When you send a group of students into the historic heart of the civil rights movement, don't expect them to return unchanged.
This summer, two programs will send young people to see for themselves where Martin Luther King Jr. led a march or riot police turned on protesters with fire hoses. When the students return, they'll be energized, informed, and profoundly aware of how much history texts omit.
Project Hip-Hop (Highways Into the Past History Organizing and Power), sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, has been taking Boston-area high school students to the South since 1993. College students get a chance, too, through the Overground Railroad/Agora Project, which serves students at the six private colleges in Kentucky, Indiana, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Ohio that make up the program.
Both groups share a common goal: to give students a three-dimensional history lesson about issues like race and civic responsibility, and to make use of a precious living resource - people who were active in the civil rights movement.
"The goal is to use history to ... emphasize that it took lots of people that felt this country needed help to realize its democratic potential," says Project Hip-Hop director Nancy Murray. "So they can say, 'Oh, that's how it happened' and see the role they can play in turning things around."
If program designers hoped to give students a sense of history's connection to their own lives, then it worked. "I found answers to a lot of questions, like, 'Why are black people in the state of emergency they are today?' " says 1995 Project Hip-Hop participant Michael Fitzpatrick. "The answers are in the history."
The groups visit places like the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Ala., the Ku Klux Klan Museum in Laurens, S.C., the site of the Greensboro sit-in in Greensboro, N.C., and the King Center in Atlanta. They also spend time getting firsthand accounts from people who were actively involved in the civil rights movement.
At least two-thirds of the Project Hip-Hop students get involved in post-trip projects like giving presentations at community centers, churches and schools, says Dr. Murray. And many, like Mr. Fitzpatrick, remain involved years after the trip.
Similarly, Overground Railroad participants share what they've learned through a service learning project of their own design. But unlike Project Hip-Hop, they're earning college credit for the work.
Murray started Project Hip-Hop after a call from youths to address racial issues during the 1992 Rodney King case, in which a black motorist was beaten by white police in Los Angeles. Overground Railroad, with Berea (Ky.) College at the head, was born of a dialogue between the six colleges aimed at creating educational opportunities promoting democracy and public works.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of Overground Railroad and Project Hip-Hop is what students learn from each other. "We've got people on welfare and rich-lawyer kids in the same group," Fitzpatrick says of the ethnically diverse Project Hip-Hop. "The issues you're dealing with as a group relate to how this country has dealt with race. You deal with the things you're learning about."
Murray says it gives the students a chance to interact across hard-to-cross racial boundaries. "They are so happy to be able to talk about this. It's given me a good feeling about the role education can play."
Fitzpatrick, now a college sophomore, pauses when asked if he'll make a career out of his history interest. "This experience will be incorporated in my experience no matter what I do," he says. "It changes everything you do for the rest of your life."