Local view: UMD students on spring break slapped in face by stories of hate, violence, brutality
Thirty-three of us crammed into a motor coach and took off for Nashville, Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, Jackson, Holmes County and Memphis. We were a group of University of Minnesota Duluth students, faculty, staff and community members time-traveling back 50 years on our 2017 spring break. Every day we were slapped in the face with stories of hate, violence and brutality. But we also were uplifted by accounts of incredible courage.
Jackson, Miss., made a huge impression.
"When we drove up to the Medgar Evers house, my stomach flipped," UMD freshman Mealat Worku said. "This was the real house. It wasn't a museum; it was a real home."
In front of us was the driveway where Medgar Evers, a civil-rights activist, was gunned down by a segregationist.
"I saw the bullet hole from the high-powered rifle," said sophomore Jack Mageto. "There was something about the killer using a weapon that could kill a rhino that really got to me. It's even more shocking because Medgar Evers was a guy who was willing to give his life for his country during World War II, but when he came home, he had to fight again for the right to vote, to drink water from a drinking fountain and sit at a lunch counter."
Most powerful were the people we met — real people who lived and fought for civil rights through the '60s.
Sam Walker was 11 when he was jailed with his 16-year-old brother. Their crime? Gathering before the Selma-to-Montgomery march. When we met with him, Sam shared little-known accounts.
"When he told us about the civil-rights effort in Selma, I was surprised to hear that whites only allowed blacks to register to vote on the first and third Monday of every month," sophomore Ashe Dube said. "When people arrived (those days), the whites locked the doors."
A serendipitous meeting in the Nashville Library archives introduced us to Billie Alexander Phillips, whose father was part of the historic lunch-counter sit-ins organized by Diane Nash. In front of the Holmes County Courthouse, Zelpha Montgomery Whatley regaled us with the story of her school-teacher mother who took on a county registrar's challenge and recited the entire Constitution of the United States in order to become a registered voter.
Sophomore Mike Kenyana was affected by the Holmes County, Miss., visit.
"This community fought for their constitutional right to vote and helped get the first African-American elected to the Mississippi Legislature," he said. "They reminded me that you don't need some extravagant story like the ones of MLK or Rosa Parks in order to have played a game-changing role in the movement."
We learned that songs were a force. Hollis Watkins, a founding member of SNCC, or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was jailed numerous times. Once he was bound and forced to stand upright for days. Hollis, recognized by the Smithsonian for his music, found strength in songs, especially freedom songs.
"Singing gave people joy and honesty," Hollis told us. "It was a way to lift people's spirits and provide a sense of comfort."
Hollis sang the Phil Ochs song, "The Ballad of Medgar Evers," after we finished the tour of the Medgar Evers home.
Mealat remembered the moment this way: "We lined up for a picture and then we all huddled in to hear Hollis as he gave us life advice. He was gentle and peaceful, and then he softly sang to us."
Through song and personal stories, our group experienced the force and intent of the Civil Rights Movement. Senior Kau Guannu's thoughts were shared by all: "Although we have so much more to do in this fight toward equity, I am hopeful because I believe our generation has the capability to be the torch bearers and galvanizers like the leaders of the past, to keep this movement moving forward."
Cheryl Reitan is associate director of University Marketing and Public Relations at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
The 33 University of Minnesota Duluth students, faculty, staff and community members who spent spring break this year learning more about the Civil Rights Movement will give performances based on their trip:
- Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. in the Harbor City International School Theater, 332 W. Michigan St., Suite 300
- Tuesday at 6:30 pm in the AICHO Trepanier Hall, 212 W. Second St.
- Monday at 11 a.m. in Kirby Rafters at UMD
Pictures and more from the trip are posted at civilrights17.wordpress.com.