Mark Levy, US civil rights worker, meets Sunderland school students
‘The Civil Rights Movement is not over’
Journey to Justice is delighted to be working with Facing History and Ourselves again in welcoming Mark Levy, a former social studies teacher turned organizer and long time US civil rights campaigner. Mark regularly talks to UK students on educational tours in the US and occasionally visits the UK to work in schools and talk about the US civil rights movement from the point of view of a (still active) ‘veteran’. This year he will run a workshop at JtoJ’s training session for teachers and youth and community workers in Tower Hamlets, sharing the platform with one of our volunteers, Imani Robinson from Black Lives Matter UK (for details see below).
On October 4th Sunderland JtoJ hosts Mark in two local schools: Red House Academy and Thornhill School where he will meet Year 11 History students and answer their questions about his involvement in the Mississippi Freedom Schools. Mark writes, ‘When I was in my twenties, a newly minted college graduate yet to start my first year as a teacher, I was one of about 1,000 college students, teachers, lawyers, musicians and actors, doctors and nurses, and others from around the country who responded to a request by local, Black Mississippians to help during the summer of 1964 with voter registration, Freedom Schools and other initiatives. As out-of-state, summer volunteers – idealistic and committed, but naïve – we had to be oriented and trained.’
Freedom Schools took place in churches, on porches, in storefronts, or wherever students of all ages and their communities could find. They taught art, history, politics, writing and poetry – which are all part of JtoJ’s approach now. The young white volunteers’ training was led by Black Americans to listen, ask questions, help identify problems and needs, share experiences, fears, and hopes, and try to figure out, together, how to build a better world. ‘We were told to respect and appreciate our students and what they brought to the Freedom Schools – and to see them as future leaders.’
Mark and his (first) wife Betty lived with an African American couple, Mrs Dessie Turner and her husband. For JtoJ and Mark, the significance of Mrs Turner in history is crucial. As he writes, ‘Mrs. Turner was a quiet person, she wouldn’t speak at meetings, march in demonstrations, or carry a sign. She risked her job, her home, and possibly her life for doing what she did, but she never considered herself as especially brave or as any kind of “activist” or “leader.” If we teach civil rights history from the “great man” perspective or as quick answers to multiple choice tests, how many of our students do we expect will become a new Martin Luther King, or a Malcolm X, or a Barack Obama? But on the other hand, with some encouragement and support, how many of them could contribute like Ms. Turner did? How many of our neighbourhoods and communities have their own Mrs. Turners to learn from - and about?’
Mark and JtoJ have the same aims, to teach about grassroots organising and the empowerment of ‘ordinary people….’Ordinary people, working together, can accomplish extraordinary things.’
‘In trying to apply experiences and insights I gleaned in Mississippi to teaching in New York. When I taught eighth grade social studies back in NYC, in Harlem, I started by asking a simple set of open-ended questions: What do you like about your neighbourhood? What don’t you like? What would you like to preserve? What would you like to change? How can we go about doing that? The student investigative and action committees that grew from those discussions led to all sorts of exciting, year-long projects, such as working on the conditions of neighbourhood housing, heat during winter, recreational facilities, retail stores, and government services.
To make the connections relevant between Freedom Summer and now, I emphasize that Mississippi Freedom Summer was one moment in a long — and still ongoing – struggle for social justice. I add that it: a) was broader than just acquiring and enforcing legislated, legal civil rights, b) was Black led, and c) to a large degree, was a youth movement. For me personally, the Freedom Schools shaped my teaching throughout the rest of my life – and I continue to look to those experiences for inspiration and ideas. I know that I learned as much or more than I ever taught. I have come also to appreciate that an organizer’s work is never done because built into the job description is an essential mandate of “passing the torch.”
The struggle for social justice is ongoing, in the US and everywhere. We are privileged to have this opportunity of meeting Mark with his decades of experience as a teacher and campaigner for human rights.
Feedback from students:
“ I thought it was really good to learn his views and experiences. He was also really nice… I also found it really interesting about how women weren’t allowed to be involved in the speeches with Martin Luther King”-CD, girl
“ I was glad Mark came in as I now have a good insight of what life was like for black people”-NB, boy
“ He was amazing, he talked about the men and women who are never found in the history books”- CF, boy
“ I liked asking questions and the funniest part was when he said there were 80,000 sandwiches [made for people at the March on Washington”-JM, boy
“It was good to hear it from someone who was there and not from a textbook”
“Speaking on behalf of Sunderland JtoJ it means a lot to us to have Mark as a guest within our city and we welcome and thank him. It is a great opportunity for so many of our Year 11 History students to share his experience and knowledge of the US civil rights movement!!” -Jackie Nixon, Chair of Sunderland JtoJ
Here’s a five minute film about Mark’s work as a Freedom Summer volunteer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHgelBRVwlw
You can read the full version of Mark’s speech to the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) here:
For more information about JtoJ’s training session for teachers, youth and community workers on October 13th in Tower Hamlets: