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1963 Anniversaries Highlight Civil Rights Lessons


Even today, it can be difficult to talk about what happened and why it happened. In Alabama, educators and other people are using this anniversary to try to make civil rights relevant to a younger generation, as NPR's Russell Lewis reports.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: At the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, it seems almost every day there is a tour group sitting on the steps, soaking up the history of the Civil Rights movement.

OWEN BRYANT: The fact that children as young as four were involved in this and going to jail and filling up the jails, made it a very powerful moment in U.S. history.

LEWIS: History teacher Owen Bryant is talking to 100 high school juniors from North Carolina's Durham Academy. It's part of the school's three-day civil rights tour of the South. Bryant helps organize the annual trip. He wants his students to learn firsthand about the protests and the children's marches that focused the nation's attention on segregation.

BRYANT: So that whenever they see injustice, whenever they see anything that violates another person's rights, another person's humanity, that they will develop some sense of empathy and speak up, speak out, stand up, do exactly what these kids did in 1963, marching out of the building to go be arrested for the purpose of making the world better for everybody.

LEWIS: Across the street from the church is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you for coming.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Thanks for having us.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right. Thank you.

LEWIS: The students from North Carolina crowd inside taking in the exhibits, sometimes scowling at the displays of racism. Here's 16-year-old Thomas Olson(ph).

THOMAS OLSON: I don't understand how this much hate and pure passion for this hatred would just boil up in people just for something as simple as a difference in the color of skin.

LEWIS: That kind of reaction is what the institute is hoping for as it engages young people to teach the city's civil rights past.

SAM PUGH: I'm gonna say something that probably won't make a whole lot of sense with the history that we have here, but you try and make it fun.

LEWIS: That's Sam Pugh, outreach coordinator at the Civil Rights Institute. He's a former youth pastor who now travels across the southeast on an education mission, lecturing, role playing and creating games so kids understand it's more than just a few paragraphs in a history book.

PUGH: They ask a lot of questions and that's what you want. A lot of whys, you know. Why would they do this to this person? How could they bomb a church and get away with it for a period of time? And you just have to be prepared for the answers, but you want the questions.

LEWIS: There's also another effort underway to reach out to the younger generation at the local children's theater.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: You know Birmingham is a good place.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, yeah. They're a laugh a minute down there. Where was that colored-only restroom downtown?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Things aren't perfect, Daniel, but...

LEWIS: The theater's about to debut "Watsons Go To Birmingham 1963." It's about a black family from Michigan that comes to Birmingham just before the 16th Street Church bombing. Organizers have sold more than 13,000 tickets and extended the run by a week. Jen Nelson Lane(ph) is the theater's production director.

JEN NELSON LANE: Children process things very honestly and theater is meant to educate and to entertain. And it can't always be a happy-go-lucky story with lots of musical theater songs and dancing. Sometimes you have to sink your teeth into a grittier issue.

LEWIS: The play is based on the 1995 book written by Christopher Paul Curtis. It's a frank discussion about those difficult days in 1963. Every fourth grader in a Birmingham public school is getting a copy of the book. Curtis says during this civil rights anniversary, it's important to remember and inspire.

CHRISTOPHER PAUL CURTIS: I think the heroes of the past have to be celebrated and by celebrating them, hopefully we can start a little fire in the heroes of the future.

LEWIS: Curtis says to do that, you have to be gentle and nudge people into learning history, even when it's difficult to talk about. Russell Lewis, NPR News, Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.

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