Jill Eisenberg (left) and Kellie Clark
In the heat of the summer, 10 people squeezed into an 11-seat van and headed for the deep South for a new course on the history of the civil rights movement.
Among the eight students aboard, Kellie Clark, ’10, and Jill Eisenberg, ’09, kept journals of the 19-day trip. Clark is from Waldorf, Md., and Eisenberg is from suburban Boston. Their class was taught by Brian Daugherity, an adjunct history instructor, and Melissa Ooten, assistant director of the Women Involved in Living and Learning Program—along with dozens of activists, scholars and strangers they encountered throughout the journey.
The experience transformed Clark and Eisenberg, who share highlights from their journals in the following story.
The class visits Robert Russa Moton School, an all-black school where students went on strike in 1951 to demand better facilities. Their struggle became one of five lawsuits the U.S. Supreme Court considered in Brown v. Board of Education.
Eisenberg: It all started with Barbara Johns, a 16-year-old student. A student! What she and the other students overcame is unbelievable. I feel lazy. Stories like this make me wonder about my own abilities and those of my generation.
Clark: I cannot believe how courageous those students were. They truly wanted a better education. Had they not endured those struggles, I would not be a student at a predominantly white university. We meet Edward Barrum, who was a young boy when Prince Edward County closed its schools to defy the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. It is rewarding to know that segregation did not break his spirit. I believe his ability to turn negative experiences into positive ones is a valuable lesson.
The class tours Knoxville College, a historically black institution.
Clark: We are given a tour by Dr. Cynthia Flemmings, who graduated from Knoxville College in the late 1960s. Dr. Flemmings says every black student should attend a historically black college. She believes the unity of being the majority creates a sense of pride and confidence that is like no other. I agree that the experience is unique, but I also believe that people can gain the same level of pride and confidence in their race by attending other universities.
The students conduct research at the Nashville Public Library.
Clark: The library is amazing! I am finding lots of information on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Selma to Montgomery marches. There is so much information in these books. I don’t want to let them go.
Eisenberg: I am watching a documentary about the Nashville sit-ins. As I see African-American students being harassed, tormented and attacked, I am tempted to turn away, but I don’t want to deny what happened. I feel uncomfortable, angry and helpless. I am struck by the students’ discipline. They don’t fight back when cigarette ashes are rubbed in their hair. They don’t scream when they are pulled off their seats and kicked. Part of me wants them to fight back because it seems faster and easier, but I know their non-resistance was more effective in the long run. I am in awe of such resolve, dignity and courage.
The class tours the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
Eisenberg: The museum brings the movement alive with individual faces and voices. I am heartened to see visitors from all backgrounds—college students, retired couples, African-Americans, Asians, Caucasians, men, women and children.
Clark: Standing in the exact spot where Dr. King was murdered, waves of emotion pour over me. I am sad to know that the man who dedicated his life to fighting for equal rights was gunned down in cold blood. Looking across the street to where James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot is a little frightening, but the most uneasy feeling is standing in the place where the shot was fired. How was James Earl Ray able to point that gun and pull that trigger?
Clark discovers a photo of her cousin (child on left) with Dr. Martin Luther King.
Seeing how blacks fought for their rights makes me proud of my race. The thing that gives me the most pride is a quote in the museum from my own blood cousin, Sheyann Webb, who participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches. “I felt real good at the last march,” she said. “It was like we had overcome. We had reached the point we were fighting for. I asked my mother and father for my birthday present to become registered voters.” Knowing that a relative of mine had a quote enshrined in this museum will stay with me forever.
The students conduct additional research at the University of Mississippi.
Clark: Being in Mississippi feels a little weird. It was the site of the most brutal attacks on blacks. This is the state where white men killed 14-year-old Emmett Till because he whistled at a white woman. I am worried that there still may be some racial tension here.
Eisenberg: The more I learn on this trip, the more I realize how ignorant I am about this time in American history. Although I studied the civil rights movement in school, this trip is correcting misconceptions and clarifying vague impressions.
The group visits the grave of Fannie Lou Hamer, a black sharecropper who was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” She championed voters’ rights.
Eisenberg: I had never heard of Fannie Lou Hamer until this trip, but she has captured my imagination. People think that a few prominent men led the civil rights movement, but there were many women like Fannie Lou Hamer who made a big difference. I expected to see a neglected grave marker in an overgrown field, but we find six men clearing the way for a larger memorial. This is a wonderful contrast to the many neglected civil rights sites we have seen.
Clark: At the grave, we are surprised to meet Charles McLauren, Fannie Lou Hamer’s campaign manager. It is surreal to be speaking with a man we were just reading about in our textbook.
The students notice clear divides between black and white sides of Mississippi towns.
Eisenberg: Until now, I didn’t really understand that railroad tracks physically divide towns. I am especially outraged by the schools. The overwhelming majority of students in poor public schools are African-American, and the vast majority of students in rich private schools are white. Talk about defying Brown v. Board of Education! How is this possible when the civil rights movement happened 40 years ago? It breaks my heart to know that young people still bear the brunt of neglect, greed, hate, ignorance and selfishness.
