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My year in America opened my eyes to civil rights and what they mean

Daphne James

Retired teacher

A new view on the world

Retired Drama and English teacher Daphne James is a long-standing member of the English-Speaking Union. In 1968 she spent a year at a school in Washington DC as part of our Secondary School Exchange programme. It was a pivotal year for the civil rights moment with the death of Martin Luther King, and a defining year for Daphne as her eyes were opened to new perspectives and challenges. Fifty years on, she shares her memories of that momentous year.

Image of statue in Washington with crowds of people marching for civil rights
The 1963 March on Washington, which called for civil and economic rights for all African Americans

‘When I applied for an English-Speaking Union Secondary School Exchange scholarship I knew that if I were to be awarded one, it would change my life. I little knew how much it was to colour it however. That year spent boarding at National Cathedral School in Washington DC was utterly amazing. It was the late ’60s and, although I had swapped one prestigious girls’ school for another, it was a whole world away. The sights and sounds of a different culture were alien but exciting. For a start, I’d come from Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, where we hardly ever saw any non-white people at all. When I went to Washington DC, it was 70 per cent black and totally different. At the beginning of the year, it was a big shock to an English girl who’d come from rural nothing. But by the end of the year it was completely natural, so that when I came back to England and found racial prejudice here it was unacceptable.

I studied Sociology and part of that course involved learning all about civil rights. There was no segregation in my school, but there was racial prejudice around in subtle and not so subtle ways. African Americans still tended to sit at the back of the bus even though the infamous Montgomery Bus Strike had taken place over 10 years before and they could legally sit anywhere. Everyone had a maid – and of course they were all black. I think if you asked the average American of those days they would have totally refuted being tarred with the prejudice brush, but it was definitely around at times.

Some of my year came from the South and had die-hard attitudes, however most people from my school applauded the whole civil rights ethos. Attitudes have totally changed now and today’s students are horrified by what went on then. How could people possibly treat anyone that way?

Of course we learnt all about Dr Martin Luther King and when he came to preach in our cathedral, we all crammed in to hear him address us in those familiar, ringing tones. Thousands came to listen and those not lucky enough to be inside the cathedral gathered outside to hear the broadcast. The sermon King preached that March 31st, 1968 was about “remaining awake through a great revolution”, referring to the changes in attitudes towards human rights and the challenges we all faced, and he used as a symbol the story of Rip Van Winkle. He spoke about how we should work towards a brotherhood of man, with whites and blacks being equal, and the eradication of racial prejudice. He was very inspiring because by that time America meant so much to me. And he symbolised it, therefore I felt his pain, his anger. His gentleness, too; that came across.

Imagine our horror on hearing of his assassination only four days later. Riots broke out in the downtown area of Washington and we hung out of the boarding house windows to see the fires and watch the tanks rolling down Massachusetts Avenue – courtesy of President Lyndon Johnson calling out the National Guard. Two months later Bobby Kennedy met the same fate.

That really was learning about civil rights. What a pivotal year in America's history to be studying that subject.

I had other amazing experiences over the year, too, and it started a life-long love affair with America. At first I missed my family because I knew that I wouldn’t see them for so long (there were no mobile phones or social media of any kind in those days of course), but there was so much going on that I soon forgot to be even a little homesick. I had always been told  that “You get out of life what you put in”, so within a few weeks I was totally acclimatised and by the end of the year, when graduation came, the days simply flew by and I was afraid I’d run out of time.

Throughout my days at school in Washington I was taken on outings – notably to the White House, the Pentagon, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and Arlington Cemetery amongst others – but in the summer afterwards, my trips surpassed my wildest dreams. Wherever I went, everyone seemed to think they ought to expose me to all aspects of American life and the warmth of their welcomes were such that I felt truly cherished. I was given a three-week pack horse trip up in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana, where I rode in my own Western, learned to fish, and slept out under the stars. I was taken to The Alamo and crossed the Rio Grande. I sat on the banks of the Mississippi in New Orleans and watched the sun go down. It’s little surprise that I now love all things American.

The experience had a lasting effect on me. To this day, I Skype my roommate from that year every month and occasionally many other friends from those days.

My year in America broadened my horizons and allowed me to experience so much. It has affected my whole way of life, opening doors and helping me to get jobs. I would urge any young person to apply for the scholarship and see what it can do for you.’

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Encouraging the exchange of ideas is a key part of our work at the English-Speaking Union and to this end we offer a variety of academic and cultural scholarships and tours enabling students, teachers, librarians, musicians, scientists and others to live and study abroad.

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