When Susan Butler marched in Selma, Ala., she was 23, and a new teacher. She told her principal what was happening at that moment in 1965 would effect every American, and she was granted a leave of absence to attend the civil rights march.
Fifty years later, the United Federation of Teachers retiree marched again in Selma at the anniversary event in March. She was "very, very hopeful to see people who came long distances and with children."
Butler's experiences helped hundreds of North Country students experience living history when she spoke to them about her part in the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. On a visit to Lake Placid this spring, students watched the movie "Selma" and then listened to Butler's story about walking across Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge and the 54 miles of roadway to Montgomery. She recalled the "knots" of white people yelling in disgust, and black people cheering on the marchers.
Butler also participated in Freedom Summer activities in Jackson, Miss., as a Freedom School teacher 50 years ago. When she flew out of New York City for that job, Butler learned she was on the return flight from the one that carried home to New York the body of slain civil rights activist Andrew Goodman. Goodman was murdered by the Klu Klux Klan along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. "That was an eye-opener for me," she told students. The Selma march and the murder of civil rights activists influenced the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, yet much work remains. "The first lesson is: It ain't over," said Butler. Race relations remain a stormy issue in this country. In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; Texas and Alabama enacted strict voter identification rules an hour later.
"The people least likely to have voter ID are people who are sharecroppers and live in rural areas in southern states and don't have transportation or money to get identification," Butler said. "Some of the older black people were born at home and don't have birth certificates. If you make it impossible for people to vote, what is the point?"
Butler praised the group of North Country teachers who organized the movie screening and discussion. The event was sponsored by NYSUT, Saranac Lake Teachers Association, Adirondack Film Society and John Brown Lives! a social justice organization named for the 19th century abolitionist.
"[Butler] offered words of encouragement for students to play a role in creating the kind of world they want to inhabit," said Martha Swan, a Spanish teacher with the Newcomb TA who directs John Brown Lives!
"She also was able to answer questions and even critique the film in places based on her experience and perspective. That was valuable for students to hear, underscoring the importance of media literacy skills," said Swan.
While relentless state funding cuts have forced many schools to reduce projects, including field trips, such outings have a solid place in education. Several locals and community groups across the state held "Selma" screenings with support from NYSUT, allowing more than 900 students to see the film and participate in discussions on civil rights then and now.
"We must honor the past struggles in order to face today's challenges to create a future of hope and possibility," said Catalina Fortino, NYSUT vice president.