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," on 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 1999.
The class was A VISION of Civil Rights. It was a pilot program linking the learning experiences from a VISION (Volunteers in Service Internationally Or Nationally) 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 faculty member 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. We visited the National Civil Rights Museum 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- to 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, the children 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 interracial 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 — students trying to connect the movement of the 1950s and 1960s 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.
One 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."
Editor’s note: A VISION of Civil Rights is taught by Mike Klein ’90, M.A. ’98, of Campus Ministry each spring with a trip to Selma over spring break.
As white students, one group saw how segregation is institutionalized.
After leading a group of students to a service project in Selma, Ala., in 1995, Greg Roberts, vice president for student affairs at St. Thomas, recalls "how rewarding it was for me personally to experience the giving and the receiving that occurred among the students."
The trip had a variety of purposes. Students who built porches for houses in a small town saw eye-opening poverty as they also fixed roofs, winterized houses and built a wheelchair ramp for a disabled man. At another small town outside Selma, they worked at a senior citizen clinic serving meals to elderly people bused in from remote areas to eat their meals. In Selma itself, they built shelves, catalogued books and assisted children with their homeowrk at the Selma Youth Development Center.
"As white students, our group from St. Thomas quickly saw how segregation is institutionalized. They saw two YMCAs, one for black people and one for white. In some parts of the South, towns are divided more visibly, often across railroad tracks, into racial borders. Students saw
Being committed to social justice is a common trait among students who make service-learning trips, according to Roberts: "They are so curious about the civil rights movement, about the inequality they continue to hear about. Students are ready to focus on who people are — their challenges, trials and tribulations. They got to know black people and what motivates them to find balance in their lives. The trip led us to a greater appreciation of the human spirit. Seeing people with a very strong faith living in such adverse situations as the poverty that we encountered was a spiritual experience.
"People are people, so our students get beyond facades and address equality and opportunity," Roberts said. "Students are usually immersed in one or two tasks so it is easy for them to forget the rest of the world and focus on the needs of the people around Selma — until they stop and reflect that they can leave and the people can’t."
Do the lessons learned have a permanent effect? "I had the wonderful opportunity to see our students have this revelation about what it means to be in poverty and bring it back with them to campus, even if only for a short period," Roberts said. "Whether they all continue to practice their lives differently, I don’t know, but one thing is certain. Students who have been on trips like these don’t ever forget them. They will always see people differently now."