by Coleen Dee Berry

Even more so than the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge, one city street in Selma, Ala., came to symbolize the legacy of racism to a group of Wilson College students.

Associate Professor of Religion David True led five students on a January-Term travel seminar tracing the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The trip focused on Selma, where images of “Bloody Sunday”—a brutal clash between club-wielding police and peaceful civil rights marchers on the Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965—were captured on television and horrified American viewers.

But it was Broad Street in Selma that evoked a more present outrage for the Wilson students. Members of the nonprofit Something New Foundation, which helped sponsor Wilson’s trip, took the group on a city tour. “What struck me most was this one street, Broad Street, which divided the town racially between the poor black side and the affluent white side,” said Patty Hall ’18. “That divide is still there today. Just being able to see that, not just read it in a book, but to actually drive down the street and see it, was very powerful.” 

The students were told that black residents once were required to obtain a permit to cross the street to the white side of town. Even though segregation that egregious is now in the past, Broad Street laid bare the glaring racial divide that still exists today, the students said .  

“It was such a stark difference between white and black, you could clearly see where the poverty line was drawn; it was right there on that street,” said Charles Meck ’18. “On the black side, buildings were falling in on themselves. There were burnt-out buildings just crumbling. On the white side, the landscaping was exquisite and houses were beautiful.”

“Before I went down there, I didn’t really realize how prevalent racism is in our society,” said Cassandra Watkins ’17. “And it’s not just down South. You come back here and you start noticing things that you never noticed before—if someone uses a term or makes a joke, you really pick up on it a lot more.”

The trip’s focus was King’s impact on events that unfolded in Selma and other areas of the South during the civil rights movement, True said. After the Bloody Sunday attack on protestors, King organized both a symbolic march across the Pettus Bridge and then led more than 3,000 protestors in a historic Selma-to-Montgomery march to highlight voting rights abuses.

The trip offered students the opportunity to visit churches where King spoke and to understand the role religion played in King’s activism, True said.  “I think it was really valuable, going to the churches and attending worship services there. It helped me to understand how the black church was really a political and cultural force that helped propel the civil rights movement,” Hall said.

The students took a course in non-violent protest training and met with James Webb, who was a teenager when he participated in the historic Selma marches. As a volunteer service component, the group worked with Something New to help tutor pupils at a local elementary school. They also visited Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., and spent time in Atlanta, Ga., at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights—where they experienced the museum’s lunch counter simulation.

The simulation is designed to immerse visitors in the real-life experience of young, black college students who attempted to sit at a segregated lunch counter. “You sit on a stool, put your hands on the counter and shut your eyes. You can hear everyone yelling at you, really loud and nasty, and your stool bangs around like people are hitting or kicking you. I don’t know how the people who actually did this were able to employ the methods of non-violence,” Hall said. “Because you just want to cry,” added Watkins. “I had to keep telling myself it wasn’t real.”

True, who grew up in Birmingham, said he was inspired by King, whom he described as a beacon for justice. “In some small way, this course and this trip was my offering to MLK and my attempt to pay homage to the civil rights movement,” True said. He noted that several of the students had never been taught the details of the Selma protests. “We have to be on guard against cultural amnesia,” he said. “The antidote to that is getting the students out into the field and getting them immersed in the experience.”

All five of his students said the trip changed their perceptions. “Just because the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed (in the 1960s) doesn't mean underlying issues went away,” said Marissa Rankin ’19. “Racism still exists, and it has been difficult adjusting back to my 'former life' of not knowing. I went on this trip and it opened my eyes.”

Published: May 12, 2016