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The City Journals

Summer reading assignment leads to societal conversations at Brighton

Jan 28, 2019 02:44PM ● By Julie Slama

Author Chris Crowe discusses “Mississippi Trial, 1955” with Brighton High students in late 2018. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | julie@mycityjournals.com

Brighton junior Catherine Tozze said reading “Mississippi Trial, 1955” provided students with a good discussion.

“It was good to see how black life was back then, and what progress we’ve made,” she said, understanding why teachers asked all Brighton High students to read the same novel over the summer. “This allowed us all to have the same background and understand that perspective. We realized some people in Utah were racists and that was reality back in the 1950s. Since then, we learned that race shouldn’t be judged and we should look at our choices and how they affect people.”

Even though some students read the book months ago, the discussion continues at Brighton in different English classes. The book's author Chris Crowe even came to the school to deliver a lecture on his book and research.

“The story came from history and facts around this time in American history,” he told students. “This is a time when young people have more power than they realize. Their words, their actions can impact the world.”

He uses the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and how students are lobbying for a change.

“Kids’ lives do matter and you have a voice in that,” he said.

Brighton High students joined thousands across America to voice their opinions and give silent support for those who have fallen victim before them.

Crowe, with the winner of the 2003 International Reading Association Award for a young adult novel, examines the historical case of Emmett Till, whose murder was one of the triggers of the civil rights movement. 

The story unfolds with white teenager Hiram Hillburn, who knows R.C. Rydell is evil and watches him mutilate a catfish. However, he doesn’t stop him since “I didn’t want to end up like that fish.” At first, he watches R.C. humiliate 14-year-old Emmett Till, an African-American visitor from Chicago, and still he does nothing. When Till is brutally murdered, Hiram is sure R.C. is involved, but is uncertain if he can stand up to evil and do the right thing.

“This is a time when he was nervous about starting at a school that was integrated just after Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. Some celebrated, some protested that decision, but one place that was the most dangerous was in Mississippi,” Crowe said.

Throughout the novel, Crowe introduced history to reflect the time period. He even stayed at a bed and breakfast in Greenwood to get to know people and learn the history.

“I learned about Grandpa Hillburn’s house. I didn’t know where my story was going at first; I just gathered information and stories,” he said. “It became a story I could share about Emmett and the times.”

Brighton English teacher Karen Larson said the language arts teacher picked this book based on the concern of the racial and cultural tensions in the country over the past year.

“We’ve heard conversations in the hall about kids being upset that there were fish guts all over the boy, but it plays into the violence and modern-day connections that show racial tensions with the civil war statues and Charlottesville,” she said. “We’re wanting students to make the connections between the 1960s and today. There’s a new face to discrimination and injustice — it’s the same thing, just repackaged.”

While she said Brighton High is “predominately white,” there is discrimination in the community in regard to gender, religion, disabilities and more.

“There have been marches for women and those who are gay. Students are realizing we need to offer more opportunities for students with disabilities. The discussion is it’s time to make things equal and not leave someone out,” Larson said.

This coming summer, Larson said teachers again want to have students read the same book that will assist them in identifying the interconnectedness of their education with the world they enter after graduation. 

“This allows for a cross-grade-level, cross-curricular discussion of universal themes regarding human nature, history, society, community and the world our students will be entering,” she said.

They may, however, allow students to select the book from choices the English teachers provide.

Junior Abigail Whitlock attended Crowe’s presentation and could understand how the book has changed the culture at Brighton High.

“We decided, as a group, we’d help support their decision, to stand up for the truth no matter the race, disability, religion,” she said. “As a school, we are connected with each other and supporting people’s decisions. We’re becoming a closer community.”