A Powerful Presence

Jul 15, 2009

A Personal Piece on the Way to Answering an Essential Question:

 How did civil rights activists advance the ideals of liberty, equality, and opportunity for African Americans?

 I met Janet Braun-Reinitz while doing the calligraphy on the Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn  (498 Greene Ave. at Nostrand Avenue) mural "When Women Pursue Justice."  I volunteered my time so that I would have the chance to put my mark on a stunning mural that celebrates Shirley Chisholm and 90 women who over the past 150 years have worked for social change in the United States.  Janet's mural partner and co-author is my friend, Rochelle Shicoff, who was one of my graduate professors at Hunter College.  It was she who got me involved with the mural. 

 Little did I know that Janet, the mural designer and lead artist, was a civil rights activist who risked her life in 1961 when she was arrested and jailed as one of a small group of Freedom Riders in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Near the end of my work, Janet said she was giving me a gift.  She wanted to visit my students and tell them about her experiences as a Freedom Rider. 

Janet visited my classes twice.  My students were prepared for her. 

 They researched the united States Civil Rights Movement from the 1940's to the 1960's.

     The activists... The inequity...

They researched Janet, and the Freedom Riders, in particular, online and were ready with questions to ask her.

Freedom Riders with a burning bus at Anniston, Alabama, May 14, 1961

Members of the Washington Freedom Riders Committee, traveling to Washington, D.C. Freedom riders hang signs out of bus windows, New York, New York, 1961.

The students watched a brief video interview with Janet.



Each class was mesmerized by her descriptions of snipers with rifles on roofs all around her and so many frightening police dogs.  

Using students as "extras," Janet reenacted the scene of angry crowds in Little Rock banging and shaking her bus as well as the ineffectual local police. 

Janet thoughtfully answered each student's question.  

As Janet ended each session, she shook each student's name and told them, "You are shaking the hand that shook Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s hand."  Many students had amazed looks on their faces and said they would never wash their hands again!

Many students had never met a political activist before.  As a primary source, Janet humanized the Civil Rights Movement for them. 


Cool! This woman would be an

CharlieTeachHayground's picture
Submitted by CharlieTeachHay... on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:43.

Cool! This woman would be an amazing vistor. I like the images you chose qand their placement.

For getting into a past

wdhaverstock's picture
Submitted by wdhaverstock on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:43.

For getting into a past before our students' present, there is nothing like first hand experience.  We have a teacher whose parents were holocaust survivors and he is great for that discussion during Night or other books.

This is amazing!  What a

livesacrifice's picture
Submitted by livesacrifice on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:43.

This is amazing!  What a wonderful work in progress and inspiring!  Perhaps I'll be able to use your work in my next set of classes.

-- Amanda Kay

Very important for the kids

Submitted by educateme5 on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:43.

Very important for the kids to learn tolerance.


History literally comes

JABenitez180's picture
Submitted by JABenitez180 on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:43.

History literally comes alive. I love it. I've thought about dressing up as literary characters and teaching as that character in the class.

I love how you introduced

Submitted by Feliciag on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:43.

I love how you introduced the idea with a poster of a mural.  I'll continue this comment later.


You are so lucky to have

mwhitehouse's picture
Submitted by mwhitehouse on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:43.

You are so lucky to have this connection with Janet.  I remember being moved to tears by her thoughtful presentation.

Susan!  What a remarkable

CHimmel2's picture
Submitted by CHimmel2 on Thu, 2009-07-16 12:46.

Susan!  What a remarkable discussion!  I'd like to arrange for this lady to come to QUEENS-VOC!

Susan, What an honor for

klevy's picture
Submitted by klevy on Fri, 2009-07-17 23:59.


What an honor for you to have contributed to this extraordinary mural.  I also would love for her to come to my school and shake her hand - for sure!


Karen Levy, Library Media Specialist Columbus Campus H.S. 925 Astor Avenue Bronx, N.Y. 10469