Smith College Campus School students mark 60th anniversary of Montgomery bus boycott

Last modified: Wednesday, February 03, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — Even in a city where outdoor protests are common, the sight of 30 second-graders enthusiastically marching down Elm Street on Thursday singing songs like “This Little Light of Mine” was an unusual one.

They weren’t actually rallying against anything. Instead, the Smith College Campus School students were taking part in what teacher Maggie Bittel says is a vital lesson about the Civil Rights movement — the collective power of individuals to create social change.

In the midst of the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott, sparked when Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her bus seat for a white person in Montgomery, Alabama, the pint-sized marchers embarked on just one of several components of a six-week lesson about human rights.

“We’re only walking one mile, does anyone remember how many miles some people walked?” Bittel asked the two classes gathered in the school’s lobby before the Thursday morning trek.

“Twelve!” one student blurted out.

The students, teachers and parents walked down Prospect Street and on to Elm Street in a one-mile loop. They sang songs and emulated a phrase used by protesters when buses passed by: “No riders today!”

As part of the 1955-56 boycott of public transportation, many people found other means of getting around, including carpools, bikes, taxis and walking. It was that group effort that allowed the protesters to achieve their goal of ending racial segregation aboard Montgomery’s buses.

Because of that, the Campus School curriculum does not just focus on the key players of the movement.

Students closely examined the protesters’ faces in photographs in order to create sculptures in art class. In music, they learned the songs they would sing in unison on their Thursday walk. And in Bittel’s classroom, the children did everything from act out scenes featuring Martin Luther King Jr. to writing letters to then-Montgomery Mayor W.A. Gayle.

One student’s letter put it bluntly — “I think you’re a bad mayor.”

Children have a good grasp about right and wrong, Bittel said, which makes the Campus School’s experiential approach a lively one.

“I think second-graders have a strong sense of what’s fair,” she said. “This is a story that speaks to them.”

Susannah Abel-Zucker, 8, paused before answering a question about why learning about the civil rights movement is important.

“I think it’s really important to know how they felt and have empathy for them,” she said.

Campus School head Sam Intrator had high praise for the curriculum Bittel developed about a decade ago with fellow second-grade teacher Robbie Murphy.

“It’s a body experience,” he said while walking with the students on Elm Street. “Understanding, boy, it’s cold outside to walk a mile ... it gives them a reference point beyond the abstract.”

And the students did indeed seem to grasp that the lesson was a reference point in understanding the actual struggles of black people.

The students gave up 15 minutes of their recess as a stand-in for the sacrifices made by bus boycotters in Montgomery. Margaux Galvin, 7, was quickly able to put that into perspective.

“I think it’s fine because in the boycott they had to sacrifice stuff and our sacrifice was missing a little bit of recess,” she said before running off to join her friends on the playground.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at


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