The feeling of discovery surprised Latrice Tynes, a senior in food science and human nutrition. She felt it as she stood looking at the lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, where four young black men sat in the “whites only” section 55 years ago. They ignited a sit-in movement for civil rights. She had read about it in textbooks, but being there made it feel real.
LaQueishia Cummins, a sophomore in community health, felt history come alive when she walked under the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Fifty years before, policemen attacked peaceful civil rights activists who were walking under the bridge to Montgomery. The event was later called “Bloody Sunday.” She was walking in that very spot.
History felt most real to Youyou Zhang, an international student from China and sophomore in recreation, sport and tourism, when she walked through the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. One section of the museum focused on the American civil rights movement. Another section focused on historic human rights movements across the world. As she walked through the interactive exhibits, she started to understand how civil rights had impacted her own life. She felt like she was part of the story.
Providing meaningful experiences for students is one of the main aims of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, a spring break trip that takes students on a journey through the southern United States to learn about some of the country’s most important civil rights leaders and locations. Many of the stops on the pilgrimage are related to historical events that many students may have learned about in history classes. Being there, they said, is different.
“Reading a book changes your mind,” said January Boten, an area coordinator for housing who helped plan the trip, “but this trip changes your heart.”
The trip is organized through University Housing but is largely student-driven. Tynes, Cummins, Zhang and another student, Nick Tarleton, acted as the trip planners. They had each gone on the trip before, and though the general idea is the same every year, the planners decided exactly which cities and sites the group would see. They even planned when the group stopped, what hotels they stayed in and where they ate. This year, the nine-day pilgrimage included Greensboro; Atlanta; the Alabama cities Tuskegee, Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Memphis, Tennessee.
The planners wanted to provide a transformational learning experience outside of the classroom. Each day, students visited a historic site or heard a lecture from an expert or scholar. And each night, the students gathered into groups for open discussions.
Zhang said nearly every night after the structured discussions, some students sacrificed free time to gather and talk until 2 a.m.
“People were voluntarily talking about serious issues,” she said. “Over time, more and more people joined. Everyone was open to having a safe space to engage in those conversations.”
The discussions also sparked ideas about the impact the students could have back on campus. Tynes said her group talked about the activists they were learning about. Many of them were young, and it made her feel like she could make a difference.
Zhang said even though she loved learning about the sites, her favorite part of the trip was the relationships made. The first year she went, she roomed with Cummins. As a freshman student from China, she said she didn’t know much about African-American culture, so she started peppering Cummins with all sorts of questions. They forged a friendship and learned about one another’s cultures.
“A lot of people think civil rights is just a black issue,” she said. “But civil rights issues are something we all share.”
To learn more about their trip, visit their blog: http://uoficivilrightspilgrimage.blogspot.com/.