There is a difference between reading about the Civil Rights Movement and experiencing the Civil Rights Movement. I learned that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were not the only heroes of the movement. I learned that the racial tension between whites and blacks during the 1950s and 1960s is still present today through stories of first hand experience. I was reminded that I was born with an invisible set of privileges as a white person, and even though this brings a sense of guilt to my conscious, I can take this guilt and work for equality. I was reminded that every set of privileges is not a black and white issue. There are privileges to being part of a specific social class, sex, ability, religion, or sexuality. Everything I learned or was reminded on this trip is something I could not have realized anywhere else but New Market, Tennessee, Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia.
We’ve talked a lot about what we learned on this trip as a group, but I think the hardest conversations we had as a collective was applying what we learned to the future at Lafayette and to our own futures even past collage. It is a hard conversation. First, we had to admit that Lafayette is not as diverse and people, especially privileged students, like to think the campus is. Lafayette is not diverse. So how do we fix this? Well, we talked a lot about what can be done. For example, the single-sex dorms should be equal. Kirby, Soles, and Marquis should be of equal standard structurally. Also, more students from different races, socio-economic statuses, and ethnicities need to be recruited to come to Lafayette. True, a lot of students would not feel comfortable on a campus that is predominantly white to come to Lafayette anyway. However, the more students from different races, ethnicities, and social classes that are recruited through such methods as letters and visits from Lafayette admissions, the more diverse Lafayette will be. And lastly, all buildings on campus need to be handicap accessible so students of different abilities can go to classes and their dorms without worrying how they are getting there. These are just a few suggestions we as a group came up with. One thing we stressed was that there is no reason to bring the privileged students down, but instead to bring the disadvantaged students up to the standard privileged students live at Lafayette. I think this is the most important part of change that could be and should be something that guides changes both at Lafayette and in America – everyone, regardless of race, size, sex, ability, sexuality, religion, or any other identity, should be brought up to an equal step of privilege.
We started the morning bright and early with a delicious breakfast prepared by a woman who worked at the Highlander Institute for over 30 years. After breakfast, we watched a short informational video that talked about the Highlander Institute’s involvement in raising awareness and training advocates of civil rights. It was interesting to see the progression of the institute from dealing with specifically civil rights to a wider range of issues including protection of the environment, youth leadership, and others. After our time spent at the Highlander, we drove four and a half hours to Birmingham. Upon arrival in Birmingham, we stopped at the 16th Baptist Church, which was the site of a racially-motivated bombing by the Klu Klux Klan that resulted in the deaths of four young girls. Walking into the church was overwhelming because when I think of a church, I envision a place of security and hope, but in these times black people were not safe in their churches or even their homes. Realizing that they went to sleep at night with no sense of security really brought a flood of emotion. After visiting the church, we crossed the street and visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The museum was more thought-provoking and eye-opening than I could have imagined. I really was able to emotionally connect with the situations and tried to put myself into the events and imagine what both white and black people were thinking and feeling as these events played out. One event that really affected me was pictures of boycotts that took place in what is now Kelly Ingram Park. The Birmingham police confronted demonstrators with firehoses, dogs, and mass arrests. Many of those arrested were children. There were a few pictures of children being attacked by dogs and knocked to the ground with powerful firehoses. This really affected me when I imagined the fear I would have felt five or six years ago in the situation as a kid. The fact that innocent children (and adults) were subject to arrest and violence because of their skin color is just so hard to comprehend. The courage children had to participate in boycotts and attend school despite constant danger amazed me. Even as an adult, I would have been fearful at all times as I am sure many adults were then but the fact that children had to endure these atrocities just affected me in a way I cannot fully explain. Something that really stirred me was a display of a cross that was picked up as evidence from a cross burning that took place in front of the house of an interracial couple during the 1990s. The fact that racism still results in violence measures in recent times bothered me. I often forget that civil rights is not an issue of a past but an issue that still exists today. The museum made me thankful for all the progress that has been made but it also made me aware of how much there is left to be done. This experience has motivated me to want to make a difference in some way. Although I am not sure exactly how to use these experiences to make changes, I want to begin by sharing my experiences with other people and by being more conscious of civil rights issues by reading about current events and initiatives. After a quick walk through Kelly Ingram Park, we headed back to our hotel, cooked dinner, and had reflections. The reflection was really thought-provoking and brought up issues including education systems, socioeconomic status, and race, and how different circumstances interplay to give certain people more opportunity and privilege than others. The day definitely educated us and gave us some answers, but it also brought up many more questions with no simple answers.
Well, the car ride was long we drove and drove and drove some more…I’m not sure what to expect from this trip. We have a great group. Each person has a very unique perspective. We arrived at the Highlander Institute at night. It was pitch black and I went searching for our room. Once we were all settled in, Bonnie and I searched the facilities. We discovered the main workshop and center room. I stood there in all- a circle room with rocking chairs. The lights were dim and you could feel the reverence of the room. The circle of the chairs produced energy from the past and I tried to imagine the important people who once sat in these chairs. I took a seat tried to soak up the atmosphere. We got the team together for our reflection that took place in the circle room. Each person sat there and soaked it all in. It is unbelievable how powerful the environment you are in changes your behavior. Each person was in the zone and made powerful contributions. It was empowering and I knew the trip was going to be a success.