Clark: It’s not that blacks and whites are not allowed on either side of town, but we see major disparities, especially in the schools. On the black side of town, we notice some expensive cars—Cadillacs, Escalades, even a Hummer. Life in Mississippi seems very different than anyplace I have lived. I keep wondering, “What do the people who live here do?”
The students visit the abandoned store where Emmett Till whistled at a white woman.
Clark: The storefront is barely standing. The top and some of the sides have collapsed, and weeds and grass are growing throughout it. I’m surprised that nothing has been done to preserve this place. There isn’t a sign or anything.
I don’t understand how people can blatantly beat someone, especially when the person is not fighting back. This is how I feel about all the mistreatment that took place during the movement. I feel deep sympathy for Emmett Till’s family, who had to see his brutally murdered body.
The class encounters the devastation from Hurricane Katrina in the Ninth Ward.
Clark: This is unbelievable! In some cases, only the cement foundations are left. In other cases, houses were lifted from their foundations and turned on their sides. Seeing the damage first-hand creates an even greater motivation for me to help.
Eisenberg: At our hotel’s front desk, I see prices for plantation tours, riverboat tours and Katrina tours. Tours? That word just doesn’t seem right, but I lack a better word. I am disgusted by the commercialization and exploitation of the Katrina disaster.
The students explore the French Quarter and soak up New Orleans culture.
Eisenberg: I had a hard time seeing how the Katrina “tour” and the Mississippi Delta trip related to the civil rights movement, but I now understand how they fit together. The problems that persist for the majority of African-Americans are the same issues that were raised in the 1950s and 1960s. Economic empowerment, political representation and social recognition remain elusive.
The group visits the Voting Rights Museum.
Clark: I have been looking forward to coming here the entire trip because I have family roots in Selma. Several of my family members participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches.
The Voting Rights Museum is very helpful for my project. I find a lot of good information and photographs from the marches. At dinner, we run into my cousin, Sheyann, who is scheduled to meet with us tomorrow in Montgomery.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led protesters on a march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala.
The class visits Brown Chapel Church in Selma and the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery.
Clark: A lot of my family members, including my father, have worshipped in Brown Chapel Church. This is where the mass meetings took place to plan the marches. In Montgomery, we see my cousin again, and she shares her story. One day, on her way to school, she noticed a gathering of people outside the church. She stopped to see what was going on and heard that Dr. King was coming. She had no idea who he was, but she could sense—at age 6—that something big was about to happen. She had many conversations with Dr. King and Jonathan Daniels, a white activist in the movement who was murdered in 1965.
Five students attend services at 16th Street Baptist Church, where four black girls were killed by a bomb in 1963.
Clark: We arrive early and meet a 60-year-old homeless man who gives us a tour of the area. Listening to him is so interesting. He hangs out in the park and gives tours all day. It just makes me wonder what will happen when all the people who were alive during the civil rights movement die. Their stories will only be remembered through family members and history books, which is not the same.
The church service is OK. I guess I expected more from it because of the church’s history.
Eisenberg: At the church service, the reverend is so dynamic, animated and fervent. I am surprised by how responsive the congregation is. I now have a better understanding of how Dr. King and other civil rights leaders became such inspirational speakers and leaders.
The class visits the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.
Clark: We see the house where Dr. King grew up, the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached and the grave where his body lies. I was in awe. His childhood home gave him a clear view of the poor and middle class families on opposite ends of the street. When I walk into the church, I hear his voice. Day 17 – Charleston, S.C.
The class visits the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston.
Eisenberg: Our speaker describes the mood of the entire nation during the civil rights movement as “the South is anything below Canada.” I think this is true because there was just as much violence, resistance and bloodshed in the North. This is completely different from what I was told in my Massachusetts public school. I was taught that the North was the “good guy” in the Civil War, while the South was the “bad guy,” and the South was racist, while the North was tolerant. All those prior notions and earlier knowledge are half-truths, oversimplifications and ignorance … even denial.
The group visits the Woolworth’s where four North Carolina A&T students staged a lunch counter sit-in.
Clark: This says a lot to me. Those four freshmen stood up for their rights by sitting down. We learn that the Woolworth’s soon will become the International Civil Rights Museum. We meet the director of the project, who allows us to go inside even though the building is under construction. It is unbelievable to sit in the chairs that those four students sat in.
The class returns to Richmond and has one final group discussion.
Eisenberg: This has been one of the most rewarding courses I have ever taken. Classes like this one make the University of Richmond unique, innovative, provocative and unforgettable. This course changed how I perceive the world. It is a great foundation for activism. Maybe this is what I need to jolt me out of my generation’s indifference.
Clark: I gained much more from this trip than I had expected. It will stick with me forever. I am very grateful that the actions of those individuals have given me the ability to gain a quality education. Although people still face some of the same problems, there is greater awareness that all people deserve equal rights. As more generations become educated, I hope we will move closer to equality for all.
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