Detroit Mercy students journey south to experience civil rights sites

This donated window adorns the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four little girls were killed in a Ku Klux Klan bombing in 1963.
This donated window adorns the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four little girls were killed in a Ku Klux Klan bombing in 1963.

For the third year in a row, a group of University of Detroit Mercy students studied the American civil rights movement and joined history professor Roy Finkenbine on a weeklong trip through Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. The journey was part of a “Topics in African American History” class that offers students a chance to experience these and other historical sites in person. This year, student Bethany J. Howard agreed to share her experience on this eye-opening trip. You can read about previous trips here and here.

On April 28, 2019, three black women and three white men, all students at University of Detroit Mercy, got on a bus to head south with African-American history guru and Detroit Mercy Professor Roy Finkenbine, who happens to be white. His wife, Barbara, an adjunct professor at the University, came along, as did museum connoisseur and Detroit Mercy Professor Dan Kroupa.

Seems like an unlikely bunch, but it was this group that went on an eight-day trip to discover the Civil Rights Movement live and in the flesh. Traveling with an integrated group such as this, paired with what we experienced on the trip, will live with us throughout our lives. This Civil Rights Movement course trip has made it even more evident that race relations are possible, if we seek to be understanding and choose to acknowledge our differences.

At the beginning, sitting on a 15-passenger bus with people you are only familiar with from an evening class seems overwhelming. However, as we began to break the ice and focus on the tasks at hand, we realized that a road trip like this would have been breaking all the social norms in the Jim Crow South. This trip allowed us to open our minds and attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of courageous people. My classmate, Mitchell Robinson said, “It had a huge impact on me by introducing me to the history of the Civil Rights Movement from a first-person perspective and how African-Americans have suffered throughout history due to racism.”

Finkenbine encouraged us to document our reflections in a trip journal to capture feelings and thoughts as we traveled through parts of the South that were heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement.

Documenting my thoughts and feelings was especially immersive because I had a connection to each state we travelled to. Seeing the landmarks involved in the Civil Rights Movement was an eye-opener. My classmates and I gained so much understanding about where we were and appreciated the fact that we could stand in the places that we all read about in class. I am grateful that I was able to attend this trip and the opportunity it afforded me to experience history, literally step by step.

Arriving in Tennessee was a blessing because we crossed the Ohio River and that signified that we were in the South. So many people who looked like me couldn’t take this trip comfortably. I acknowledged the fear that a person who looked like me would have experienced on a trip such as this. It was then that I realized that this trip would also make an impact on my life.

The educational adventures and activities begin on April 29, when we arrived in Pulaski, Tenn., to visit the Ku Klux Klan’s birthplace. We can’t really talk about civil rights without speaking on white supremacy and this terrorist group. They were adamant about keeping black people inferior. To be in a town where the KKK got its start was eye-opening because I would have never been able to stand there during Jim Crow times. However, standing in that town also showed me that there is still so much work to do to bring equality and equity as well. We continued our travels into Sweet Home Alabama where blacks dared to defend their rights. When defending your rights means oppressing a people just because of the tone of their skin, horrible measures like lynching take place.

Our visit to the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery vividly showed us the unnecessary reasons why a black man or women would be criminalized and murdered. The memorial was probably the most overwhelming experience for me on the trip. To see the names of black men and women who were lynched, some known and some unknown, broke my heart and gave me and my classmates time to really think about the men and women who had to live through this terrible era. I never put too much thought into the lynching deaths of people until I literally saw the dirt from the lynching sites and the heights of the steel columns with the lynched individuals’ names.

We continued in Montgomery and visited the Rosa Parks Museum, Dexter Avenue Church and Parsonage, and the Alabama State Capitol. These places, as well as the pivotal moments that allow the brick and mortar to continue educating the masses constantly, emphasized the sense of unity and resistance to dehumanization black people experienced. The stories in Montgomery will forever live on due in large part to Wanda, a lovely person who gave a guided tour of the church. Everyone reading this should try to enroll in the class just to meet Wanda at Dexter Avenue Church for the support and encouragement that you need to get through the year.

Frank Holloway, a freedom rider, said it best: “Nonviolence wasn’t necessarily a way of life, but it was a tactic.” I know now that it takes a lot of courage to be weak. This tactic has catapulted black people into areas where they didn’t think they would be. At this point, the theme of the trip and the Civil Rights movement was nonviolence. I appreciate the people who chose this method and the carefree life that I can choose to live because of it.

