Civil Rights Trip Brought Text to Life for Students

For Codey Young, a sophomore Sociology and Philosophy double major, a spring break trip to civil rights sites in Alabama brought him back to a W.E.B. Dubois quote engraved on the Strassburger Commons near the Kaleidoscope: “Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.”

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The quote, Codey notes, “serves as an ever-important reminder. Traveling to Alabama and quite literally marching through the hallways of history etched that phrase into my mind. It made clear that we are heirs to a legacy of struggle. ” He adds that many are unaware that civil rights included addressing inadequate education systems in inner cities.

Codey, of Pottstown, Pa., was one of eight Ursinus students who made the annual trip south to immerse themselves in the African American religious experience in the 1950s and 1960s and the role played by African American churches and social political organizations that cultivated change. The trip was part of the course “African American Religious Experience,” taught by Professor Charles Rice, who is also the College chaplain. The group was limited in size as a way to foster intimate interactions, discussions and experiences, and to encourage reflection. Paulette Patton, Director of Multicultural Affairs, helped coordinate the trip and accompanied the class.

The trip focused on Alabama — other years students have visited Mississippi and other southern states – and included visits to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham. They met with civil rights leaders JD and Gwen Applings, who participated in the Children’s March, and attended a service at the 16th Street Baptist Church. In Montgomery, they toured the Tuskegee-Moton Field Tuskegee Airman Museum, Tuskegee University, the Southern Poverty Law Center Civil Rights Institute and the Rosa Parks Museum. Selma offered the National Voting Rights Museum/Slavery and Civil War Museum, the grave site of Viola Liuzzo (a white activist murdered after a Selma march) and sites of historic marches.

Students appreciated the knowledge of their tour leaders. “Our civil rights tour though the South taught us new information we only could have learned on this trip, and by that I mean our guides were personally connected to the movement and therefore could share kernels of knowledge that only a resident would know,” says Grace Buchele, a sophomore from Georgetown, Tex. “I learned that the buildings, churches, and confrontation points were smaller than the pictures in our textbooks, and the heroes we studied weren’t a single outlier, but rather an immovable army of interconnected population of different ages, races, and genders.”

Charlotte Dobson, a first-year student from Montclair, N.J., says she didn’t realize “how deep the hate ran . . . It seems that America has done all it can to erase its past and the terrible history of how white supremacy did everything possible to suppress blacks, but with the exhibits and museums that we have seen in Alabama, the people are taking their power back and making the real history known,” she says. “It is crazy to think that it was not so long ago that Jim Crow ruled the South, but being in the South really puts things into perspective.”

The real significance of the trip, says Codey Young, is that “it was an opportunity that made text come to life; a chance to engage with the untold reality of institutionalized Jim Crow racism in America. By understanding from where we have come, we cannot deny the tremendous journey that still lies ahead.”