BY KAREN CAMPBELL
Weakley County Schools Communications Director
MARTIN (February 5) – More than 50 historical moments, including the 1870 state district court order for New Orleans schools to integrate (90 years before the rest of the country), the 1909 founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the 1964 signing of the Civil Rights Act, and the 2020 video footage of George Floyd saying “I can’t breathe” are captured in a Westview project focused on the Civil Rights Movement. The “Breaking the Chains” timeline has been a fixture in the Martin school’s hallway since November.
Seniors Michaela Smith, Ryder Davidson, Katy Cursey, Mary Beth Buchanan, and Robin Wynne were part of Debbie Kerley’s Contemporary Issues class in the fall. They and fellow classmates had been picking topics for debates – like whether marijuana and AR15s should be legal – and then researching, collaborating and debating throughout the semester. When it came to making what they had learned more pubic – the creation of a visual timeline in Westview’s halls, these five took the lead.
Kerley gathered the group for a brief look back at what they learned.
Discovering and then selecting what would and would not make the cut became a matter of further debate. All agree the previous days of voicing opinions and learning from each other helped them be flexible and open-minded about the project as a whole.
Wynne, who came to Martin from south of Chicago and was the only participant who had not attended Martin schools since kindergarten, said the project led her to consider not just events but the thinking that led to the historical events, how society forms and issues such as nature vs. nurture.
She noted that the selection of Civil Rights was timely since it followed a year of riots over racial issues.
Smith said that what they learned should be talked about more, leading Buchanan to add, “It was interesting to see how many of the events we hadn’t learned about or talked about in school. And it made me wonder what else have I not learned through class that I maybe need to learn.”
Wynne, who plans on studying psychology after she graduates this year, observed that as a person who likes to study and look at behavior, it was interesting to try and understand why people were having an issue with integration. “Because at the time it was socially acceptable to be racist. So I tried to get in the mindset of where were these people were coming from and tried seeing both sides,” she noted.
Davidson pointed to the fact that many of the historical moments they researched proved to be steps back rather than advancements, something, he suggested, continues today.
Cursey expressed shock at learning much of the major shifts in civil rights occurred during recent decades. “My grandma was alive when racism was so prevalent,” she underscored. “I can’t imagine them going through that.”
However, they readily pointed to the fact that with the pandemic they, too, are living history.
“It hits home when you realize we are living in times that are going to be put in the history books and someone our age in the future is going to be learning about this,” said Wynn.
As for takeaways from the project, Buchanan spoke for several, “We all agreed that racism is still kind of a big part in today’s society and that we need to make conscious changes in the way we think and the way we act towards others.”
References to the recent history of the riots were frequently made during the brief discussion. Davidson offered the Martin students’ perspective that participants in the marches wanted to make a change. “We didn’t agree with the violence of it, but the fact that they wanted to make a change was something we supported.”
When asked if the project had led any of the seniors to acknowledge racism in themselves, many nodded, and Cursey was quick to respond, “I think this year and the past couple of years with social media influences, hearing opinions of other people, have helped me realize the things I do can be seen as racist and I need to change those things. Even today I work to change my mindset because I know it’s not the right thing to think.”
Wynn added, “It definitely makes you look back on your actions and think ‘how did someone else perceive this?’ You know your intentions, but sometimes it can be taken in a different way. So when you look back and reflect, you can make a conscious effort to do better going forward.”
Kerley speaks highly of the students who took part in the class she has wanted to offer for a while. After hearing Davidson conclude that the class had pushed him to think “on my own” about controversial issues, she resolved that she had achieved one of her “biggest objectives: Be able to think on your feet, know what you believe and be able to put it forth civilly.”
Smith confirmed as well, “I came out knowing a lot more about myself and my thought process and how I’m going to go further and civilly debate with people in everyday conversations.”
Kerley was clearly pleased, “We talked about civil discourse a lot. I tell them if we can’t talk about things rationally how are we going to solve anything.”