• UST volunteers visit Selma, Ala., to study civil rights

    By Mike Klein, volunteer services coordinator

    An exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis contains a sign that reads, “Selma, Our Nation’s Disgrace.” It refers to “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, when peaceful demonstrators were attacked by Alabama state troopers on a march from Selma to Montgomery. Bloody Sunday — and a successful march a few days later — were the culmination of the voting rights movement in Selma, Ala. It was this moment in history that brought a St. Thomas summer class to Selma for a week in June.

    The class was JPST 490, A VISION of Civil Rights. It was a pilot program linking the learning experiences from a VISION service trip to academic study of the Civil Rights Movement. The first three weeks of the course followed the chronology of the movement, from the Montgomery bus boycott, through sit-ins and school desegregation, to voting rights efforts. The class examined primary source documents, watched video accounts of protests, listened to Marv Davidov (a Freedom Rider in 1961), and studied the social change methods employed by leaders of the movement.

    During the fourth week of our course, the class traveled to Selma to work with the Selma Youth Development Center. On the way we visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and drove through the cities and states we had been learning about for weeks. Once in Selma, we were struck by how little had changed since the mid-1960s. Mayor Smitherman is still the mayor, Broadway still bisects the town into black and white, and the public high school is all black; white parents sent their kids to private school after a black superintendent was appointed in 1991.

    Perhaps most disturbing were the stories told by the 8-14 year-olds we worked with. We would read with them in the morning, and lead recreational activities in the afternoon. Some of the children had never been outside of their Selma neighborhood so we took them swimming and canoeing at a state park. When we suggested a hike in the woods, they were terrified and finally explained that they thought “the Klan would get them.” Whether or not the Ku Klux Klan was active in Dallas County, they perceived a very real threat based on their identity as African-Americans.

    For all of the struggles in Selma today, we also saw hope in an inter-racial prayer luncheon, a mixed-race school board, and the work of the Youth Development Center. On our way home, the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham set the context for our last three weeks of class; trying to connect the movement of the 1950s and ’60s with the present, local situation in the Twin Cities. In addition to readings and research, a panel of speakers described education, housing, and employment as civil rights issues in our own community.

    Student remarked on the course by saying, “The class made me think and analyze more than I ever imagined. Service-learning is by far the most effective way to learn. It made the movement seem very real and closer to home. I learned so much from the kids about things that are going on today.”

    The class, JPST 490, is tentatively scheduled for spring semester 2000 with a trip to Selma over spring break. If you are interested in enrolling in the spring course, or have any other questions, please contact Mike Klein at (96)2-6578 or mcklein@stthomas.edu.

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