The Day an American Legend Spoke at Bellport High School

The Day an American Legend Spoke at Bellport High School thumbnail173277
Summer school rarely evokes an image of excitement. There is a massive amount of curriculum to cover, constant reviewing and of course preparing for the summer Regents exams. During my seven or so years of teaching summer school only one day stands out as different and exciting. It was the day civil rights legend and Congressman John Lewis spoke at Bellport High School.

An assembly is not something teachers plan for in summer school. So when we were told by the principal we’d be having a guest speaker my curiosity was piqued. A break from the routine was not going to be a problem for anyone.

Filing into the auditorium I recall seeing two men sitting on the stage. One was an elderly caucasian man whom I had never seen before. The other, a bald African-American, seemed very familiar. I was sure I recognized him but I couldn’t remember why. Then he was introduced. As soon as I heard his name I knew we were in for a special day.

Social studies teachers are always living in the past. Historical figures, influential leaders, great artists and religious icons while very real to us are quite abstract to the average high school student. Often they are just names in a book, the impact of their work doesn’t necessarily ring clear to a lot of kids. Congressman Lewis was not abstract at all.

He spoke of his life as a child of Alabama share-croppers growing up in the segregated South. The unfairness of the system, the lack of change after the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) desegregation decision and the Montgomery bus boycott were inspirations for him to become a participant in the growing civil rights movement.

At this point there was no more fidgeting in their seats. His story, his voice and his direct way of talking had the entire audience listening intently. He spoke of working directly with Dr. Martin Luther King’s nonviolence movement, his involvement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, his march for voting equality over the infamous Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama and the famous March on Washington in 1963. He was beaten and arrested many times for what he said was getting into “good trouble.”

He answered questions from the audience. He spoke to the kids honestly and openly. He encouraged them to stand up for what is right and to keep an open mind to those they don’t know. This is when he introduced the other man on the stage.

This elderly man was born into a family of Klansmen. The KKK was his life through his teenage years. Unfortunately I don't recall his name or his full story but the gist of his speech was become your own person. He never embraced the racist mentality of his family. For whatever reasons he just knew he had to leave the environment he was living in. The kids were as attentive and interested in his story as they were the congressman’s.

Summer school students of Bellport High School were treated to a special moment that day. Social studies became a living breathing experience. The textbook was a little less abstract.

Thanks to Congressman John Lewis sharing his story and his life's work, our kids were given a direct connection with America’s past and hope for its future.

Written by Paul Feltman,
Bellport HS Social Studies Teacher