She teaches high school students how to lead tours of the institute’s exhibits, including one on the 1961 Freedom Riders bus burning in Anniston.
When her would-be tour guides first arrive at the institute, she says, they rarely know anything about the bus burning.
But it’s not just her students; it’s most students.
“It says to me that we have to do a better job of incorporating all history into what’s being taught,” she said during a recent phone interview. “It’s usually European history, not people of color.”
It’s a gap in the state’s education offerings that was obvious and bothersome to Anniston High School history teacher Marvin Moten, so he decided to do something about it.
This school year, Moten started a black history class at AHS, and it could become the state’s main source of civil rights instruction at the high school level.
The State Department of Education is considering plans to have Moten teach it in classrooms across the state digitally, according to Judy Bollinger, assistant coordinator for ACCESS, a division of the state Education Department.
“We thought it would be a great one to offer,” she said in a phone interview last week from her office in Madison City. “Since we don’t have anything offered like it, I think a lot of our schools — especially those that are predominantly African-American — would be interested in taking it.”
Blazing a new path
As he considered what form the new history class should take, Moten said, he was certain he didn’t want to take the traditional lecture-and-test route in teaching it. The first nine weeks focused on local history in Anniston and then moved to other points of interest, including Birmingham and Montgomery.
A lot of the instruction involves project-based learning. The students visit historical sites, interview historical figures and are required to create videos from those interviews, Moten said.
“Thankfully, a lot of these people are still alive — Rev. (N.Q.) Reynolds, Bob McClain, Sygrid Beard,” he said. The students have to do interviews with somebody who was there during those historical events. “When we talked about integration of Anniston High School, we interviewed people who lived through it like (former Anniston Mayor) Chip Howell.”
Moten is from Talladega and said he never learned about the bus burning until he went to Huntsville’s Oakwood University, an historically black college and university.
“They taught about the whole gamut,” he said. “Not one stone was left unturned.”
Asked how much African-American history was taught at Anniston High before his class, Moten said none.
It’s about the same at most Alabama schools.
Aside from Anniston, the state Education Department’s Bollinger said, she knew of no other high school class in Alabama dedicated solely to black history. It explains why knowledge of the Anniston bus burning is so scarce.
The Freedom Rides
The purpose of the Freedom Rides was to challenge the Deep South’s segregation laws, which themselves were in violation of federal court rulings that had outlawed racial segregation in interstate travel.
On May 4, 1961, a group of black and white civil rights activists calling themselves Freedom Riders boarded a Greyhound bus in Washington, D.C., bound for New Orleans.
On Mother’s Day, May 14, Ku Klux Klan members and a mob of white separatists attacked the bus at the Greyhound station in Anniston. They pounded the bus with baseball bats and metal pipes and they slashed the tires. The driver was able to pull away but was forced to stop again for new tires at a grocery store just west of Anniston on Old Birmingham Highway.
That’s when the mob tossed a firebomb into the bus. The passengers were nearly burned alive, but all managed to escape the burning bus.
The violence continued as other Freedom Rider buses traveled into Birmingham, Montgomery and Mississippi, but instead of being deterred, the Freedom Riders pressed on for months, bringing national attention to the South’s racist policies.
Finally, in September 1961, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy instructed the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce the federal laws that had been passed six years earlier, allowing passengers to sit wherever they wanted on buses and trains. “White” and “Colored” signs over water fountains, lunch counters and bathrooms came down.
It’s local history that made a difference nationally, but, even after 50 years, it’s still not taught with any depth in public schools.
Hiding from history
Dr. Linda Mitchell, assistant professor of secondary education-history at Jacksonville State University, said she grew up in Gadsden but didn’t learn about the bus burning until she became a history major in college.
“It’s not the history that people want to know,” she said. “I think we tend to tell the parts of our local history that have a more favorable outcome for us, or that feature some people in our area favorably.”
Craig, at the Civil Rights Institute, said she can’t remember whether she was given school lessons on the bus burning, but said her mother participated in the civil rights movement and taught her children about the events of those days, including the bus burning.
While the schools shouldn’t be absolved from teaching civil rights history, Craig said, it’s also incumbent upon parents to teach their children.
“For people who lived through it, it’s hard to talk about it. When they visit the museum, they can’t wait to get out of here because those are times they don’t want to remember,” she said. “But it’s something we have to get past and start to talk about.”
