The power of history, seen up close

A tour of civil rights sites prompts students to rethink their assumptions

A class of some 40 teenagers with bookbags and notebooks sit along the driveway and lawn of an unremarkable 1950s suburban tract house in Jackson, Miss. Deep in thought, some look off into the distance, while others have their eyes closed. One by one, they start writing.

What they compose will not be graded by a teacher or read before a class; it is for themselves. The topic - "What do courage and sacrifice mean to you?" - relates directly to where they're sitting, the spot where civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered in 1963.

The students are touring the South to learn more about both the history of the civil rights movement and their own views on key events. For one week, the teens, who hail from both California and New York, travel by bus to historical sites, share rooms, hear from activists, and explore civil rights issues. The idea is to delve more profoundly into an era that can seem remote - and to put a human face on history.

"When you read about it in a book, it's someone's opinion about what happened, and you don't know if it's true," says Nancy Aguilar of San Francisco. "But when you learn it through the eyes and words of people who lived through it, there's no question."

The group is traveling with Sojourn to the Past, a nonprofit organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some pay their own way; others are supported by scholarships. Sojourn takes students (and interested adults) to Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham in Alabama; Jackson; Little Rock, Ark.; and Memphis, Tenn. Jeff Steinberg, a Bay Area history teacher, founded Sojourn several years ago after taking a trip across the South early in his career.

"It changed my life as a teacher. I thought, 'People don't get it; they don't understand compassion, forgiveness, nonviolence,' " Steinberg recounts. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be amazing to take kids to these places, teach the lessons there, and meet people to reinforce the lessons?' "

Mr. Steinberg sees what he does as more than teaching living history. "This is not a tour. This is a journey of the soul," he says. "As we're learning about these incredible people, we're learning about ourselves. This is a process. Somewhere down the road, the people they've met, the lessons they've learned, you can't help but be a changed person."

For that to happen, he insists, participants must know the history. Classes are held on the bus between destinations and at hotels. Steinberg is serious about homework. Students must write questions and letters to movement veterans who speak to the group, like Democratic Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, and hand in their assignments before breakfast to be included in the day's activities.

Before visiting architect Maya Lin's civil rights memorial in Montgomery, students studied one of the lesser-known people named on the monument and wrote about how that person impressed them. The memorial had a powerful emotional effect on the students; many wept as they touched the names engraved in marble beneath flowing water.

Olga Kariakin, a junior from Ida B. Wells High School in San Francisco, was moved to tell a group of students visiting the memorial from a local school: "Don't take what you have for granted. People sacrificed their lives so we could have freedom."

Olga has a cafe au lait complexion that comes from her white father and black mother. Early in the trip, she explained she was not accepted by white or black children. "I hear things like, 'I don't do mutts' and 'I'll stick to my own.' I came on this trip because I want a better understanding of myself and where I came from."

For Scott Drexel, a junior at Junipero Serra High in San Mateo, Calif., that greater self-awareness came a different way. Growing up in an affluent, predominantly white suburb, he'd only known kids like himself. He thought his mother sent him on the trip to learn about the civil rights movement - till he met the black and Latino students.

"I realized she wanted me to go because I'm different [from the inner-city kids] and the only way I'd learn is to be with you," he told his fellow travelers on the final day of the trip.

Sharing a demanding trip with strangers was a lesson in itself. "It's ... awesome. You have a sense of community - these people are like my brothers and sisters," says Gema Navarro, a senior at Sequoia High in Redwood City, Calif.

The experience that had the greatest impact on Gema came unexpectedly. Jim Clark, the notorious former sheriff of Selma, happened to be having lunch at the same restaurant as the students one day. When she actually saw the man who had assaulted people trying to register to vote in 1965, "all the lessons I had been reading about crystallized. Here was a man, not just a picture on TV. I was forced to confront the anger I felt, and I realized my faith was strong enough and I could live up to my belief in nonviolence."

Karen Wells, a junior from suburban San Francisco, also found "a renewed strength in my own faith as a Christian." One of the central tenets of Christianity, and a principle of nonviolence, is forgiveness. It's a lesson several students took to heart. In Birmingham, the sojourners met Chris McNair. His 11-year-old daughter, Denise, was killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963 - for which a former Klansman was tried and convicted just this month. Mr. McNair told students he can forgive those who killed her, as to be consumed with hate would make him the same as the perpetrators.

They heard the same message from Vernon Dahmer, whose father was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. This struck a chord with Nancy, whose upbeat mood concealed her own family's clash with urban crime: "I learned I have to forgive the people who killed my father. I don't even know who they are, but I've been carrying this knot of hatred around inside me, and I know it's not right."

Olga feels she's a different person after the trip. "I need to take my education more seriously," she says. "I would skip school to work, so I could get money to buy clothes. Now I value the chance I have to get an education. People have sacrificed so I can, and I'm going to be more serious about it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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