For most college undergraduates, the civil rights movement is the stuff of history, often crammed into one of the last chapters of their high school U.S. history textbooks.
But this month, a group of students from Dominican University got to immerse themselves in the history of the movement, travelling from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama, on to Atlanta and then Birmingham, Alabama, into Mississippi and finally to Memphis, Tennessee.
“It’s really an odyssey of the civil rights movement,” said John DeCostanza, director of University Ministry, who organized the trip and accompanied the students.
The trip was one of several “alternative spring breaks” offered by the university. While such opportunities generally involve a service project, he said, in this case, the goal was to immerse students in the civil rights movement.
The highlight came the first weekend, with the group participating in the Selma 50th Anniversary Bridge Crossing Jubilee. They joined President Barack Obama, other political leaders and thousands of others in commemorating the events of Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when state troopers attacked marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in an attempt to walk from Selma to Montgomery. The march was in response to the killing of an activist who was shot by a state trooper following a peaceful protest in Marion, Alabama.
Pictures and film of those attacks helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led another march two days after the first one, but the group turned around after being confronted on the bridge. King led another march on March 21 of that year, this one with the protection of the U.S. military and federal marshalls, reaching Montgomery four days later.
Those events were recounted in the 2014 film “Selma,” which the Dominican students watched together before the trip.
Eric Smith, a sophomore from Evanston, said he was interested in the trip because he feels like his education so far didn’t offer enough information about the civil rights movement. As an African American, he said, he thought it was important for him to learn more.
Smith said he already had learned quite a bit about the bridge-crossing.
“There was a lot more that went into it than just walking across a bridge,” he said. “There was a lot of organization and behind-the-scenes work.”
Going to a university with a diverse student population made Abbey Abraham of Elk Grove Village think about race in a new way.
“I was conscious of race,” Abraham said. “But it wasn’t until I got to Dominican that I realized race was a really big issue in the U.S. I think it’s important for me to be aware of this and to educate myself about the history.”
That history is important to understanding how race shapes American society, Abraham said.
“Race isn’t just about being a color,” she said. “For me, I’m Indian, and I’m brown, but it’s not just about being brown.”
The trip through the south was not just about Selma, DeCostanza said.
The group visited the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, historically black Tuskegee University, and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. They went to the National Center for Human and Civil Rights and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. They called on Georgia-based Sinsinawa Dominican sisters who have long been active in civil rights.
Making their way back toward Illinois, they stopped at the Stax Records studio and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, before participating in Stations of the Cross and a soup supper at Memphis Catholic church.
DeCostanza and the students who participated said they expected the tour to benefit not only those who went, but the entire Dominican University community by sharing their experiences with their fellow students.
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