Eighth-graders Nyna Fabrizio and Caroline Main won’t soon forget what civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis described as a high point in his life.
They thought the Georgia Democrat might talk about when Barack Obama was elected president or the historic 1963 March on Washington that Lewis helped lead. He instead described being beaten by Alabama police while leading a 1965 march in Selma. Lewis’ skull was fractured in the incident.
“Even though it hurt and it was not the most fun, he knew that was going to make a difference,” Main said. “He was making the change.”
Fabrizio and Main traveled to the nation’s capital last week to interview Lewis, the last surviving member of the “Big Six.” That group included the most prominent civil rights leaders who helped organize the March on Washington; Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The Moultrie Middle School students talked to Lewis as part of a National History Day project for their eighth-grade honors social studies class.
Students could pick any topic that fit with this year’s theme, “Rights and Responsibilities,” and they had to create a historical thesis and prove it. The project required at least one interview with someone who is connected to their topic.
The eighth-grade best friends decided to work together, and they picked the civil rights movement, which interested both of them.
Their teacher, Jamie Thomas, met Lewis last year as part of a federal social studies grant program, and she mentioned him to the girls because he was one of the younger leaders of the movement.
“You hear a lot about Martin Luther King Jr., but you don’t hear a lot about the younger people who were standing up,” she said.
Fabrizio and Main immediately decided they wanted to talk with him, and they structured their thesis around him: That John Lewis played a major role in standing up for rights of African Americans, and that he continues to take on that responsibility as a congressman.
When they told Thomas in November that they had requested an interview with Lewis, Thomas said “OK” and gently suggested that they might want to find some other interview possibilities. She knew Lewis was a high-profile official and thought he might be difficult to reach.
But nearly a month later, the pair heard back from Lewis’ office. They would have a half-hour with him on Jan. 14 for their project.
Rather than do the interview over the phone, they decided to go to Washington, D.C. to meet Lewis in person.
With a video camera, prepared questions and a gift of homemade chocolate chip cookies, the eighth-graders felt nervous waiting at his office in the U.S. Capitol. But when Lewis walked in, their fears dissipated.
“He shook our hands and he couldn’t have been any nicer, and that made us feel relaxed,” Main said. “I couldn’t believe we were actually meeting him. He’s such an amazing person, and he’s done so much for the country.”
“It felt unreal,” Fabrizio agreed “We’re so glad we did it.”
They asked him about how his goals had changed and what influenced him to stand up for his rights. He told them that he sees his role as a congressman as a continuation of what he did through the civil rights movement, and he described the admiration he felt for Martin Luther King Jr. He showed them pictures from that Sunday march in Selma.
Thomas, their teacher, said another one of her students also traveled to the nation’s capital for a project interview, and she’s impressed by her students who go beyond the project’s requirements. It takes a lot for students to ask questions of someone they don’t know, she said.
“They’re passionate about their topic, and that is always something as a teacher that makes you feel good,” she said.
Caroline is the daughter of Eric and Catherine Main, and Nyna is the daughter of Lynn and Jason Fabrizio, all of Mount Pleasant.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.