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Class learns how to fight for cause

Civil rights leaders aren't always born. With a teacher's guidance, they can be made.

There are at least seven of them in training at Buffalo's International School 45 on Hoyt Street.

They were part of a sixth-grade class outraged after a Black History Month assignment a year ago had them read a Sunday News Parade magazine article about the 1944 Port Chicago "mutiny."

The explosion at the Navy port near San Francisco killed 320 and exposed the racist underside of a military that assigned the most dangerous jobs of loading munitions to untrained, overworked black sailors. To add insult to the injury and death, the Navy then court-martialed blacks who refused to keep serving as cannon fodder.

Fifty sailors were convicted in a show trial and imprisoned to send the message that the Navy was no place to start talking about equality.

It's not the type of black history you find in most textbooks, even during February. But teacher Marilyn Foote-Kragbe reached outside the box for her lesson plan. It was the perfect follow-up to instruction about elections and making your voice heard.

After discovering that California Rep. George Miller and the San Francisco-based Equal Justice Society have been trying for years to get the black sailors' names cleared and a stamp commissioned in their honor, Foote-Kragbe's class took up the cause.

As the name suggests, the International School includes kids from around the world as well as native Buffalonians. But no matter their heritage, they all can recognize injustice -- even in the land of equality.

The kids -- now seventh-graders -- also can see the most visible signs of American progress.

"Blacks don't have to sit in the back of the bus now," said Jordan Velazquez, whose parents came from Puerto Rico.

But they're not naive, either.

"There's a street in Buffalo . . . where the people are racist and they fight a lot," said Sudan native Mustafa Felein, recalling last summer's racially tinged violence, though he forgot the neighborhood's name.

"Lovejoy," chimed in Leandre Some, who came here from the Ivory Coast area.

But seeing society's warts doesn't deter them. Among the recipients of their letters was one George W. Bush.

This month, they learned of the presidential response from the director of the White House Liaison Office: There would be no happy ending.

Emphasizing the Navy's "thorough review" and its commitment to equality, the liaison thanked them and wished them luck in their study of history. And in classic spin, he noted the sailors ultimately "received discharges under honorable conditions" -- which sounds great.

But University of California, Berkeley, scholar Robert L. Allen, who wrote a book on the incident, says that's different from an "honorable discharge." He said some of the sailors complained that even the Veterans Administration wouldn't recognize such a status.

Needless to say, the kids were bummed by the letter. But they rebounded as quickly as only 12- and 13-year-olds can.

Kaled Saleh considered it "a privilege to hear from the president," even if the letter didn't come directly from Bush and they didn't get what they wanted.

"I feel like I've been listened to," said David Cruz, a native of Puerto Rico.

In fact, rather than getting discouraged and apathetic -- like adults -- they talked of persevering on this and other causes, such as starting a petition to stop planned school closings.

"Does this make us civil rights leaders?" Tyneka Brackett wondered aloud.

The rest of the group answered with a resounding "yes."


"Because we're trying to make a difference," said Dashaun Walters.


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