(Photo by Sarah Maughan UW-Madison)

In November, I went to Montgomery, Alabama for the National Association of Multicultural Education (NAME) Conference. The theme was “Honoring the past and planning action to further multicultural education and its solutions to today’s challenges.” 

It was my first time visiting the site of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. I walked along the Alabama River and imagined the time when steamboats transported enslaved persons from Mobile and New Orleans to Montgomery on that river. I lingered at sites where militant “direct action” by everyday African Americans was strategized at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church led by Dr. King.  I thought of one of King’s statements:

 We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.

A heightened consciousness about oppressed people, especially children, all over the world arose within me when I visited the site of Rosa Park’s arrest and recalled her statement:

“Our mistreatment was just not right, and I was tired of it.” 

On the second day, I took off for more learning of American history at The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I had heard extraordinary things about these sites that are operated by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), founded in 1989 by Bryan Stevenson. 

The Legacy Museum’s exhibits have immense conceptual and artistic power. Beginning at the entrance where the fury of the uncontrollable waves of the Atlantic oceans overtake you and you imagine yourself, enslaved, recently branded with hot irons, shackled, no room to sit-up or move about, with limited ventilation and water for roughly 80 days on the bottom of a ship where you are inhumanely disciplined. I was in awe of shelves filled with gallon-size jars containing soil samples from the roots of some of the trees where Black people were lynched. 

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees  (Billie Holiday)

My final stop was the 6-Acre Memorial, a compelling representation of more than 4,000 recorded lynchings in America between 1877 and 1950. More than 800 coffin-like steel rectangles hang in the memorial, each red with rust and engraved with the names of U.S. counties where documented lynchings occurred. Domestic terrorism, indeed.

On Monday in Madison, my undergraduate class of aspiring teachers asked about the conference. I told them what I learned and raved about the delicious southern cuisine. I encouraged them to consider learning American history in Montgomery to help them become the fantastic teachers of All America that students need.  

Dr. Carl A. Grant, Hoefs Bascom Professor, Department of Curriculum & Instruction and Former Chair of African American Studies, UW-Madison. His two latest books are James Baldwin and the American Schoolhouse (2021, Routledge) and Examining Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Rasin in the Sun” as a Counternarrative: Understanding the Black Family and Black Students (2024, Routledge).