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Civil rights pilgrimage: Progress evident, disparities remain

At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., University of Minnesota Duluth student Deisha Rodriguez and East High School student Rowell Ramsey sit at a replica of the Woolworth’s counter that was the scene of sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
The dome of the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson, Miss. (Submitted photo) 2 / 2

I did not know what I was entering into as I walked up those stairs onto the large white charter bus. All I could think of was the 24-hour drive, the agonizing butt cramps and the lack of sleep. And as we drove south, the billboards, the people we met in truck stops and restaurants and our discussions made me realize we were leaving our comfort zone.

Eventually we reached our first stop: Biloxi, Miss. Here we visited the last home of the only president of the Confederacy. In a country with great nationalism, the museum displayed some of the proudest nationalists. The Sons of Confederate veterans proudly displayed the Confederate flag and sold numerous books about the many accomplishments of Jefferson Davis. Although we were informed in great detail of the Davis family, the tour guide did not give us the name of the slave who ran the sawmill on the property and who helped build the grand home.

As we continued our journey, we stopped in a small town, Durant, Miss. Here we visited an elementary, middle and high school — all in one building. As road trips go, I had to really, really use the restroom after we arrived at the school. When I found one, it was unlike any restroom I saw on the trip; it lacked hand soap, paper towels and toilet paper — basic necessities every school should have. The auditorium was filled with old, cracked wooden seats. A fourth of the chairs were unusable because the seats were broken off.

This was one of the poorest schools in the poorest county in our poorest state.

On our way out of town, we passed the local prison. It had what seemed to be new, top-of-the-line fences and a nicely painted building. The prison was in mint condition. The priorities were clear.

At our last stop, Memphis, Tenn., we visited the National Civil Rights Museum, formerly the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated. The museum was full of the historical moments of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. One of the last exhibits was a recording of MLK’s last speech given the day before his death: “I see the Promised Land.” Dr. King spoke about being on the mountaintop. “I’ve seen the Promised Land,” he said. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”

The Promised Land is a place of equality and social justice. It is true MLK did not get there, but neither have we. We live in a place where imprisonment is funded instead of a child’s education. It’s a place where, due to someone’s skin color, they are less likely to get hired for a good-

paying job and more likely to spend a lifetime in prison. This is a place where a great division and segregation still exists. This is the truth, and it does not matter if you live in Duluth or Jackson, Miss.

At the end of our journey, I recognized the progress we have made — but also the many disparities that still exist.

Tamara Smith is a UMD graduate student in the Master of Social Work program.