Red Canyon students learn history and life at the roots of America’s civil rights movement | VailDaily.com

Red Canyon students learn history and life at the roots of America’s civil rights movement

EDWARDS — Red Canyon High School offers a civil rights class that teaches kids most of the stuff we all know.

However, a group of Red Canyon students went to Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama, to reach into the roots of America's civil rights movement, to speak with Freedom Riders, walk some of the 54 miles to Selma and cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, seeing it with their own eyes, feeling it with their own hearts.

"I think I now have the courage to stick up for people. People who are afraid to stand up for themselves or who can't. I want to help them," said Destiny Martinez.

The students, RaeAnn Romero, Zerelda Relefors, Jean Thompson, Monica Cisneros Fraire, Destiny Martinez and Macaila Gallegos, and teachers Sara Strobing, Kathleen Kirkman and McKinley Grimmer spent the better part of a week walking the walk and talking with people who walked it originally.

"It was incredible being there, in person and meeting people who were integral parts of the movement, seeing where people lived and worked, where they walked," Kirkman said

"People went through hell to get voting rights, and some people don't take it seriously," Romero said.

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Grimmer teaches social studies, and Strobing teaches art class. Both classes deal with civil rights. Strobing taught how art can move people, and Grimmer taught them how non-violent action can change everything.

They drove those lessons home when they and science teacher Kirkman accompanied the students to the cradle of the civil rights movement. The students raised their own money through bake sales, flower sales, hot dog sales, even some online fundraising.

Fate favored them

It was one of those trips where almost everything went right.

They were supposed to have this walking tour, but the tour guide didn't show up for some reason.

They were at the bus stop where Rosa Parks boarded the bus, reading placards and learning everything they could.

A van pulled up and two women approached them, one of whom runs the Greyhound museum just up the street.

The other was Jean Thompson, one of the original Freedom Riders.

They sat there for an hour listening to Thompson's story and asking questions.

Thompson was 19 at the time; the Red Canyon kids are about that age now.

Arms and legs

Dr. King Jr. was an icon, the face and voice of the civil rights movements, but countless others were its arms and legs.

Dr. Shirley Cherry talked to them about life as a young girl in the deep South, when your job options were working in someone else's house cooking or cleaning.

"I knew I was better than that," Cherry said. "My mom taught we that we could do more."

Cherry earned her doctorate and spent her career as a teacher.

"She used the 'N' word as it had been used on her, and the girls had never heard it used that way. They'd heard it, but not like that," Kirkman said.

"I believe they would be shocked because of the "N" word being thrown around like it's nothing big. We need to be aware of the language we use in front of others. Show them it's not OK," said Red Canyon's Relefors.

Freedom Riders

Zawanda Battle was the tour guide at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the church where Dr. King Jr. preached.

Vernon Johns was the pastor before King, a courageous and strong voice for civil rights, about standing up for yourself. Dr. King Jr.'s congregation was already mobilized when he became the minister.

They wandered over to the parsonage, where Dr. Cherry showed them the home where Dr. King Jr., Johns and other Dexter Avenue pastors lived. In the middle of the tour, Cherry looked out a window and exclaimed, "Oh look! Ms. Harris is on her porch. Would you like to meet her?"

Vera Harris was two doors down, rocking on her front porch. She was Dr. King Jr.'s neighbor. Her daughter Velda used to babysit King's kids.

Harris and her husband hosted the Freedom Riders, because they could. They have the biggest home in that neighborhood.

It started with 19 or 20 staying there, sleeping in the house and the yard. At the end they were hosting around 100.

It was dangerous, of course.

"Someone could have taken a shot through the windows or bombed their house," Kirkman said.

Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States in 1961 and the following years, to challenge the non-enforcement of the United States Supreme Court decisions Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946) and Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. Some Southern states had ignored the rulings and the federal government did nothing to enforce them. The first Freedom Ride left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961, and was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17.

Jean Thompson was a Freedom Rider who took some time to speak with the Red Canyon students.

"Jean Thompson's father told her, 'A time is going to come, and you'll need to participate,'" said Gallegos, adding that there might be a time in her own life when she, too, needs to participate.

Why it's real to them

The point of the trip is to bring that spirit and mindset back to Eagle County, to their school and their lives, the students said.

Did this make it real?

It did, and here's how they know.

They were sitting together on a bench outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

"How do you feel?" one of the teachers asked.

Sad, many of the students said, that a civil rights movement was necessary at all.

"How can it be used as a way to institute change?" the teachers asked.

The class decided that having the courage to stand up for people who can't stand up for themselves was the answer.

Gallegos put it like this: "You can create love, not hate, regardless of how you're treated."

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

To learn more

To learn more about the Red Canyon High School civil rights trip, go to https://rchscivilrightstrip.wordpress.com/