A circle of justice: CCSD students honor the civil rights movement

On the chilly morning of Nov. 3, 150 anxious eighth graders from both Hilsman Middle School and Clarke Middle School gathered at the now empty Varsity restaurant, accompanied by their teachers and community well-wishers to learn more about Athens’ segregated past. 

To start off the morning the students enjoyed Chick-Fil-A biscuits and a powerful message from local civil rights activist Bennie Mckinley. 

“I want you to understand that we worked very hard to demonstrate and we were treated terribly,” Mckinley said to students, referencing past protests that took place at the Varsity and other Athens stores and restaurants during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 

Organized by former Cedar Shoals teacher Katie Baker-Johnson, Community School Officer Stephanie Anderson, District Attorney Deborah Gonzales, and former District 2 Commissioner Mariah Parker, the historical field trip was a way for students to interact with local changemakers. 

With the help of Athens Clarke County Leisure Services Director Kent Kilpatrick, the group chose the Old Athens Stockade as the venue for the rest of the event, a form of redemption for the space. 

“This was the first time the space was even used or opened up to be used since people were locked up in it,” Baker-Johnson said.  

In the 1960s Black Athens youth were held in the stockade rather than the county jail when they protested racial segregation. This was a way for Clarke County to avoid paying for their meals when they were held. 

“When we were held here, it was the worst night of my life,” Mckinley said as she shared her own experiences participating in civil rights demonstrations as a teenager in Athens.

STOCKED: Over 150 Clarke County School district students visit the Old Athens Stockade on Nov. 3. The historical landmark is located on Pound street and once held students captive during the 1960s civil rights movement. “It would be a large mistake for you to not realize the honor your teachers have given you by bringing you here today,” former Cedar Shoals teacher, Katie Baker-Johnson said. Photo by Zaya Roberson.

A variety of speakers greeted students at the stockade to share advice including former Clarke County Superintendent Dr. Xerona Thomas, civil rights activist Dr. Robert Harrison, and Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz. 

I came on this field trip because of my interest in the history of this town and the University (of Georgia)” Hilsman Middle School eighth-grader Boone Patterson said. “I learned a lot about segregation in Athens that I wouldn’t have thought about before.” 

Clarke Central High School peer leaders started off and served as emcees for the event.

“I think this field trip today is very important,” freshman Triston Thomas said. “We need to understand history so it doesn’t repeat itself and we need to take time to appreciate everyone who came before us.”

Later on, the son of Archibald Killian, the first black police officer in Athens-Clarke County, gave an emotional testimony, sharing about his fathers legacy. 

“My father dedicated his whole life to equality, freedom, and justice for everyone. He was a very special person and even now, six years after his death, it’s amazing that the legacy he left is still standing,” James Killian said in his speech. “We should move forward as one people. No color wall, no religious separation. That’s the legacy that he left here in Athens and that was the civil rights that he fought for.”

Dr. Mary Blackwell Diallo, the first black Athenian graduate of the University of Georgia, then shared her own experience with bullies throughout her life. She encouraged students to stand up against oppression in their own lives. 

“Remember bullies are unhappy people who take their frustrations out on others. Stop them as soon as possible,” Diallo said.

Students then grouped together to spray paint a mural as “We shall not be moved” blared through the speakers. 

“I really enjoyed coming on this field trip and learning about some of Athens’ history that wasn’t sugar-coated,” Clarke Middle eighth-grader Carolyn Griffeth said. “We watched a documentary before coming, but it was better to hear from some of the actual people in person.”

THE NEXT GENERATION: Hilsman middle school eighth graders Savannah Rawls (left) and Kaitlyn Paige (right) listen to the speakers at a history-based field trip they attend on Nov. 3. Students conducted individual and class research before attending the event. “I was grateful that I got to experience this field trip and learn about things I didn’t even know happened in Athens,” Rawls said. Photo by Zaya Roberson.

Hilsman Georgia history teacher Fredricia Thomas attended the field trip with some of her students. The Athens-raised educator was moved by the event speakers and felt she learned new information about her city.

“We are in unit five which is the Civil War and civil rights movement, so this trip was at the perfect time and fit right in with what we’re learning,” Thomas said. “I hope the students take away a sense of unity and an obligation for themselves and are more aware of what people had to go through for them to be in a situation where they are now at a desegregated public school. I hope they also have a sense of inspiration and want to go out and keep this movement going.” 

Before attending the event, students conducted their own classroom research, which included the viewing of the Youtube documentary “If We So Choose” which shared the stories of Athenians who fought against racial segregation. 

“I think it’s important for the students of Athens to learn about Athens’ history. I’m from Athens and I didn’t know anything until I researched on my own,” Clarke County School District community school organizer Alicia Thomas said.

Local Athens gym Strength and Strike Fitness funded the field trip.

“For a whole month we raised money for this event so that we could have the opportunity to have a tangible impact on the kids in this community,” Strength and Strike Fitness founder Reuben Williams said. “You guys are our future, you’re going to be the ones to take care of us in the future.”

Baker-Johnson hopes the trip can be repeated annually with funding from the Clarke County School District. 

“The people who were marching and protesting will not be here for another 100 years, we are giving you their story,” Baker-Johnson said. “So if you do not tell other people, it will be forgotten. You are now the carriers of the precious story.”

Around 11:00 am students returned to their buses visibly calmer and changed by what they had heard, but not before spending time singing, laughing and dancing together.

“We were kicked, punched, spit on, and everything we did, we did it for you all” Mckinley said in her speech. “So please work hard because you can do anything you want to do, we have opened the doors for you.”

COLORS OF CHANGE: Clarke County school district middle schoolers collaborate on a spray paint mural on Nov. 3. The students attended a field trip to learn more about segregation and change-makers in Athens. “I just encourage you to not let anyone set limits for you. You can accomplish anything you want to. Take advantage of the opportunities that these people paved for all of us,” former Superintendent Dr. Xerona Thomas said. Photo by Zaya Roberson.

Ikeoluwa Ojo

Ikeoluwa Ojo was the News Editor during her fourth year with BluePrints. She is interested in pursuing a career in childhood education, social work or law.

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