Visiting yet another church, we understood how spirituality and faith were also the cornerstones of the Civil Rights Movement. Student Krystal Adams Macon said, “I’m reminded why spirituality is so important in everyday life. Because when tragedy strikes, we need our faith in God to be strong. We have to work on it every day. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us in all truth and keep us strong.” In Birmingham, Ala. at the 16th Street Baptist Church where those four little girls were killed in a Ku Klux Klan bombing, I am almost positive that everyone was praying and relying on their faith to get them through the tough times brought on by white supremacy and oppression. My maternal grandmother grew up in Birmingham and I wish I knew about the things that she may have experienced while she lived there.

Selma, Ala., was another connection. My paternal grandfather was born there. My sentiments were the same as I felt walking through Birmingham. I wondered about my grandfather’s experience. My classmates and I were very excited to walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge because of Bloody Sunday and the March to Montgomery. Robinson stated, “Crossing the bridge was cool and I put myself in the shoes of the marchers and tried to imagine myself with them the moment they faced the troopers who brutally attacked them. It really gave me a different perspective by walking across the bridge because I got to observe and was able to imagine myself in their situation.”

“They walked all these miles for me!” student Felicia Safford exclaimed.

I felt the same way my classmates did walking over that bridge and looking at the river below.  As I walked in Selma, the culmination of the experiences reiterated the affirmations in my life. I want to feel the palpable spirit of courage, love and nonviolence that walked through and over the same streets that I got the chance to walk on. I am excited to know that there is no way that I can or will ever feel like a second-class citizen, even when a racist attempts to make me one.

There was one more connection in Greenwood, Miss. My paternal grandmother was born there.  Just like the other towns where my other grandparents were born, I thought about her as well.  We visited Broad Street Park and I wondered if it was a park when she was a kid or if she had ever walked on the park grounds. I was in awe of being in a place where the Black Power speech was given by Stokely Carmichael. I imagined a people finally accepting themselves after being told that they were nothing and made to feel inadequate, but then accepting that they have power and are beautiful. I wonder if any of the homeowners in the community experienced the Black Power speech. Broad Street Park is a nice place to be and I began to think about what happened during the speech all that time ago.

My paternal great-grandfather was also born in Mississippi and he warned his family never to return. Being in Mississippi was surreal. It just felt odd, even with no threat of racism or terror. It had been engrained in my spirit that this place was Hell on Earth. Viewing Bryant’s Grocery Store where Emmett Till’s life would ultimately spark the Civil Rights Movement was eerie. I felt like I could see him and his cousins playing and running into the store and being happy. The Sumner Courthouse in the little town—it was unbelievable to stand in that place where history had taken place. We also visited Ole Miss and I am thinking of looking into grad programs there because of the stride that James Meredith made, literally and figuratively.

I believe that wrapping up in Memphis, Tenn., was the best way to end our trip. It was a great day at Stax Museum, The Lorraine Hotel and Beale Street. In a journal entry, Adams Macon wrote, “I expect to feel anger, hurt, amusement, amazement and pride by the time this trip is over.”

That sums it up for me.  Anger and hurt because of the way black people were dehumanized and psychologically battered and, unfortunately, still are treated as less-than today. Amusement while listening to all the great music that accompanied the times and sharing stories with professors and classmates. Amazement while understanding the strength and power that it takes to be a forgiving people and the courage it takes to truly practice nonviolence. Pride because we get to reap the benefits of all the people like Mamie Till, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, James Lawson, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks and of course, Martin Luther King, Jr., just to name a few of the many who fought for equality and freedom.

There were so many more movers and shakers who made each place historically important and spiritually powerful today. I will always be grateful for the experience.

Dr. Finkenbine and The Dylenski Fund, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart. This trip has been a life-changer for me and I am sure that it had the same affect of my tripmates. You will always be allies.

Felicia Safford wrote in her journal, “After going on this trip, it really did complete the course. I understood everything and a clearer picture was created for me. I’m really happy that Detroit Mercy decided to create a course like this.”

Safford also summed up her experience when she said, “This experience makes me proud to be a Detroit Mercy student and an African-American.”

I know exactly what she means and as a recent graduate, I feel that the trip was an appropriate send-off for me. Even now, I recall the times where I would leap out of that passenger bus and admire the history that was placed in front of me; it will forever be etched in my mind. I am planning a trip for my family, so they can experience what I experienced. I am going to carry this information on and pass it down for generations to come. That is a great feeling!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Stay in the know

Subscribe below to receive a weekly update of Detroit Mercy alumni stories!

%d bloggers like this: