History With Relevance

Community college leaders journey through Mississippi and Alabama in hopes of learning how the civil rights movement will help them solve today's problems.

December 21, 2016
 
Ashley A. Smith
Tour group at Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center

In the sleepy city of Selma, Ala., about 50 community college leaders walk along a concrete sidewalk.

They stand in two lines. On their right is Water Avenue, a two-lane road, where few cars are parked and even fewer people visit the few shops and businesses.

On their left stands a two-story French colonial building that houses a career center to help the city’s residents. The facade appears haunted and dated. Generations ago the building served as a marketplace where black men, women and children were sold into servitude.

Among the group of educators, there is a sense of excitement in the air.

The sun is just beginning to set as they embark on one of the highlights of their journey -- crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

That bridge, which spans the Alabama River, is one of the historic markers of the modern civil rights movement. Named for a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan member, it’s better known as the site of Bloody Sunday, where armed police officers attacked civil rights demonstrators attempting to march on the state Capitol in Montgomery. It’s where well-known activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, who went on to become a long-serving U.S. congressman from Georgia, made the case for voting rights.

And on this particular day, 51 years later, it’s where a group of community colleges leaders honor that legacy.

“It’s a common custom in the South to do a re-enactment of the Civil War,” said Chrystal Newman, a work force coordinator at East Mississippi Community College. “To me, [this is] a re-enactment, and what a re-enactment does is it helps you to remember. This has been done. These challenges and obstacles have been moved out of the way, and it’s just to encourage you to keep on. To remember they’ve been moved, but don’t let them come back. Keep moving forward.”

Most of the group are participants in the Alabama and Mississippi Community College Policy Fellows Program, which is sponsored by the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center and Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government. The group is a mix of black and white educators, although there are more white participants than black. They vary in age, and many admit that they weren’t taught much about the movement when they were in high school or college beyond famous names like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. (See slideshow from the tour, below.)

For four days after the Thanksgiving holiday, the group, which included educators from Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York and Ohio, took a tour back through time to an era when a group of Americans were treated as inferior because of the color of their skin.

The civil rights bus tour took the educators from Jackson, Miss., where civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated, to Birmingham, Ala. -- the epicenter of the movement.

Only a few weeks removed from one of the most divisive presidential elections in American history, many of these educators and leaders hope the trip will help guide them through difficult conversations and the racial and economic issues that continue to divide their own communities.

Campus Protests

The bus tour started five years ago for members of the fellowship program to get a more in-depth look at the civil rights movement. It’s also a way for the educators, who work in colleges that enroll significant numbers of minority and low-income students, to better understand the historical backgrounds of their students.

“Mississippi has the highest African-American population in the nation, and Alabama is not that far behind,” said Tyson Elbert, coordinator and research associate at the Stennis Institute. “It’s surprising how little of our own history we know, so to relate better with a considerable portion of our student body at our institutions, we try to connect the history to modern things like Black Lives Matter or why is there Concerned Student 1950 at [the University of] Missouri.”

In the last year, student protests of the police shootings of unarmed black men and women or connected to the presidential election have roiled many four-year institutions across the country. Little of that tension has been seen, or at least reported, within the community college realm.

Singing on the Tour

Group sings in front of Medgar Evers’s home.

Singing with Freedom Summer participant Hollis Watkins.

But two-year students are just as interested in these issues as their peers at four-year colleges, said Norman Sessions, a vice president at Hinds Community College in Mississippi, a tour participant.

“Students are very knowledgeable of what’s happening now, and they have studied the past,” he said. “We need to make sure our community college students are involved in that discussion in moving forward and they are aware, because in today’s political climate, the more knowledge you have about past history makes you understand what’s going on now.”

In the Community

One of the first revelations of the tour happens outside the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Selma.

The church was one of the main gathering places for Southern Christian Leadership Conference meetings and the starting point for the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

A bust of Martin Luther King Jr. stands atop a stone carving that carries names of people who died protesting for voting rights. Across the street from the church, in the George Washington Carver neighborhood, is a large public housing project where children can be seen playing.

Latitia McCane, dean of instructional services at Bishop State Community College, which is located in Mobile, Ala., separates from the group to talk to a few kids walking past the church. Eventually, she gives them a hug.

“I asked them had they ever been on a [civil rights] tour or read the information that’s right there in their back door, and they said no,” McCane said. “They’ve never done it. They’ve never been exposed to it.”

As the group travels through the two states, McCane reflects that many of the neighborhoods they’re visiting are distressed. Both Mississippi and Alabama have some of the lowest levels of degree attainment in the country. In 2014, about 36.7 percent of people in Alabama had an associate degree or higher, while that rate stood at 36.4 percent for Mississippi, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Nationally, 45.3 percent of Americans have an associate degree or higher, and in some states like Colorado the rate is much higher, at 54.2 percent.

“We as community college leaders have to make sure that the community in community college is in the community,” she said. “We have to be in the community and expose young people to higher education, because if they can’t read the [historical] marker that’s in their back door, then they’re definitely not being exposed to all the wonderful things that they could be exposed to.”

Active Citizenship

Along the tour, the group is accompanied by some of the civil rights movement’s active participants. They’re often called the “foot soldiers” of the movement. Roscoe Jones Sr. is one of the foot soldiers. Jones was a 17-year-old activist in Mississippi during the movement and participated in the Selma to Montgomery march. He would later become one of the first black students to integrate Meridian Junior College, now known as Meridian Community College.

