After returning from a civil rights field trip to Mississippi last week, some D.C. public school students are paying closer attention to the Civil Rights Act of 1990, which President Bush has threatened to veto.
"It feels like we are going backwards," said Taylora O'Bryant, 15, a 10th-grader at Benjamin Banneker High. "But after talking to people who put their lives on the line for civil rights in the 1960s, I'm inspired to keep the struggle going."
Thirty-three students from Banneker and Kelly Miller Junior High made the trip to Jackson, which was sponsored by the 21st Century Youth Leadership Conference. The purpose was to attend a reunion of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which in 1965 fielded the legendary Fannie Lou Hamer as a candidate for Congress.
"I wanted to make sure that our young people had an opportunity to speak with some of the veterans of the civil rights movement, to hear firsthand what it took to get where we are today," said Katherine Flowers, a history teacher at Kelly Miller and a founding member of the youth leadership conference. "Given the parallels between Reconstruction following the Civil War and today's Supreme Court decisions undermining the gains of the civil rights movement, I feel it is important for our young people to know what it means to fight for your rights.
"Lord knows they will have to."
It was the second trip for the students this year, the first being a reenactment of the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama in March.
On each trip, students were bused from Washington by the black-owned, Oxon Hill-based T&S Bus Lines, and the buses were equipped with videocassette recorders that played segments of the "Eyes on the Prize" television series.
" 'Eyes on the Prize' came alive when we reached Mississippi," said Lisa Berry, 14, a ninth-grader at Kelly Miller. "People who had been in the struggle 30 years ago talked like it had happened yesterday. You could visualize the pain they felt and the hatred that was aimed at them."
The concept of sacrifice and discipline also came to life in the stories they heard about Hamer and others who, like D.C. resident Lawrence Guyot, had been severely beaten by whites for taking a stand against racial discrimination.
"I spoke with Jimmy Travis, who had been shot twice in the head by a group of whites while driving people to a rally," Taylora recalled. "He almost died, but after he recovered he still worked with the movement. I said to myself, 'If he did that, I must do more.' "
"I met Mrs. Annie Devine, who was forced from her home and her job because she participated in a freedom march," recalled Dawn Brown, 14, a ninth-grader at Kelly Miller. "She gave everything for the cause. You can't meet people like her and not feel proud for what they have done for us."
The students attended seminars, church and a reception at the mansion of Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus. They were encouraged to share what they had learned with classmates and neighbors back home -- and, above all, not to self-destruct on sex and drugs.
"Being aware of what the struggle was about and the people who gave their lives for it makes it hard to even think about standing on a corner or not going to school," said Monica Powell, 16, an 11th-grader at Banneker High. "A seed was planted in our heads: If you don't know where you came from, you won't know where you're going."
Upon their return from Mississippi, the students expressed disappointment at reports that Bush could join the ranks of those few recalcitrant presidents who have vetoed major civil rights legislation.
Even more troubling was the notion that, after all the blood that had been shed in the name of civil rights, a new civil rights law is still necessary.
"You can walk into a store, and people still follow you around because of the color of your skin," Dawn said sadly. "Pull up beside someone in a car and watch them start locking their doors."
As the students prepare for college and the world of work, there are ominous indicators that the journey will be no easier than it was for their grandparents. Racial violence on college campuses is at an all-time high. With America's faltering economy, old bugaboos such as the Ku Klux Klan are once again looking for scapegoats.
"We know the struggle is not over," Dawn declared. "The torch has been passed, and we intend to keep it burning."