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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.  

Students visit the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala.

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.

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 horror.

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 and hatred.

“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.  

From 1954 to 1960, the Rev. Martin Luther King lived here in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Memorial Church’s parsonage in Montgomery, Ala.

“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.

“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 newsdesk@umcom.org.


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