A recent Black History Month event awakened some Prince George’s County middle school students.
In an instant, they were told of a Sunday morning in September, 1963, Dianne Braddock’s life, along with the rest of the world, was changed forever when racists bombed a church.
But while the nation reacted to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist–and the deaths of three 14 year-olds and an 11 year-old–with a cultural and legislative U-turn toward civil rights for Black America; Braddock, now a retired educator, was left with memories of the Jim Crow South and of a baby sister ripped apart, with three other girls, by a bomb planted in hate inside a Black church in Birmingham, Ala.
Braddock, a former Prince George’s school principal, on Feb. 25 brought those memories to Kenmoor Middle School in Landover, Md. as part of a Black History Month presentation. The church bombing lead to the enactment of a string of civil rights laws, starting with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Braddock described for the middle school students, what life was like for Black people back then. Her remarks struck a chord with the seventh and eighth graders.
A speech that initially was met with restless squirming from seventh and eighth graders drew thunderous applause and candid questions to Braddock, the sister of Carole Robertson who was killed Sept. 15, 1963 along with Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, and Cynthia Wesley, 14.
Braddock was 19 years old at the time, attending Clark College in Atlanta when her younger sister was killed. She prefers telling young people about the world she and her sister lived in.
She told them about how Blacks, as recently as the 1960s, had to pay a poll tax to vote, about how some would-be voters had to take a test to be declared eligible to vote and about how unfair treatment was the norm for African Americans, especially in the South.
Voting registrars “would ask us questions like ‘How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?’ or have a jar of jelly beans or marbles on the table and ask us ‘How many of them are in the jar,’ ” Braddock told the Kenmoor students.
Those four girls who died in the church were martyrs, she said. “They sacrificed their lives for Black civil rights,” Braddock told the crowd of middle school students.
Braddock ended with “Don’t let anybody ever talk about your middle school because you guys did great today.”
Braddock explained how students should be thankful for the resources they now have because Blacks did not have these resources 50 years ago.
By the time Braddock finished her presentation, none of the students in the classroom looked bored or sullen anymore. They all were attentive and full of questions about life then and life now.
Braddock then proceeded to ask students if they believed young African Americans are being treated fairly. The middle schools students all answered unanimously “no.”
One student stood up and discussed his view on the Trayvon Martin case.
“I don’t think it was really fair. The Trayvon Martin story had an emotional toll on the Black community. He was killed for just walking down the street. He could have made an impact but his life was taken too early.”
His remarks drew rousing cheers from his classmates, teachers and Braddock.