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Students absorb civil rights, American history in Montgomery
Students outside the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. Photos by Lucy Logan and Carl-Frederick Francois.

Students absorb civil rights, American history in Montgomery

December 23, 2019 at 2:30pm

In Montgomery, Alabama, the history of the American slave trade and the civil rights movement are stacked right on top of each other. On Dec. 20, a group of more than 50 students took a day to absorb this history through a university-led trip prior to the football team’s game in the Camellia Bowl.

The tour began at the Rosa Parks Museum, where students learned about Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and how her arrest sparked a boycott that grew into a movement.

“Growing up, you really only see the broad strokes of the narrative surrounding the bus boycott," said Japheth Kariuki-Evanks, a junior studying finance. "Actually getting to see first-hand primary sources, like the physical documents and police reports, and just seeing the events actually touched me, because they actually did it for me,”

The next stop was the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pastored for years. A member of the church welcomed each student with a hug, and then asked the group to sing with her. After a joyful rendition of “This Little Light of Mine,” students were taken downstairs and toured the office where King prepared his sermons.

After a break for barbecue, students visited the Legacy Museum, which displays the history of slavery and racism in the United States. The exhibits show how racism evolved after slavery was abolished.

“I came in with a lot of gaps in my knowledge, especially about mass incarceration," said Alex Valero, a sophomore studying psychology. "I never knew that the war on drugs was racially motivated. I thought it was just a marijuana thing, like they just didn’t want it in the streets."

At one exhibit in the museum, visitors could pick up a phone and listen to stories told by men who were wrongfully placed on death row. One of those inmates, now released, stood beside his exhibit in the museum and answered questions from students and visitors.

“For me, [this trip] has been really motivating," said Amelia Raudales, a sophomore studying international relations. "I’ve known I’ve always wanted to go into a line of work that invokes change, so to see this tangible sense of how inequality is going on is really motivating."

To close out the tour, students visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a collection of hanging steel beams that marks each county in which a known lynching occured. The memorial commemorates more than 4,000 documented lynchings in the period following the Civil War, as well as the people whose murders went undocumented.

On the way out of the memorial, a handful of students searched for one particular metal beam: the one that read, “Miami-Dade County, Florida.”

They found it. The marker bore three names: J.B. Harris, Roy Gaines and William Simmons.

“I wish Miami had some kind of civil rights site where we can all just go and really reflect, because that is what I was able to do here, just reflect,” said Kariuki-Evanks. “This is my first time here, but not my last.”

Upon completing the trip, students could claim a micro-credential in public history through the university. 

For the students, being up close with an often undertold portion of American history was powerful and personal.

“When you see it in person, it’s tangible,” Raudales said. “It’s real facts that you cannot deny.”