I have recently returned from taking a group of 25 Middles History pupils to the Southern States of America; to Georgia and Alabama, to be precise. The purpose of the trip was to gain a deeper understanding of the Civil Rights Movement, which we study at IGCSE, as well as to expose the pupils (and staff!) to an area of the USA which rarely makes it into the tourist guides.
I enjoyed the trip enormously, and I am sure that the pupils did too. However, having had a week or so to reflect, I have come to realise that ‘the South’ is in many ways a land of intriguing contrasts. For instance, it is immediately clear that a huge proportion of the population of the South are enormously proud of the role that their region, their relatives and, in some cases, they themselves played in the fight for Civil Rights. Many see it as their mission to educate the new generation – of Americans and beyond – and make sure that no one forgets just what people had to go through to achieve equality. “Without knowing where we have come from, we can never be sure where we are going” said one poster in Birmingham, Alabama, and this seems to encapsulate the attitude of many. Some of the guides we met bordered on evangelical, and were incredibly engaging as a result. However, despite this it was also possible at times to detect a sense that not everyone shared this view. Barack Obama is still seen as an ‘outsider’ by many in the South, and our coach driver – who himself experienced segregation growing up as a black youth in the late 1950s/early 1960s – was very clear that there were still those for whom the move towards equality was not necessarily a positive development. This is not to suggest for one second that any of this was explicit, or indeed open. But if you looked closely enough, you could perhaps sense that not all was as it first appeared.
Another contrast that the Deep South offers is based upon its perception. The Southern States are often viewed in a condescending manner by their Northern neighbours; think of the Duelling Banjos scene in the film ‘Deliverance’ and you will get the idea. Certainly there are many differences between Alabama and, say, New York or Los Angeles. I didn’t see one Starbucks in Alabama, for instance! In addition, the state was overwhelmingly rural, and the overall pace of life just seemed a little slower and more relaxed. However, in many other respects, Alabama could have been anywhere in America. Birmingham, the largest city, is a sprawling metropolis of over 1 million people, and large interstate motorways cut across the state as they do everywhere else in the country, with their ubiquitous and instantly recognisable green signs. Also, for a supposedly ‘backward’ region, the museums and exhibitions were among the best I have been to anywhere in the world. Informative, well-planned, and seamlessly mixing new technology with History, they were educational, interesting and, at times, incredibly moving. One of the highlights of the trip for me was watching a group of around 15 pupils watching in complete silence for over 10 minutes as one museum screen played footage of Martin Luther King’s funeral. It was beautiful in its simplicity, and so much more powerful for that fact.
The welcome we received was incredibly warm. Almost everywhere we went locals would ask where we had come from and (perhaps after marvelling at our accents) would swell with pride when we told them we had come to study their State’s history. I will certainly be looking to organise the trip again next year, and will look forward to seeing if my judgements were sound. I would love to hear from you if you have any experience of this part of the USA, or indeed if you would simply like to find out more about the trip.