On the road and seeking connections to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his teachings, Pam Zappardino was confronted with a reminder of this country's violent and prejudiced past: the 1,400-year-old Angel Oak Tree outside Charleston, S.C.
"There was a time in our country's history when that tree was used for lynching," said Zappardino, a McDaniel College instructor who helped lead a group of students, professors, ministers and musicians on a tour of civil rights landmarks in the South last week. "Some of the African-American students are trying to come to grips that not that many years ago they might have been killed that way."
"There was something utterly horrible about that moment -- and incredibly uplifting in that the tree has survived being used for that purpose."
The journey to the site was part of the third annual Historical Civil Rights Tour sponsored by the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island and the Ira and Mary Zepp Center for Nonviolence and Peace Education at McDaniel College.
On past tours, the group has visited the Mississippi State Penitentiary, where civil rights activists were jailed, and the bridge outside Selma, Ala., where marchers on their way to Montgomery, Ala., were severely beaten for refusing to disperse.
Zappardino and her husband, Charles Collyer, who teach courses on nonviolent social justice movements at McDaniel, took a group of 21 to civil rights landmarks such as the Highlander Center in Tennessee, where King spoke out for civil rights, and Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he was pastor.
They each paid $464 plus travel costs to and from Nashville, Tenn. Beginning Wednesday, they traveled through Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia. The tour was to end today.
The tour's highlights were the weekend events at the King Center in Atlanta, where they were to celebrate the holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader and hear a speech from his widow, Coretta Scott King.
They take to heart King's message of nonviolence as they meet people who walked with him and see places where he learned to develop his skills as an organizer for social change.
"What Dr. King was able to do was to illustrate to people they had options in the way they dealt with problems," Zappardino said. "He showed us there's a way to deal with issues that wouldn't destroy your soul."
She said embracing nonviolent means of resolving conflicts helped civil rights activists who lived with a history of violence -- such as the lynchings at the Angel Oak -- to continue their mission without getting mired in bitterness and anger.
On the island where the tree stands, there are memorials to the citizenship schools that taught reading and writing to African-Americans.
Zappardino said she and a few of the others on the trip stayed up until 3 a.m. talking about it.
"It made them realize you can survive no matter what anybody else does to you," she said.
One of the students, Mahlia Joyce, found motivation to explore more of the past because of the experience.
"Aside from the fact that it's been emotionally charging and uplifting, it's given me an opportunity to strengthen my conviction to learn about my personal history," said Joyce, 30. "It's different to read it in a textbook and then to actually be here, see it, talk to the people."
A Spanish and religious studies double major, the Westminster native finds that the spiritual aspect of the tour is what fascinates her -- how religion has played a part in this social justice movement.
She was interviewed by telephone from the basement of First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., which was built by slaves more than 225 years ago and is considered the oldest continuing African-American congregation. She had to go. Soon, they had to hop back on the bus and head out to Atlanta.
Though the pace was hectic, Joyce said that something the tour guide said stuck with her.
"In the movement you had to keep moving," Joyce said. "It's not about being static."