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A Pilgrimage to Montgomery

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A PILGRIMAGE TO MONTGOMERY

Stanford education scholars visit a new memorial chronicling the history of lynching in America

A group of students led by Stanford Graduate School of Education professor Ari Kelman journeyed to Alabama for the opening of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Thousands traveled from around the world to Montgomery, Ala., last month for the opening of the nation’s first memorial honoring victims of racial terror lynchings in the American South. Four graduate students from Stanford GSE joined Professor Ari Kelman as part of a contingent organized by the GLIDE Center for Social Justice in San Francisco.

"I'm very interested in how people learn in spaces outside of school," said Kelman, whose courses at Stanford include a seminar, Curating Experience, exploring the power and politics of museums. "When I heard that GLIDE was organizing a trip to Montgomery for this, I knew I wanted to go and bring students."

He put out the word through email lists and invited students to apply, choosing four by lottery. Their travel was supported by the GSE Dean's Fund and the Taube Center for Jewish Studies.

The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice commemorate and document the lives of nearly 4,400 black Americans who were killed during an era of rampant public lynching between 1877 and 1950. Together they reveal a long history of state-sanctioned violence against African Americans, said Kelman, the Jim Joseph Chair in Education and Jewish Studies.

"This site has indelibly changed the story of civil rights in the United States," he said. "It's not a story of progressive triumph, a steady march toward equality—it's one that clearly implicates the state in violent efforts to maintain segregation and inequality."

Xavier Monroe, a doctoral candidate at GSE whose research focuses on access and equity in STEM education, was one of the four students who traveled with Kelman to the opening.

He saw the Florida county where he was raised named on one of the columns at the memorial, indicating that it was one of many where lynchings had been documented. His family continues to be reminded of the legacy of racial terror in their own neighborhood: "My family recently moved to a new home near Gainesville, and we learned that around the corner there's a site where six people were lynched in 1916," he said. "I think the tree is still there."

While he grew up well aware of this painful part of the community's history, he's concerned that students aren't being taught about it today. "If we as educators are supposed to be change agents," he said, "we need to engage in these realities."

For Sarah Mirza, a master's student from Pakistan enrolled in the International Comparative Education (ICE) program at GSE, the experience opened her eyes to the complicity of local leaders, the magnitude of the brutality and its ongoing persistence.

"I was under the illusion that America as a society had moved on from that form of organized violence and racism," said Mirza, whose research at GSE explores the impact textbooks and other curricula in Pakistan have on students' respect and tolerance for others. "The experience in Montgomery made it clear to me that this history hasn't gone away. It's just evolved. Mass incarceration, police brutality—they're all modern-day forms of racial terror. The museum made that connection very explicit."

Christine Bora Lee, a master's student in the Policy, Organization and Leadership Studies (POLS) program at GSE, plans to pursue a role in higher-ed administration working with low-income, first-generation students after she leaves Stanford.

She said the experience in Montgomery, in part, reinforced for her the need to be conscious of the impact cultural history can have on power dynamics between administrators and students. "It's made me more curious to hear stories from students that aren't being heard," she said, "and more aware of the harm I could do without realizing it."

Dallis Fox, another master's student in the POLS program, taught first grade before coming to GSE and plans to help open a new charter elementary school in the Seattle area after she finishes the program.

"I think a lot about how we can talk about race and justice with kids, how we create foundations for that at an early age," she said. "Of course it needs to be developmentally appropriate, but what does that look like? As educators, we need to be prepared and courageous enough to be able to talk about these issues with them."

Reading the stories documented at the site—many made public for the first time—strengthened her commitment to ensure that future generations grow up with an honest understanding of the past and how it shapes the world today.

"In education, we have the privilege and power of being in control of a lot of the narratives that kids hear about history," said Fox. "We have a huge responsibility to speak truth to everyone's experience."

Hear more about the group's journey to Montgomery at a brown bag lunch on Monday, May 14, at 12:00 pm