UW-La Crosse students trace the path of Martin Luther King Jr.
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UW-La Crosse students trace the path of Martin Luther King Jr.

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Learning from a Freedom Rider

While in Atlanta, students heard from Freedom Rider Charles Person, center front. Those from UW-L include, front, from left, Mercedes Szabelski, Person and Alex Jeske. Back row, from left, Breckin Sargeant, Richard Breaux, Jaiya Edwards, Mya Salinas, Karch Cvancara and Brittany Williams.

The trip took them to Atlanta, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, Selma, Gulfport, New Orleans, Jackson, Little Rock and Memphis.

They visited these sites and more where major events happened during the civil rights movement in the ’60s — decades before the students in the group were born.

Eight UW-La Crosse students joined others from UW-Eau Claire in January to experience firsthand the events that transpired in the tumultuous South at that time.

“The trip really brings the civil rights movement to life,” says Richard M. Breaux, UW-L associate professor of ethnic and racial studies. “Students had the opportunity to hear from and meet veterans of the civil rights movement during our stops in Atlanta, Tuscaloosa and Selma.”

One of those veterans was Charles Person, the youngest of the first group of Freedom Riders in 1961. Students also experienced Selma with activist Joanne Bland, a participant in Bloody Sunday and the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March.

UW-L students also headed to Jackson State University in Mississippi, sight of the 1970 shootings where state and local police killed two African American students just weeks after Kent State. They attended a church service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. was pastor and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. served as co-pastor.

Remembering a tragedy

Students also headed to Jackson State University in Mississippi where in 1970 two African American students were shot by state and local police.

The group also experienced Whitney Plantation outside New Orleans. The grounds are extraordinary because they are one of the first plantation museums in the southern U.S. that tells the story of the plantation and slavery from the perspective of those enslaved on the plantation until 1865.

“Students come back from the trip transformed and with a greater appreciation of the many well-known and lesser-known women and men who challenged white supremacy and racism during this critical moment in our nation’s history,” Breaux says. Many of the activists in the movement were the same age of current students when they risked their lives protesting for rights.

“Different students take away different messages, information and knowledge from the trip,” Breaux said. “Some are surprised to see that some southern whites continue to fight against civil and equal rights to this day.”

Selma suffered and continues to live in the aftermath of middle-class white flight, Breaux says.

“Many of the Civil Rights activists still bear the physical scars of being beaten by police, state troopers and pro-segregationist whites,” he said. “Some students are emotionally overwhelmed by the entire experience and others vow to become more politically active by the trip’s end.”

The pilgrimage promoted two pillars of the university’s Sustaining Excellence strategic plan. The program included advancing transformational education by providing high-impact teaching and learning opportunities proven to aid student success across diverse backgrounds. It also aligned with helping students achieve excellence through equity and diversity.

UW-L’s involvement in the Civil Rights Pilgrimage began in 2017 as an on-campus collaboration between Residence Life and the Office of Multicultural Student Services.

Breaux plans to continue promoting the Civil Rights Pilgrimage among UW-L students. He also has plans for a northern Civil Rights and Underground Railroad course and trip.

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