Detroit Mercy students experience civil rights sites on weeklong journey south – Part II

October 23, 2018

University of Detroit Mercy students and professors pose for a photo.For the second year in a row, a group of University of Detroit Mercy students studied the American civil rights movement where it happened, as history professors Roy Finkenbine and Gregory Sumner led a weeklong trip through Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi in early summer 2018. The journey was part of a “Topics in African American History” class, and instead of reading about the Edmund Pettus Bridge and Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in a textbook, participants experienced these sites — and many more — in person. They returned home from the trip having eaten more than a little barbeque and with many stories to tell. One student, Mary Kate McNally, has agreed to share her experience on this eye-opening trip. Read Part 1 of her story.

Wednesday, the fourth day of our civil rights journey, proved to be one of the most emotional. I began my journal entry for this day stating, “Today we experienced the highs and lows of human capability.”

We started our day on a joyful note, visiting the Rosa Parks Library and Museum. There, we learned about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As at the Viola Liuzzo Memorial, we were once again reminded of the power individuals held in the civil rights movement. While Rosa Parks sparked the bus boycott when she said “no” to giving up her seat to a white passenger, it was the African American community of Montgomery who made it a success. Without their willingness to carpool, pay for taxis, and walk where they needed to go for the 381 days of the boycott, they would not have succeeded in ending segregated seating on buses.

While this location left us feeling inspired, we later experienced one of the heaviest moments of the trip at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The memorial contained the names of the thousands of African Americans who had been lynched throughout the United States. One wall also contained the reasons for various lynchings, such as, “Jim Eastman was lynched in Brunswick, Tennessee, in 1887 for not allowing a white man to beat him in a fight.” Almost every student who attended the trip cited the lynching memorial as one of the most impactful moments. Surrounded by the names of the people who had lost their lives to racial violence, the stakes of the civil rights movement became strikingly clear.

On Thursday, we were once again reminded of the many lives lost in the struggle for civil rights at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. In 1963, the church was bombed, resulting in the deaths of four little girls. The girls are memorialized at the church and across the street, at Kelly Ingram Park. The park, which was once the location of several civil rights protests, is now a memorial park, filled with statues celebrating local civil rights events and figures.

After ending the day at a minor league baseball game, we continued our tour of the South in Mississippi. On the beautiful campus of Ole Miss, we learned of James Meredith’s struggle to de-segregate the University.

Saturday marked the last day of our tour. We spent the final moments of our trip tracing Martin Luther King Jr.’s last moments, at the location of his final speech and the motel where he was assassinated. It was extremely fitting that, after learning about all King did for the civil rights movement, we ended our trip honoring his death. That night, we ate our last dinner of barbeque and, in the morning, began our trip home to Detroit.

This journey was much more than just a class for me. Visiting the major civil rights locations allowed me to experience the emotions of the movement in a way I could not have in a classroom setting. This travel course is just one example of how University of Detroit Mercy goes above and beyond to give their students remarkable educational experiences. For anyone considering taking this course in the future, I cannot recommend it enough.

— By Mary Kate McNally