Southern civil rights tour a living lesson for students

January 10, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

THIS MAY be learning about the civil rights era the hard way, but with students from the Park School and Baltimore City College, what else would you expect?

Nicole Love and Jaree Colbert wanted more than just textbook knowledge about the civil rights movement. Starting Jan. 18, they'll get it -- with a six-day tour of six Southern cities that will include visits to two museums, four universities, three churches, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Southern Poverty Law Center. And most of the trip will be in a van rented for Love and her eight Park schoolmates, Colbert and her seven City College cohorts and four faculty members: three from Park and one from Baltimore's best high school ever.

The primer for the trip started last night with a "civil rights tour movie marathon." All 17 students gathered at Park to watch Eyes on the Prize, 4 Little Girls, Get on the Bus and Mississippi Burning -- although the last bit of fantasy can safely be removed from any list of movies about the civil rights era. But you get the idea: Folks mean well here. All the students met Georgia Rep. John Lewis -- the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader who was viciously beaten during civil rights protests -- in October.

Love is a 17-year-old senior at Park, Colbert is a 16-year-old City College junior. Both said they were tired of hearing about the same people when civil rights were covered in the classroom: Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, with maybe scattered references to Malcolm X or Medgar Evers thrown in.

"I went on a trip similar to this one in the ninth grade," Love said yesterday. "It ignited a passion for me about African-American issues -- our history, our culture. It's a difference from textbook learning. It's a chance to gain more information about the civil rights movement we don't get in the classroom. It's also a chance to connect with other students, and with the past."

Colbert, besides wanting more than the textbook version of historical events, seconded Love's motion about meeting new students. Colbert learned about the trip after the deadline when she found out several friends were going.

"This isn't fair," Colbert recalled protesting. "Why can't I go?" Colbert started attending organizational meetings for the trip -- "I kind of invited myself," she said -- until she got a "you can" answer.

Love learned of the trip through Traci Wright, the coordinator of community and student services at Park, who said Carol Kinne, one of her colleagues at Park, proposed the idea about three summers ago.

Wright and Kinne made a preliminary driving tour -- which included the grueling trip between Atlanta and Baltimore -- before soliciting a partnership with City College and raising money from the Meyerhoff Family Foundation, the Morton and Jane Blaustein Foundation and the Baltimore City College Alumni Association, which was added to money raised by students and faculty at both schools.

The students will mostly cover the same itinerary -- minus the drive from Baltimore to Atlanta. Instead, the group will fly to Atlanta on Jan. 18.

The next day, they'll tour Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthplace and his gravesite; the King Center; Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was pastor; and Spelman and Morehouse colleges.

Then they'll hop in a van and head to Birmingham, Ala., to tour the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The 16th Street Baptist Church -- the scene of the horrific bombing that killed four girls Sept. 15, 1963 -- and Freedom Park are also stops on the tour.

From Birmingham, the tourists will head to Memphis, Tenn. They will visit what, in 1968, was the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated April 4 that year. The motel was converted into the National Civil Rights Museum. That will take the group through Jan. 21.

The next day, they will visit Talladega University in Talladega, Ala.

On Friday, Jan. 23, the students will travel to Montgomery, Ala., where they will visit the Rosa Parks Library and Museum; the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where King first became a pastor and led the Montgomery bus boycott; the Southern Poverty Law Center; and the Greyhound bus station where Freedom Riders were attacked in 1961.

The day will conclude with a visit to Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala., and the trip will end the next day when the group drives back to Atlanta.

If you're wondering why the students don't just hop on a bus to duplicate the Freedom Rides, Wright said that idea was considered and dismissed -- and rightly so.

Can the Freedom Rides really be duplicated? It's good enough that 17 students will get a living history of the movement. For the moment, that should suffice, because what Wright said is sadly true.

"So many students," Wright lamented, "have such little knowledge about the period."

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