Southerners will tell you it never snows in Alabama. Not that they don’t get a share of biblical weather. Hurricanes, tropical storms, flood and drought visit regularly below the Mason-Dixon line. But snow? In Birming-ham? Well, it’s about as likely to snow in hell. Which accounts for the look of panic on the faces of all Alabamans during our recent Teach For All visit, as the flakes start to fall and – worse – accumulate. They told us, drawls our guide – a man long-suffering the false promises of weathermen, that it wouldn’t accumulate.
We’re here to attend this year’s Teach For America Teacher Leadership Development Summit. And when the snow comes we’re on a cold street corner – 16th and 6th – outside the National Civil Rights Institute. It’s also a significant street corner. Opposite us is the 16th Street Baptist Church, sometime hub of the civil rights movement; to our right the statues of four smiling girls stand in a park. The four girls are Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair and they were the black victims of a white supremacist bomb whose explosion in 1963 catalysed the movement that culminated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with ‘I have a dream’.
And that’s what everyone in Birmingham is talking about this week. The eight hundred members of Teach For America staff and supporters, the fifty visitors from across the globe, the inspirational keynotes – old friends of Rosa Parks and Fred Shuttlesworth. They’re talking about that dream and those girls. They’re talking about the legacy of the civil rights movement – what distance has been covered, how far there is to go. They’re talking about the crucial role of education in the emancipation of oppressed minorities, they’re talking about quality education as a civil right. They’re talking about all of this. This, and of course the snow.
We begin at the National Institute of Civil Rights. This charts the history of the city of Birmingham, which traces that of the post-abolition south. Founded in 1870, it became a centre for the steel industry, and for black exploitation and oppression. Informal segregation was inscribed into Jim Crow laws throughout the first half of the 20th Century, restricting the rights of black citizens to vote, politically organize, use public spaces and utilities, including schools. After the events of 1963 and the march on Washington, these restrictions were slowly repealed in a process that is familiar from our school text books and that culminated in Obama’s election in 2008.
By Tuesday evening the snow has a name – Winter Storm Leon – and the conference has a tone. We’re here to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of those pioneering civil rights victories, to hear from members of the 1963 children’s crusade about their joy and disbelief at seeing a black President in the White House, to champion the progress of black men and women throughout society, and to reflect on the part that Teach For America has played in improving the life chances of hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged – often black – kids across the US. But we’re also here to get angry. Because for every success achieved in the battle for civil rights, there remains an injustice still to be resolved.
In the US today, there are more black men incarcerated in the prison system than there were slaves in the year prior to abolition. Young black kids are still much more likely to end up in prison than to go to university. The drip, drip of these slogans is affecting. We hear the familiar refrain that although the education system is not formally segregated, how well kids do depends more on their background, often meaning their race, than it does on any other factor. A familiar injustice. On Thursday evening, as an emergency delivery of Domino’s pizza relieves a hotel that has by now run out of food, a civil rights lawyer comes to reflect on this.
Justice in Montgomery Alabama. He represents black prisoners on death row and consequently is a man with stories to tell. He tells us about his first ever assignment. Nervously visiting a condemned man, he fell into conversation with him for hours, infuriating the guards who then begin to mistreat the prisoner. Guilt-stricken at bringing brutality upon a man he was supposed to help, the young lawyer hears down the corridor the prisoner breaking into a song of freedom. He resolves immediately that this will be his life’s work. From the experience he concludes that in achieving justice, nothing is more important than proximity. Proximity leads to empathy, understanding of injustice, a sense of personal responsibility and a commitment to action. Proximity, he says, is what Teach For America brings, and why it’s such a powerful approach to fighting injustice.
The thin layer of snow recedes on Friday afternoon and our thoughts turn to home. In the UK we don’t have the tradition of a civil rights movement on which to draw and segregation has never been inscribed in the laws of our education system. It’s also true that legal reform has usually trumped social movements for change. But are the injustices of our schools and society so different to those of the US? Teach First enables us to learn a lesson of proximity. If the arc of the moral universe tends towards justice, what are we each doing to now to tilt its path?