BRADENTON -- If he didn't know the history, 11-year-old Juan Vazquez would have thought the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was just any old church.
"It seemed all normal, if you didn't know," Juan said.
Juan was one of 14 students from Blanche H. Daughtrey Elementary School who traveled to Alabama during the holiday weekend, visiting and learning more about the civil rights struggle led by Martin Luther King Jr. The students, led by fourth-grade teacher and Birmingham native MaryAnn Grantham, were well-versed in the history of the civil rights struggle and the importance of the church.
On Sept. 15, 1963, 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, 11-year-old Denise McNair, 14-year-old Carole Robertson and 14-year-old Cynthia Wesley were killed when Ku Klux Klan members bombed the church during services. Riots broke out afterward and 13-year-old Virgil Ware and 16-year-old Johnny Robinson were also killed.
As fifth-graders, typically 10 or 11 years old, those killed were not much older than the students who visited the church last week.
"It was really wrong, what they did," said Nevaeh Ortiz, a 10-year-
old fifth-grader. "Nobody is better than anybody else."
While touring the site, 10-year-old Luis Flores peppered the tour guide with questions. The students were surprised it took so long to arrest and bring the KKK members to trial after the event. They were also surprised to learn that the KKK didn't target only black people, but those who helped the black people as well.
"The KKK killed black and white people," he said.
In addition to visiting the church, the children and their chaperones went to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Kelly Ingram Park and an art museum. Sculptures in the park, which depicted scenes of struggles from the Civil Rights Movement, were what struck 10-year-old Yamile Quezada -- especially the sculptures showing school children being hosed down in an effort to keep them from marching.
"It would be harsh," she said. "It would really hurt."
The group flew to Alabama -- the first time some of the students had ever flown -- and attended a special service at the Baptist Church, where they were recognized for their visit. The trip to Alabama was funded by a grant through State College of Florida.
The children who attend have to apply, writing an essay about what it means to be a leader and why they'd like to attend. The children who go on the trip spend a lot of time reading and researching that era before leaving.
Students now say they can't imagine what it would have been like back then, but agree there's more work to be done in providing equal rights and achieving King's dream.
It's the second consecutive year Grantham has been able to take a group of children from the school.
"I'm hoping to make it annual," she said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.