Day 1 – Civil Rights Tour of the South
I’m not quite as profound as that title might suggest, so I’ll share right now that it is a quote from Dr. Bernard Lafayette. The civil rights activist spoke to us at the end of the first day of our trip. While I wish we had some more time to expand our discussion, it was an engaging, important conversation. But more on that in a minute, first I need to catch you up to that point in our day.
A group of 25 students from Ritenour and University City High School, assorted teachers and parents woke up early (and I mean early for kids and teachers in the summer; the bus pulled off at 6:30) and trudged onto a bus for a trip they hoped would be life-changing. It was a long ride as we traversed our longest path; a 515 mile trek from St. Louis to Birmingham. As we approached the city, a few of the students did some quick presentations based on some materials that the company had given us on the Freedom Rides and SNCC. We then watched a video about the Children’s March.
As we finally finished our 9 hour road trip, we pulled up to the Birmingham Civil Rights museum, which is located directly across the street from 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelley-Ingram Park. It was an odd experience just pulling up to the site. We were driving through downtown Birmingham, which doesn’t look all that different from other downtown cities, and then all of a sudden, there it was. I had seen pictures in history books, but right in the middle of the downtown cityscape stood a church where a horrific bombing took place that helped shape the narrative of the Civil Rights movement.
Although we couldn’t go in to the church, we got to tour the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, which was an amazing experience. The museum had a ton of artifacts, and addressed not just the civil rights experience in Birmingham, but also some other human rights issues in the US and abroad. I watched students, teachers, and parents fervently reading placards, taking photos and sharing conversations.
One moment in particular stuck out to me in the museum. I’ve been to civil rights exhibits at other museums, and have been to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis twice (I’m eagerly awaiting my third trip on Monday). I’m sure I have seen something like this before, but the site of it just made me physically angry and I had to calm myself down a bit after looking at it. The museum had obtained a Ku Klux Klan hood, robe, and burnt cross from an incident in the early 1990s. Maybe it was its placement in the museum, the gravity of the reality of hate, or the fact that it was such a recent event, but it shook me and reminded me of why I believe it is so important to be taking a diverse group of student leaders on this trip.
After we exited the museum, we were met by Dr. Lafayette and Charles Alphin, the father of our tour leader. Dr. Lafayette and Alphin explained some of the background of the Birmingham movement, and then we walked to the park where only a few hours earlier we had seen video of children and adults getting fire hoses and attack dogs turned on them. The park is well kept up with some fantastic sculptures that do not intend to sugar coat the events of the Birmingham movement in any way.
After a walk around the park, it was on to our hotel for the night, where we got an hour and a half to listen to Dr. Lafayette speak about his role in the civil rights movement and his continuing efforts to teach non-violence.
Some elements of the conversation that stood out to me:
- My headlining quote – Everyone needs to have a motto. What are you living for? – He was adamant about this point, challenging all people in the room to have a plan, and not just let things happen to them.
- When asked about how he felt about the country seemingly shifting back to the divisive attitude that he fought to get rid of, he said to think of the actions as a circle, rather than going back and forth. We are currently just on the other side of the circle, and eventually we will go back. Things can always get better.
- You have to fight fear – Dr. Lafayette has been arrested multiple times in pursuit of equality and freedom. He found out after the fact that he was a target for assassination the same night as Medgar Evers. However, he said you just have to keep finding a way to look fear in the eye and keep going forward with what you believe.
- It will take young leaders to truly make change – This is why we are here on this trip. I am truly proud and honored to be here with a group of students that takes this so seriously, and who want to be change agents.