|Students take civil rights tour for spring break|
Students from United Methodist campus ministries at Emporia (Kan.)
State University and Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., cross the
Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., site of a 1965 bloody civil rights
confrontation. UMNS photos by Reed Galin.
By Reed Galin*
April 14, 2009 | SELMA, Ala. (UMNS)
For days, it has rained on Selma.
A foreboding, punishing kind of rain has swollen the Alabama River, turning it viscous with runoff silt.
But now, finally, a brilliant late afternoon sun has scrubbed the sky clear and casts a sharp image of the old Edmund Pettus Bridge
on the milk-chocolaty water. Below the grand arched shape of the bridge
superstructure, small shadows are moving across the bridge.
Students visit the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala.
The images appear almost supernatural. Indeed, the ghostly,
floating figures seem a little spooky if you know what happened here,
and why the people casting silent dark images on muddy water have come
to Selma from very far away.
They are students affiliated with the United Methodist campus
ministry at Emporia State University, and Baker University in east
Kansas, spending spring break tracing the civil rights struggle of the
1950s and ’60s. From Atlanta, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
first became a public figure… to Central High School in Little Rock,
where forced desegregation began… and at various landmarks along the
way, the students are engrossed by countless stories of heroism and
They see where four girls were killed by a bomb at the 16th Avenue
Church in Birmingham, Ala. In Montgomery, they visit King’s home and
his Dexter Avenue Church, headquarters of the Montgomery bus boycott
that sparked the movement after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.
At the Civil Rights Memorial, students confront the fact that many
innocent victims of those years were their own age. Baker University
student Chevon Brown learns about 19-year-old Michael McDonald,
kidnapped by the Klan in Mobile, killed and left hanging from a tree.
Her eyes moisten as she tries to find a context for so much violence
“It’s not fair,” she almost wails, surrendering any pretense at a
more intellectual analysis, “to see what ordinary people went through.
We hear about Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King but, I mean, this
is the first I’ve ever heard about Michael McDonald. To see that people
gave their lives for us to just take things for granted, it’s not fair,
we owe them more than that.”
To Selma and back
By the time they get to Selma, the group has already traveled 1,500 miles from Kansas, across the South, and back. Emporia State
campus minister and tour guide Kurt Cooper organized the trip as a
means of exploring how a person’s spirituality can relate to justice
and commitment in the real world. At a highway pit stop, Cooper fuels
their borrowed church van and munches a peanut butter sandwich while
explaining how the itinerary was planned.
“It gives them the scope of territory that Freedom Riders covered, and
they’re traveling some of the same roads and hearing their stories,” he
says. Students who have chosen to make this tour with him on previous
breaks have changed their ideas about moral courage by the time they
got back to Kansas, he adds.
1954 to 1960, the Rev. Martin Luther King lived here in the Dexter
Avenue Baptist Memorial Church’s parsonage in Montgomery, Ala.
“There’s something about standing on a corner in Selma, Ala. and
walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge that’s different from reading
about it in a book. You know, pilgrimage is common to Christian
experience in some ways, this is just taking that idea and putting it
in a different context.”
The Pettus bridge -- named for a Confederate Civil War general -- is
one of the most potent monuments of the struggle and the students have
stopped here to walk in the steps of Civil Rights foot soldiers.
In March 1965, mostly African-American demonstrators set out from
Selma to Montgomery marching for voting rights. They had only reached
the far side of the bridge when set upon by Alabama State troopers and
local deputies on horseback.
It is a dark corner of American history known as Bloody Sunday, and
though the brutal forces of segregation punished the marchers that day,
the resulting images shown around the world became a tipping point and
convinced the U.S. government that institutionalized, “legally”
protected segregation could no longer be tolerated. It provoked a flood
of civil rights activists to come to the South and built critical
momentum for change.
Winning voting rights
The Kansans visit the Voting Rights Museum at the foot of the
bridge, where guide Sam Walker succinctly sums up the significance of
Bloody Sunday and the march to Montgomery, which was later resumed with
King and the protection of National Guard troops: “That march led to
the signing of the Voting Rights Act, which was signed on August 6,
1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, which led to the election of
President Barack Obama on November 4, 2008.”
Like many of the people they’ve met on the way, Walker lived the
struggle. Eleven years old in 1965, he took his place in the picket
lines. He tells the visitors he was twice arrested and “stuffed in a
12-foot-cell with 30 other people. When they came to punish protestors
they didn’t say you’re 11, you can go back home and have your lunch.
They made things miserable to try break your spirit.”
Emporia State student David Hopkins sits in the museum replica of
that jail cell and considers the inhumanity, as he describes it, that
he’s been wading in for a week.
Imagining what it would be like to be crammed in this cage for two
days with dozens of other frightened and injured people, he laughs at
the thought that he could be at the beach instead. “Yea, that’s fun,
but it only lasts while you’re there,” says Hopkins. “The impact of
what we have here is for a lifetime.”
After Selma, they continue on to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis,
Tenn., where King was assassinated. Along the way, says Emporia State
student Ashley Lee, they’ve had some conversations about contemporary
parallels, issues of the spirit and societal prejudice… gays and
lesbians in America… immigrant backlash… genocide in other parts of the
world. Lee reflects her pastor’s goals in examining her own values when
she says, “I definitely will not look at things the same after this.”
It’s not just history any more.
“They’re getting something that says ‘my faith
isn’t just practiced on Sunday mornings, that my spiritual life is
something that I take out into the world,’” Cooper says with quiet
intensity. “To know you can plant seeds in people’s lives about justice
and truth and righteousness is a really powerful thing.”
*Galin is a freelance producer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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