Tour of South Brings Civil Rights Struggle to Life:
Experiential Learning at Antioch University Seattle
“One of the many memorable moments of the Civil Rights Tour was sitting in the kitchen of Dr. King’s parsonage in Montgomery, Alabama, where—at a late night moment, in the midst of the Montgomery bus boycott—his fear to be obedient to his calling was lost and his courage to empower people to move toward justice was embodied.”
– Marjon Heru, BA Completion student, Antioch University Seattle
Those moments, when history comes alive, shifts you, and settles in you, are the shared experiences of a group of seven students from Antioch University Seattle as part of coursework in Social Justice in the BA completion program.
Led by retired BA core faculty, Dr. Mary Lou Finley, in collaboration with Dr. Bernard LaFayette, civil rights pioneer and Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University, the tour visited key sites for the civil rights movement. Immersed in these stories,” commented Finley, “we understood at a deep level that the struggle for social justice is indeed a struggle. In those days, in those places, there was suffering and brilliance, pain and courage, heartbreak and determination. Those brave people of Alabama—accompanied by allies from around the country, did indeed shepherd in a new era in American history, taking us giant steps closer to a just society.”
““We were the victims of state-supported terrorism” stated Georgette Norman, the director of the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery Alabama. “You are in Alabama; remember that this is hallowed ground. The modern day movement for global democracy grew from this place.”
Beginning with a multimedia dramatization at the Rosa Parks museum, the group relived that pivotal moment when Parks refused to give up her seat, a moment that led to the Montgomery bus boycott. From there, Dr. Lafayette introduced the group to Reverend Robert Graetz, whose family was threatened for their support of the boycott — on more than one occasion they found dynamite outside their home.
The group visited the King house which was bombed while his wife Coretta and young baby Yolanda sat in the back. That day, Dr. King quieted the upset crowd who had come to defend him after the incident. In that moment, he made a personal commitment to nonviolence.
On the way to Selma they stopped at a new roadside memorial, mounted by the women of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, for Viola Liuzzo, the white Detroit housewife murdered in her car as she drove marchers back to Selma.
“When you are actually, emotionally, and physically there, you can feel the energy of it. It was like walking in the footsteps of my ancestors toward freedom.”
–BA Completion student, Tesya Harris.
The tour continued to a key site that began the struggle for voting rights in the South: Edmund Pettus Bridge where activist John Lewis, who now represents Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives, was badly beaten. The students and faculty walked silently across that bridge, two by two, in memory of those who were beaten and humiliated just for a chance to register to vote.
Gees Bend, Alabama
“They were independent,” Dr. LaFayette said of the community in Gees Bend, “and they were willing.”
A special trip outside of Selma brought forward stories seldom told. To find people ready to clear all the obstacles to register to vote, Dr. LaFayette traveled to Wilcox County and came across the isolated and impoverished community of Gees Bend. The community was unique as one of the New Deal programs of the 1930s paved the way for them to own their own land.
However, in order to gain the right to vote, Alabama citizens had to answer questions about the state constitution, a tactic used to prevent poorly-educated people from registering. The Gees Bend community prepared, answered the questions, and gained their right to register to vote. Buoyed by the success of these farmers, people in Selma marched to their courthouse to register, leading to the confrontations that ultimately saw the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which outlawed voter registration tests.
You may know Gees Bend by the community’s quilts. A civil rights worker visiting Gees Bend admired the quilts made by the local women and encouraged them to show and sell them. No longer just a practical solution in a community of limited resources, the quilts soon were sold in high-end department stores in New York, even represented on postage stamps. AUS tour participants met the artists, listened to them sing, and visited their quilt shop.
Here, in Kelly Ingram Park, the students visited the memorial to thousands of young people who faced police dogs and high-power fire hoses as well as the 16th Street Baptist Church where a bomb killed four young girls as they prepared to sing in their choir, only two weeks after the historic March on Washington.
Dr. Bernard LaFayette
Dr. LaFayette played a central role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1960, LaFayette co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He led lunch counter sit-ins and freedom rides, organized for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, and supported the open housing campaign led by Dr. King. In 1968, King named him the National Coordinator for the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. . He is an ordained minister, having received his theological degree from the American Baptist Seminary in Nashville; he received his M.Ed. and Ed.D.from Harvard University.
His commitment to the practice of Kingian nonviolence lives on today. He regularly conducts nonviolence training in the US and abroad. In the last few years, his work took him to war-torn Nigeria where he trained militant leaders in the practice of nonviolence so they would lay down their arms and train their troops in new ways to manage conflict. Areas where Dr. Lafayette has trained in nonviolent practices have seen a significant reduction in violence.
Antioch University Seattle’s Experiential Learning Advantage
“I wish we all had an opportunity to travel this trail, so that we as a nation, will never make these mistakes against any people again!” – AUS student Dedre Parker”
The intersection of Antioch University Seattle Social Justice classes and Dr. LaFayette came about as a result of Antioch faculty member Mary Lou Finley who was on staff in King’s Chicago Project in the mid-1960s. There, she worked with Dr. LaFayette in the end the slums and open housing campaigns. Finley continues to teach and research Kingian nonviolence and is editing a book on the long-term impact of King’s work in Chicago with Dr. LaFayette and other civil rights leaders.
“I believe that it’s important for those of us interested in social justice issues today, to learn from earlier struggles in our history.” Finley continues: “These are inspirational stories that can guide us in our own work. Much can be learned from the strategies that were tested before and the profound demonstration of commitment, against all odds, that it took to succeed.”