NEH Impact: Remembering the 'Foot Soldiers' of the Civil Rights Movement

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important to remember not only storied civil rights leaders, but the countless courageous “foot soldiers” who made the Civil Rights Movement happen. Since 2004, the NEH and the Alabama Humanities Foundation have supported a summer workshop, Stony the Road We Trod, which introduces K-12 teachers to surviving veterans of the movement. In doing so, the workshop ensures that their stories—of extraordinary courage by ordinary people—will reach students in classrooms across the country for years to come.

Workshop participants relive pivotal moments in Civil Rights history with both surviving “foot soldiers” and historians of the movement. They retrace the Selma March for the Right to Vote with Joanne Bland, co-founder of the National Voting Rights Museum, who describes what it was like to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge as a young girl with state troopers bearing down on protestors. They hear poignant anecdotes from Attorney Fred Gray, who represented defendants from the march, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and other landmark cases. And a panel of “Children of the Movement” recount stories that participants’ students can relate to. As one participant put it: “It was humbling to meet people in the movement, but it was also humanizing to realize they were just ‘regular’ teenagers when they did what they did.”

The program’s title is taken from the lyrics of the classic anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, James Weldon Johnson’s "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Like the song, the workshop drives home the reality that the Civil Rights Movement was not a historical moment, but rather a grassroots movement of millions spanning several generations. Many participants say that they thought they knew this history before experiencing it in greater depth and breadth through the workshop. They travel throughout the state visiting historic sites and cultural institutions, including the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Tuskegee University, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Sloss Furnaces, and the state archives where they conduct primary research. “I’ve gotten both strategies and materials [that] will allow me to teach my students a deeper and more nuanced perspective of not just the Civil Rights Movement, but also the post-Reconstruction era,” observed one participant.

Throughout the workshop, participants work in groups to create interactive curricula aligned with national and state standards to take back to their classrooms. In a program evaluation survey, respondents outlined plans for sharing the impactful experience and concrete resources acquired with their students and peers. “The reality is that the next generation won’t have the chance to hear directly from the movement participants,” wrote another participant. “I will be bringing their words and experiences into my classroom.”

 

Photo Credit

Thumbnail image: Photo courtesy of Dr. Martha Bouyer, Stony the Road We Trod Project Director