Civil Rights in the Classroom

Have you ever studied history through art? Marie Cochran, an art instructor at Georgia Southern University, created a room-sized art installation called “Freedom School” that was first shown at Atlanta’s High Museum. When Cochran thought of doing a piece related to the Civil Rights movement, she thought of doing something that would relate to her personally. She was one of the first children to integrate the schools in her hometown of Toccoa. She describes the installation that includes two school desks, one bearing the names of James and Jamal and the other the names of Sally and Shalonda. They represent very different children in the classroom. Mabel Cochran, Marie’s mother, describes the school she attended and how students made do with battered and worn textbooks handed down from white schools. She states that white people fought school integration because they knew education would change a person’s world. “If you can’t read or write, think or figure, than someone else will control you. Education will free you,” she said. Marie’s father, Murray Cochran, said he initially was afraid for Marie to go to the white school and worried he might lose his job, but he supported her. Today’s schools are very different with many races and nationalities represented in classrooms. However, art like “Freedom School” shows how far we have come, provoking the viewer with its images and symbols to ask questions about that time in history.

Teacher tip: View the portion of the video showing the art installation again and discuss the images or symbols Cochran has used to portray education and civil rights. Discuss how she has captured and portrayed the events in that period and ask students what else could have been added.