In our quest to visit the nation’s landmark Civil Rights battlefields, our class has walked some of America’s most hallowed ground. In Greensboro, North Carolina, we visited a statue commemorating the “A&T Four,” whose tenacity sparked the proliferation of the student-led sit-in movements of 1961. From North Carolina we traveled to Georgia, where we visited the final resting place of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose tireless crusade against injustice ensured his rightful place among the pantheon of America’s finest leaders. Our travels then brought us to Alabama, where we first journeyed to Birmingham. The site of Eugene “Bull” Connor’s vicious assault on peaceful protestors in 1963, Birmingham became the site of one of King’s most successful campaigns when unprecedented media coverage of Connor’s attack dogs and high-pressure fire hoses begun to transform the hearts and minds of American citizens.
From Birmingham, we made our way to Selma, where we traced the path of those who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge only to be met with the tear gas and bill clubs of Alabama State Troopers. Our final stop in Alabama was Montgomery, the state capitol, where Rosa Park’s quiet act of courage sparked the creation of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956 and the rise of Dr. King and the SCLC.
On Thursday we traveled to the uniquely vibrant and always entertaining New Orleans, where we toured the dilapidated Lower Ninth Ward, a largely black area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Though the city itself holds little in the way of Civil Rights memorials, our drive through the Lower Ninth Ward was an alarming reminder of the deplorable living conditions forced upon many African Americans today. After a lively tour of the French Quarter, we journeyed to Jackson, Mississippi, where our visit to the Medgar Ever’s house proved an exceptionally chilling and powerful experience. Field Secretary for the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP, Evers was assassinated in his driveway just feet away from his wife and children in 1963. From Mississippi we traveled to Tennessee, where we toured the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel and then Fisk University, one of the nation’s most prominent historically black universities, in Nashville, our final stop.
Ultimately, my experiences this past week are memories I will cherish for the rest of my life. To walk the ground tread by activists like King, John Lewis, Diane Nash and the thousands of ordinary foot soldiers for the cause was a dream come true for me. The places I’ve visited, the lessons I’ve learned, and the faces I’ve seen have lit my soul on fire. Professor DeLaney’s course has reaffirmed what I believe to be my purpose in life: to join the struggle to obtain full civil rights for all, regardless of the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation, their socioeconomic status, or their religious affiliation. This journey begins for me in the classroom in just a few short months, as I prepare to educate and mentor minority students from low-income communities in Charlotte, North Carolina, through Teach For America. I have no idea where life will take me from there, but I know it will be somewhere in pursuit of the dream of equality, to which King and so many others have dedicated themselves.
“Ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around!”
Our travels today brought us to Selma, Alabama, the site of one of the most significant battlegrounds of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Brought recently to the nation’s attention with the release of Ava DuVernay’s 2015 film Selma, this small Alabama town is one that, as a History major and Africana Studies minor, I had studied extensively before visiting. Yet after crossing the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge, I learned that to read about a place and to stand in it are two distinctly different things.
After successful campaigns in Montgomery and Birmingham, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) turned their attention to the issue of securing voting rights for black Americans, who had been systematically disenfranchised through repressive legal measures and violent intimidation in the years since Reconstruction. Selma proved to be the ideal battleground upon which to wage a campaign for full voting rights. Although organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been working tirelessly to increase voter registration of black citizens, when King arrived in Selma in January 1965, less than two percent of Selma’s black citizens were registered.
After twenty-six year old Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered by a white Alabama State Trooper in a protest in the neighboring town of Marion, Alabama, activists proposed a march from Selma to Montgomery. Because King was in Atlanta, Hosea Williams and John Lewis led a group of protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday, March 7. As the group reached the other side of the bridge, they were stopped by a group of armed Alabama State Troopers, led by Selma sheriff Jim Clark, who ordered the protesters to turn around. When the group refused to leave, the troopers pushed forward with tear gas and batons, attacking the protesters, who began to flee for their lives. National media coverage captured the events on the bridge, which has come to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” and hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country witnessed the utter horror and brutality of Southern racism.
Deeply affected by the television coverage of “Bloody Sunday,” thousands of Americans answered a call made by Dr. King, and traveled to Selma in the following days. On March 21, King finally led a march from Selma to Montgomery, with thousands of participants, both white and black, and on August 6, President Johnson signed the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. This act signified a major victory for King and the thousands of Americans who committed themselves to the cause of justice and equality.
Yet fifty years after the events in Selma, the fight led by Dr. King and others is far from finished. Recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore and North Charleston raise significant concerns about racially motivated police brutality, and there exists the sobering fact that one in three African American males will be incarcerated at least once over the course of his lifetime. If King’s lessons are to be truly applied, however, one must also address the discrimination and struggles faced by the poor, women, other racial minorities and the GBLTQ community, to name just a few. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s made significant strides towards achieving greater social justice, but there remains an incredible amount of work to be done before our nation is able to truly rise up and fulfill the creed of its promise. To borrow terminology from the movement, revolution must rage on before reconciliation can occur.
Who Says You Can’t Go Home?
Today marked the beginning of our class’s nine-day journey throughout the Deep South on a quest to explore our nation’s extraordinarily rich Civil Rights history. Our travels will take us through six different states, and more than ten unique cities as we visit some of America’s most significant Civil Rights landmarks. Leaving the parking deck at a dreadfully early 7 a.m., our group of eight (seven students and Professor Ted DeLaney) set out in our fifteen passenger van for our very first stop, Greensboro, N.C. More than any of the other places we will visit over the next eight days, Greensboro will always hold a special place in my heart, as it is my hometown.
Our stop in Greensboro was unfortunately brief, but we did take the time to visit the campus of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, the nation’s largest historically black university. Although our group enjoyed the campus’s quaint beauty and refreshingly warm weather, we focused our attention on a statue commemorating the famous “A&T Four,” a group of students who rose to national prominence during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
By January of 1960, the Civil Rights Movement had slowly begun to develop across the United States; Civil Rights organizations like CORE and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund were working tirelessly to achieve social justice, while the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and 1956 catapulted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., into the national spotlight. Yet on February 1, 1960, four exceptionally brave young black A&T students staged a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro to challenge the racial segregation of public facilities across the South. Though the Greensboro sit-in was by no means the first of its kind, its effect was perhaps unparalleled. The courage and fortitude displayed by the four men inspired droves of young students across the nation to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience as sit-ins in Southern cities everywhere began to spread like wildfire. Planned and executed entirely by students, the Greensboro sit-in was instrumental in ushering in a new wave of the movement dominated by the nation’s youth.
Though I’ve spent the entirety of my life thus far — aside from my four-year stint in wonderful Lex-Vegas of course — in Greensboro, I found my homecoming this morning filled me with a peculiar sense of both shame and pride. It is impossible to deny or ignore Greensboro’s capitulation in the perpetuation of the most egregious aspects of the Jim Crow South. Yet as I gazed up at the solemn monument of the “A&T Four,” I also felt an immense amount of pride that these four men from my hometown, no older than myself, found the courage necessary to take a stand against social injustice. Their actions are rendered all the more poignant in the context of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, where young people are protesting injustices not at all dissimilar from those fifty years ago. As our class continues our travels to Alabama and as I prepare to graduate in less than a month, I hope that I can, even in some small way, emulate the valor and tenacity of those four young men in fighting for that in which they believed.