But Jones also stands as a reminder to the group of educators that the movement was driven by young people, often children and students.

Newman, the East Mississippi Community College administrator, said she was struck by how young many of the activists were.

“They were fighting for basic human rights: to be respected, to be listened to, to receive some compassion,” she said. “They weren't asking for anything special … When I’m working with a young person, I want to remember to listen to them, give them respect and show them compassion.”

Along each stop of the bus tour -- outside Medgar Evers’s home, where he was assassinated; visiting the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute; or the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center -- the group of educators was confronted with a racist and bigoted history that in many ways continues today.

During this past election season, when nooses, swastikas and racist speech spread across college campuses, it has been hard not to notice the rise of hate crimes and white nationalism, said Laura Dziorny, chief of staff for the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy in Boston, and a tour participant.

LaWanda Herron, who directs the associate degree nursing programs at Mississippi's Holmes Community College, said many of the racist incidents from the past -- like the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that claimed the lives of four little girls -- are no different than modern-day terrorist acts such as the Sept. 11 attacks or those carried out by extremist groups like ISIS.

“When you can put a bomb at the steps of a church, that’s terrorism,” she said. “You don’t care who is hit. You don’t even know who you hate. You just want to do the most damage and instill fear.”

Sitting together at a dinner in Montgomery, most of the educators reach the same conclusion -- that they have to do more than teach technical skills or get more people into the work force.

“If we want to concern ourselves with being a good citizen, then the junior college needs to start teaching that when these kids come into their curriculum,” Jones said. “All kids aren’t going to be four-year college students, or engineers or doctors or lawyers … but they can be good citizens, and we forget about that concept.”

And one of the best places for them to figure out how to be good citizens could be on college campuses, where they’re confronted and challenged by different people with different views.

“You can have your MSNBC and I can have my Fox News and I don’t have to consider your opinion,” said Steve Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama. “We live in the South, where we have a largely white Republican Party and a mostly black Democratic Party … Sunday is the most segregated day of the week. So your community colleges may be the biggest spaces in your regions where people of diversity come together to talk about community needs, and therefore your advance networking, leadership and advocacy skills could not be more important.”

Bridge Builders

It’s one of the last stops of the tour -- through the Alabama State Capitol -- where the group receives a welcome surprise from an unexpected speaker.

The sidewalk in front of the state Capitol has no marker to commemorate one of King’s most famous speeches, “How Long, Not Long,” which was given to 25,000 people. The state’s infamous governor at the time, George Wallace, banned King from speaking on the Capitol property.

The building does, in many ways, stand as a relic to the Confederacy. A young man and woman, who just happen to tour the Capitol at the same time as the educators, stop to take a photo of the six-pointed star on the steps of the Capitol immortalizing where the Confederate President Jefferson Davis gave his inaugural address.

There’s the Confederate Memorial Monument on the Capitol grounds and the former First White House of the Confederacy across the street. Within view of the Capitol is also the historic Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church -- the first and only church King would lead.

But during the tour, most of the group, who have already seen the effects of Jim Crow-era legislation, aren’t particularly interested in the Capitol itself. They’re more interested in its docent -- Aroine Irby.

By happenstance, Irby has been assigned to give the educators the full tour, but once they learn the retired Air Force colonel was a marcher on the Pettus Bridge during Bloody Sunday, they’re eager to hear his story.

“We were very young and we wanted change,” said Irby, who also serves on the Alabama Historical Commission. “When we looked down and saw them, it never fazed me. We had already prayed, and whatever it was, it was God’s will.”

So was he scared, one of the educators asked.

“No, I wasn’t,” Irby replied, who was then a 19-year-old sophomore studying elementary education at Alabama State University. “I was not ready to die, but I was prepared to give my life that day. I left home prepared to give my life.”

But Irby also makes a point of explaining that Wallace asked for forgiveness for what happened in Alabama during the movement. And he accepts that forgiveness -- Irby eventually served as one of the state’s foreign ambassadors during Wallace’s last eight years in office, and he later served as a pallbearer at Wallace’s funeral.

“We cannot live and be successful in life with hate in our life,” he said. “There is a hereafter. Governor George C. Wallace and I are going to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge again singing and praising his name. Free at last. It’s going to happen.”

“Each of you will make meaning in your own way,” Katsinas said, adding that Americans, in general, need to have a better understanding of the country’s history, and how they go back to their colleges and use that understanding will be important. “Will you know how to connect to all the communities you serve to help so that way you can pull them together to build economic and community development over time? There’s your challenge: to be bridge builders … We have to respect one another and we have to love one another and we have to treat our fellow people as we ourselves want to be treated and we have to have the courage of our convictions to strive and never yield.”

Dziorny, of the Rennie Center in Boston, said she wants to take on that challenge. She’s hoping to start a similar civil rights tour through the Massachusetts fellowship program that focuses on racism and school bussing issues that dominated Boston in the 1970s.

“This trip has left me more committed to activism in my community and thinking about how I can stand with those seeking modern-day civil rights issues,” she said. “So much of what we heard and saw stemmed from ignorance and fear of others, and I’m committed coming out of this trip to developing my understanding in order to help break down those barriers.”

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