For years, students and teachers have been asking Who is the next Martin Luther King? – the wrong question, says Professor Michelle Deardorff, co-founder and director of The Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy. Instead, she says, we should be asking, “Who’s the next Fannie Lou Hamer? Who’s the next Barbara Johns?”
On April 23, 2012, exactly sixty-one years to the day of the historic Moton High School Student Strike, Dr. Deardorff was joined in Farmville by fellow Hamer Institute co-founder, Dr. Leslie McLemore. Together, the two discussed their work helping teachers and students draw deeper, more personal meaning from the Civil Rights Movement.
Members of the Robert Russa Moton Museum’s Moton for America working group convened at Longwood University to hear from the acclaimed Hamer Institute. Since its founding in 1997 at Jackson State University in Mississippi, the Institute has been committed to reshaping the way civil rights history is taught in America’s schools.
Many 21st century American scholars now hope to shed greater light on the important role played by everyday citizens, women and other lesser known, local grassroots actors, like Fannie Lou Hamer and Barbara Johns, who helped change America from “the bottom up.” Hamer is most noted for her role as a leading field organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and for founding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964. At age 16, Johns led the 1951 Moton High School Student Strike, which resulted in the only student-initiated case to be included as part of Brown v. Board.
Each summer since 1998, The Hamer Institute has sponsored a number of workshops for students and teachers in grades 6-12. Workshops last anywhere from one to six weeks and include lectures, field trips, music, poetry, and oral history panels. The program allows participants to engage with scholars and activists. For teachers, it demonstrates ways primary sources can be integrated into lesson plans and curricula.
“It’s important for people to see themselves in the history,” says McLemore. Deardorff concurs, adding that “If students knew their own history, they would know that students their own age, students younger than them, transformed America.”
By advancing this “bottom up” narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, The Hamer Institute hopes to inspire students and instill in them a desire to become change agents like Barbara Johns and her classmates. Upon completion of the workshops, McLemore leaves his students with this final question and challenge: “Now what are you going to do differently?”