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These Mississippi Teens Should School the Supreme Court on the Voting Rights Act

A group of high school students in McComb, Mississippi have taken the initiative to deepen their own understanding of the struggle for voting rights.

"After visiting the site where voting rights activist Herbert Lee was murdered, I feel more strongly about exercising my right to vote. I now know how important it is and I will definitely register when I am of age." – Steven Thompson, high school student, McComb, Mississippi.

The Supreme Court justices aren't the only people reviewing the 1965 Voting Rights Act. A group of high school students in McComb, Mississippi have taken the initiative to deepen their own understanding of the often untold history and contemporary relevance of the struggle for voting rights.

McComb was one of the most important and dangerous places during the fight for voting rights in the 1950s and '60s. Yet it is seldom mentioned in the textbooks. So high school students in the McComb Legacies program decided they needed to teach their peers about the history they’ve been learning since last summer.

Last month the McComb Legacies students hosted a 2-day conference on voting rights with noted veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. The students coordinated it with the McComb School District, the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, and Teaching for Change, with funding from the WK Kellogg Foundation.

Convinced that the conference should not be anything like traditional education, the students planned two days of field trips, interactive dialogues, a community forum, and oral history interviews. The out-of-town guests included Laurel SNCC project coordinator Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons and civil rights lawyer John Due.

"The level of student engagement is inspirational at every level. The McComb Legacies program is a wonderful model of how to teach students to direct their own learning," commented renowned author and Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman professor Tananarive Due, who joined her father for the journey. During the field trip she tweeted: "Listening to McComb High School freshmen lead such a confident and thorough civil rights bus tour is an experience hard to put into words."

One of the highlights of the conference was the interactive panel with eight Civil Rights Movement veterans. Rather than having the veterans address a passive group of listeners, the McComb Legacies students escorted them to tables with high school juniors. A rich dialogue ensued. Every student had a chance to ask questions and talk with a veteran one on one. The questions that might never have been asked in a large group were put on the table. "Why didn't you fight back sooner?", "Why did you risk everything to vote?", "What was it like in jail?", and "What did your parents say about your activism?"

The veterans were impressed at the depth of the student questions and every student was fully engaged in the dialogue. "I never knew things like this happened in my hometown. It was inspirational to find out about the place where I live and that I love," said high school student RayKesha Carter. Her classmate Zacchaeus McEwen added, "At first I thought McComb was this small, boring town. Now that I learned about hidden facts from our past, I see how important history is to us and how we have to inform not only our generation but also the next generation."

Taking what they learned to the state level, the next day the McComb Legacies students competed in the Mississippi History Day competition with their documentary film on voting rights and related website. They walked away with first prize, so now they are preparing for the national competition in June. Let's hope that their trip to D.C. coincides with a decision from the Supreme Court that is as grounded in the history as these students are.

Learn more about the students in McComb at the McComb Legacies blog.

Photo of Mrs. Patsy Ruth Butler speaking to students, courtesy of Lisa Serrano

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