Black History Month

Tour of Civil Rights sites teaches importance of history

February is well known as Black History Month. But the month of March is important in Civil Rights history. 

One particularly poignant event happened on March 9, 1965, when the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge, in Selma, Ala., where eventually tens of thousands of people joined in. 

Sha-Lai Williams
Courtney McDermott
To have the opportunity to experience such rich history, also in the month of March, was not lost on a group of 18 UMSL students from the Pierre Laclede Honors College and the School of Social Work on a three-day alternative spring break trip offered last year. The students, from a myriad of disciplines and backgrounds, decided to use their break to learn more about the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. 

In total, we visited 10 sites on the historic National Civil Rights Trail.

The group started at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., the motel made famous when King was assassinated on its balcony in 1968. The museum provided the students with a broad overview of the entire Civil Rights movement, with a tour that allowed us to be within feet of the area on the balcony where he lost his life. Several students noted that this experience was incredible, surreal, and something that would stay with them forever. 

A firefighter in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 blasts black youths in Kelly Ingram Park with water cannons carrying 100 lbs of pressure. The incident was a turning point in the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. Photo courtesy of UMSL
We started in Kelly Ingram Park on the following day. This park was used as a staging ground for many of the marches in Birmingham, including the famous Children’s Crusades, and pays homage to the children and adults who stood up for their rights.

Just across the street is the 16th Street Baptist Church where, in September 1963, four young girls lost their lives after a bomb, placed by a member of the KKK, exploded before a church service.

It was there that we met Armond Bragg, whose family have been a part of the church for generations. Bragg explained to students that he’d dropped his younger sister off at church on his way to work on the morning of the explosion. Given that Bragg is in his 70s, it was a reminder that this movement and these events did not happen too long ago.

The door of this re-created jail cell is from the cell where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was being held in Birmingham when he wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” UMSL photo
We later visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which explores Birmingham’s legacy in the movement. The Institute houses a replica of a jail cell, complete with the actual jail cell door from where King wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” admonishing white pastors for not doing more to support the movement.

On our last day, we started in Selma, walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where a young John Lewis (now a Democratic U.S. Representative from Georgia) had his skull broken as he marched in support of voting rights on Bloody Sunday.

We had no idea that journeying to Selma would allow us to come face-to-face with individuals who had actually participated in the Civil Rights Movement. 

For example, at the Selma Interpretive Center, we had the incredible opportunity to meet Joanne Bland, one of the youngest people ever arrested in the Civil Rights Movement.

We met Sam Baker at the National Voting Rights Museum. As a young man, Baker volunteered at the march to Montgomery and participated in the last leg of the march.

These individuals demonstrate being ordinary people who took extraordinary measures asking that basic rights be extended to them.

This lectern at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., was used by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he gave his “How long, not long” speech from the steps of the state capitol. UMSL photo
Later, in Montgomery, we visited the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where King was installed as pastor at the age of 25. It was also at this church where leaders met and voted that he lead the Montgomery Bus boycott in 1955. Students were able to sit in his office and touch the same lectern he used on the Montgomery Capitol steps giving his “How Long, Not Long” speech after marching from Selma.

Our final two stops in Montgomery were the Freedom Riders Museum and the Civil Rights Memorial Center. 

We are asked all the time if the 21 hours spent on the bus and the nearly 1,500 logged miles was worth it, and the answer is a resounding YES.  In fact, on March 25, we embark on our second tour, which will be four days long, with Mississippi being added.

Knowing that UMSL students are very likely to stay in the St. Louis area upon graduation, it is our hope with these trips that students will be inspired and come back ready to engage with and improve their communities. 

– Courtney McDermott is an assistant teaching professor and Associate Director of Field Education for the School of Social Work at UMSL. Sha-Lai Williams is an associate professor in UMSL’s School of Social Work and teaches Social Work Practice and Human Behavior courses.


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