At 17, Zaccheus McEwan already believes that a very limited narrative of Mississippi’s Civil Rights Movement is found in textbooks, so he worked with his classmates to produce an award-winning documentary on the voting rights struggle in his hometown.
McEwan of McComb, Miss., is one of 16 students and five staff members who arrived in Washington D.C. on June 8 to participate in the National History Day competition. The competition took place in College Park from June 9-13. The students won awards for multiple entries at the state level of the competition, including a first-place award for a 10-minute documentary they produced about the involvement of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, in the voting rights struggle in McComb. They also produced a play and developed a website about the Civil Rights Movement in their town.
Dominque Taylor, 17, participating in her second competition, said she was excited to be back in Washington. She said the projects served to help teach lessons that are sometimes overlooked in schools.
“I’ve learned that is our responsibly to show the history,” Taylor said. “It is very essential that I learn what happened in our history, in our local community, so that I can share it with other students and let them what we know.”
It is fitting that the students hailed from McComb. It was the site of SNCC’s first voter registration drive. Mississippi’s African Americans often faced violence and intimidation when attempting to vote and some of the Civil Rights Movement’s most celebrated martyrs, like Vernon Dahmer of Hattiesburg, were targeted and killed by segregationists because of their efforts to help Blacks register to vote.
“Our whole thing is we know that history is a complex thing,” McEwan said. “There are many different perspectives and many different viewpoints that we have to work through in order to understand history.”
The students showed their 10-minute documentary during a public reception at the African-American Civil War Museum in Northwest Washington on June 11.
Museum founder and director Frank Smith, a civil rights activist and SNCC member who worked in Mississippi in the 1960s, said he is impressed with the efforts of the McComb students. Changing the hearts and minds of people in Mississippi went a long way toward moving the entire country forward, he said.
The students’ projects were developed with funding from a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the support of Teaching for Change, a D.C.-based non-profit that works to help educators teach children about history.
Renee McClendon, co-coordinator of Mississippi History Day, the state competition that is tied to National History Day, said the students learned two years ago about the importance of putting a local story into historical context when creating a documentary. The youngsters started working on their latest projects over the summer and stayed after school twice a week during the academic year to develop them.
Their project tells a more complete story about the voting rights struggle in McComb than what is taught in school, said Deborah Menkart, executive director of Teaching for Change. The non-profit is working directly with the McComb School District to support civil rights education. The majority of the students in the school district are African American.
The current grant will provide funding for another year, Menkart said. School officials are working to secure funding for future projects. Many historians provided information to the students to assist them in their research, she said.Gabrielle Washington, 17, worked to develop the website after taking a digital media class at school. She said putting the website together was fun and she learned during her research that her aunt played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement.
A lot of people do not realize how difficult it was for African Americans to gain the right to vote, she said.
“People lost their lives, homes, children, everything, because they were trying to give us the right to vote,” Washington said. “So now that we have it, we want everyone to use it and know the background of how we gained the right to vote.”