of the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings, for lunch back at the Beloved Community Center. And in the evening, they would gather at Temple Emanuel to learn something about the city’s Jewish history and culture.

Organized by Operation Understanding DC, the delegation of 25 students was inspired by the freedom rides, although the course is not exactly the same. Fifty years ago in May, the original freedom riders — also black and white — departed from Washington DC on a bus trip that took them through Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Their destination was New Orleans, but they found themselves set upon by white mobs in Alabama. Their determination and the violence that greeted them shocked the nation’s conscience.

The young leaders on the Operation Understanding DC delegation aren’t tracing the geographic course of the freedom rides exactly. They’ll eventually wind up in Memphis via Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma — sites of some of the bloodiest attacks.

Receiving them at the Beloved Community Center on Monday was Lewis Brandon, a retired science teacher who has become the center’s historian. Brandon was in Greensboro when the A&T Four sat down and started a movement that spread like wildfire across the South in 1960. He was part of that movement, helping to arrange transportation to keep the protests going. Joseph Frierson and Wesley Morris, community organizers at the Beloved Community Center who are much younger but steeped in the same tradition, were also on hand to greet the travelers.

Brandon told the guests that he had talked to a friend, a former policeman, the night before.

“I told him we had a group of African- American, Jewish and Muslim students coming to visit us,” Brandon said. “He’s going back to the eighties. He said, ‘Do they need police protection?’ I said, ‘No, I think they’ll be all right.’” Considering his personal history, Brandon might have been expected to talk about the 1960s sit-ins as a single triumphant moment. Instead, he described Greensboro as a place where struggle is part of a continuum, where events never quite come full circle. He talked about black college students getting shot at by the National Guard in Greensboro and other places in the late 1960s. He talked about streets in east Greensboro that were unpaved in an early era and about black businesses that were destroyed during urban renewal. He talked about a recalcitrant city council pushing to reopen a landfill in a predominantly black part of town. He talked about the city council and county commission cutting programs beneficial to the community.

The students from Washington were not just in Greensboro for a history lesson; their charge is to develop as leaders who take responsibility for reducing discrimination and prejudice, fighting inequality and promoting social justice.

So Frierson asked for a volunteer. He hand ed LJ Folsom a small, glass tabletop and asked him to hold it.

Democracy is a table that requires three legs to be sturdy, Frierson said.

The first: access. “Voting is fundamental,” Frierson said. The second: courage. What is courage? “Being able to represent new ideas without being terrified to do that,” Desiree Gingell answered.

The third leg of the table necessary for democracy to function, Frierson said, is knowledge.

“Even if you vote and have the courage to vote,” said Lee Friedman, “you can still make bad decisions if you’re uninformed.”

Frierson asked if any of the students had donated clothing to Goodwill. About half the people in the room raised their hands. How many had worked at a soup kitchen? More hands. How many had volunteered for a political campaign? Frierson counted himself among them.

All well and good, and they should continue with such efforts, he said.

“The Beloved Community Center also takes it one step further,” Frierson said, “and says, ‘Why do we have homelessness? Why do we have soup lines? Why do we have someone who is a farmer who is well in body who is standing in a soup line? We like to take it a step past charity.”