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A class in civil rights takes students where the movement started

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August 09, 2017

A group of seven Detroit Mercy students and two of their professors gathered at the statue of Jesus on the McNichols Campus and said a prayer asking the Lord for safe travels during their journey down south.

Stevie Jones, the author of this article, met Ruby Bridges who, at the age of 6, became a Civil Rights icon as the first student to integrate an elementary school.The group was embarking on a weeklong travel course to Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, exploring the southern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. It is the first class of its kind at Detroit Mercy.

As a part of the trip, students documented the experience and their emotions in journals. On this day, they laid out their expectations for the trip.

“I want to try to get an understanding of the two types of people involved in Civil Rights—he people who were brave and put their lives on the line for the movement, and the people who were against it. I want to try to get an idea of why they were so scared they had to commit terrorism,” wrote Jeremy Wiese.

“I looked around and only saw one other black person who would be going on the trip with me,” Jhayla Mosely wrote. “It’s hard for white people to see things from our shoes sometimes so I began to hope that this trip would enhance their sense of understanding.”

Sarah Finkenbine wrote “It is very hard to put myself in the shoes of a 1960’s black man or woman down south. The type of cruelty they endured, I’m surprised they persevered to change the country without giving up.”

 “I already have a haunting feeling about seeing their origin,” wrote Sara Stover. “The Ku Klux Klan was responsible for bombing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that resulted in the deaths of four young black girls.”

The Civil Rights travel course brings students to famous landmarks of the movement, where significant changes in history took place. For instance, as a class we walked across Edmund Pettus Bridge where, in 1965, peaceful marchers seeking voters’ rights were violently confronted by law enforcement.

Upon reaching the crest of the bridge, the marchers were met with a crowd of local and state police officers and ordered to disperse, but without giving the marchers a chance to react, the policeman prepared for battle, strapping on their gas masks and pulling out their nightsticks. The troopers, some on horseback, rushed the marchers. The violence and horror that took place at the foot of the bridge forever marked that day as “Bloody Sunday.”

Walking across the bridge was a surreal feeling. As Jhayla remarked in her journal, “We walked across to the Selma Bridge and all I could think about was Bloody Sunday. I couldn’t imagine the fear that they felt. I began to cry hysterically, hoping that no one could see me. My ancestors sacrificed their lives for me. Why did all of this have to happen? Equality is a right that all humans have the right to receive.”

This course provides students with a personal experience of the movement, something that cannot take place in a classroom. In addition, the professors accompanying the students on the trip are well versed in the era of the Civil Rights Movement and American history. Roy E Finkenbine, Ph.D., is a professor of History at the University of Detroit Mercy as well as the department co-chair and director of the Black Abolitionist Archives. Gregory Sumner, Ph.D. is also a professor of History, chair of the department and teaches courses on 20th-Century American politics and culture.

Professor Roy Finkenbine discusses the rise of the Black Power Movement at Broad Street Historical Park in Greenwood, Miss., where the term “Black Power” was coined during The March Against Fear in 1966.Going South

We travelled in a 15-passenger van while the professors took turns driving. The road trip was as much part of the course as anything else and gave us a chance to bond as a class. During the car ride, Finkenbine played freedom songs popular during the Civil Right Movement.

Personally, crossing over into Kentucky was a distinct moment in the trip for me because during the period of slavery in America, Ohio was a free state and Kentucky was not. As we traveled on through Kentucky and eventually through Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, I couldn’t help but notice how fearful I was. I thought of the Freedom Riders and the violence they experienced in their attempt to travel on desegregated buses. I thought, as well, about how blacks leaving the South for the first time felt during the Great Migration. Perhaps my fear was unwarranted because times have changed, but this was my first time in the South and I was uneasy.

My thoughts also connected with the Civil Rights Movement and how those involved had worked so fiercely that now, more than 50 years later, I was on a van traveling south with a group of both white and black students. This fact alone overpowered any fear I had and I was now excited to pay homage to the Movement by visiting its historical landmarks.

It was important, as part of the trip, to immerse ourselves in Southern culture. We dined together at various restaurants. Lunch and dinner gave us a chance to bond and converse with the locals including our waitress or waiter. In each city, our group stuck out like a sore thumb. “Hellos” from the locals were quickly followed by “Where y’all from?” We immersed ourselves in the culture of Memphis as well. There we visited the National Civil Rights Museum, Stax Records Museum and walked Beale Street, so important to the history of the blues.

The landmarks

The Lynching Wall at Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, includes jars of soil from the sites of known racial lynchings in the South.The first historic site on our Civil Rights Tour was Pulaski, Tenn., where the Ku Klux Klan was created in 1865. The law office where the organization was founded still exists. Most of the students were hesitant about visiting the birthplace of the Klan but felt it was necessary. The Klan wreaked havoc during the southern Civil Right Movement and was a major contributing factor to ebbs and flows of the movement. Klan members used terrorism and intimidation tactics to deter African Americans from voting and advocating for their equal rights. Members of the Ku Klux Klan were rarely punished for the violent actions and a good portion of southern law enforcement were known Klansmen.

We traveled to Montgomery, Ala., which played a central role in the Civil Rights Movement, and we traveled from one historic site to the next within the state. In Montgomery, we marched the steps of the state Capitol and imagined Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous speech advocating for equal voting rights. Days later, in Selma, we stood where activists started their five-day Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery 52 years ago. Having been in Montgomery a few days earlier, it put into perspective how far they marched and the discipline it required.

We visited serval museums, each one offering something different. On 16th Street in Birmingham, the 16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute are all located nearby one another. Finkenbine called this area “Ground Zero of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.” Each site recognized those who lost their lives during the movement. Our time in Alabama allowed us to place ourselves in the shoes of civil rights activists and ask ourselves whether we could we have done the same.

The Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery was designed by Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C.At the Ole Miss campus in Mississippi, we asked ourselves the same question as we witnessed where James Meredith integrated Ole Miss, assisted by thousands of federal troops. That Friday in Mississippi was a hard one to come to terms with because in addition to Ole Miss we visited Money, Miss., where 14-year-old Emmett Till, an African American from Chicago, was brutally murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Till’s death was a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement: We learned in the Rosa Parks Museum that she thought of Till’s brutal murder when she refused to get up from her seat on the bus.

Students remarked in their journals about the differences in how Alabama and Mississippi commemorated the Civil Rights Movement. For example, Sara wrote that in Alabama, “many major points were marked, which was a big difference in Mississippi.” In addition, Michel Van Gundy wrote he “definitely felt as though Mississippi truly was the South and it immediately made sense to me that racism had been, and may still be, rampant in the state.”

At the massive National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, we saw where Dr. Martin Luther King stood when he was shot by an assassin and the window from which James Earl Ray shot him. We were also exposed to the theories surrounding King’s death—from CIA involvement to organized crime, all alluding to the belief that Ray did not act alone—and were left to come up with our own conclusion.

While at the museum another student and I met longtime civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, the first black child to integrate an elementary school in Louisiana. Meeting Mrs. Bridges reinforced everything I learned during the trip and help me to understand what my biggest take away from the trip would be: I want to honor those who came before and fought from my freedom by doing what I can to make this world a better place.

By Stevie Jones, Class of 2017

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