The students Craig trains to be museum docents are usually ninth- through 12th-graders. When they arrive at the museum, the stages of emotion have become almost predictable — from awe to anger to admiration.
“Their first reaction when they see the burned-out bus is fear,” she said. “Then you see the anger, and they ask ‘Why would anyone do this to another person?’
“Others say, ‘Wow, these people actually continued on their mission, even though these terrible things were happening to them.’”
The question is: Why is such a significant event in local history not taught openly and routinely in local schools?
Craig said the answer is black and white: Many blacks avoid talking about those events because they were the victims of, or witnesses to, atrocities against their segment of humanity; and many whites would rather push the subject to the back burner because of white guilt.
“They say ‘Why keep bringing it up,’” she said. “Would you say that to the Jews about the Holocaust?”
Mitchell, along with local organizers of the Freedom Riders Project, is working on a college-level civil rights curriculum to be made available to teachers throughout the state.
“I’m teaching teachers how to teach this history,” she said. “Most textbooks usually have just a little blurb about it.”
What’s in the book?
Malissa Valdez, public information specialist in the communications section of the state Department of Education, said information about the bus burning is listed in several books the state offers to school systems as their choice for purchase. The local school systems are responsible for choosing which books are used.
Moten, the history teacher at AHS, taught the local portion of his new class this year from Anniston native Phil Noble’s Beyond the Burning Bus because there’s no textbook specifically for African-American history and because detailed instruction about the bus burning is not in the state-approved text for juniors and seniors.
“Just a photo,” Moten said. “Out of 15 chapters, there’s only one section dealing with segregation and civil rights history — from slavery to Reconstruction, one three-page section.”
Under a state contract that ends this school year, the state-approved textbook for fourth-grade Alabama history is Alabama: The History, Geography, Economics, And Civics of an American State by Leah Rawls Atkins and Harvey H. Jackson III.
Jackson, who is also an editorial columnist for The Star, said the textbook he co-authored places an emphasis on events that included children and schools — the dogs turned loose on marching children in Birmingham and the church bombing that killed four girls, for example.
“We tried to focus on what they would identify with,” he said.
Moten said he started the African-American history class this year with the purpose of teaching about the bus burning and other events precisely because they’re not fully represented in the state-approved textbook for upperclassmen, The American Vision.
“Before this class, you taught to the graduation exam,” he said. “The percentage of African-American history on the standardized test is maybe 2 percent, and that’s being generous. If they’re not going to ask about it, why teach on it?”
Mitchell, at JSU, explained that schools pick textbooks based on all kinds of criteria, so teachers have to use additional information if they want to teach anything in-depth. That’s where her proposed civil rights curriculum for teachers comes in.
“We’re hoping to have part of it available by (Wednesday), when the re-enactment Freedom Riders bus arrives in Anniston,” she said. “We’re hoping to have all of it available by the start of the next school year.”
The Freedom Rider Project is also planning on a website that will be linked from ALEX, the Alabama Learning Exchange (the state Department of Education’s website).
Mitchell cautioned that she doesn’t want to make it seem as though teachers are falling down on the job when it comes to teaching civil rights history.
“We have it in our state curriculum and a lot of teachers do their best,” she said. “But it doesn’t get taught because of time constraints, what’s in the books, what’s less controversial. The community needs to take responsibility as well. Not just teachers, the state, the administrators. I place the responsibility on all of us.”
Mitchell’s grandfather was a history buff; she fell in love with history, too.
“I believe we have to find a way to teach students,” she said, “not only to know history, but to use history to make society better.”
The “leave it alone” argument only leads to trouble, said Jackson, historian and author of the fourth-grade history book.
“The very feelings that produced opposition to the Freedom Riders are still here,” he said. “If we leave them alone, they’ll fester.”
If avoiding negative events of the past is the attitude, “then what’s the use of teaching history anyway?”
Jackson was pointed when asked how to move forward on teaching about the Freedom Riders’ trip into Anniston, noting that significant landmarks should be designated.
“We need to say ‘history passed this way, and here’s what happened,’” he said. “If it’s important enough to know that a Spaniard named De Soto passed through here, then it’s important to know that a group of people risked their lives to pass through here to make things better.”
Reach managing editor Anthony Cook at 256-235-3558.