In their own words: Students on the Civil Rights Trail
Atlanta, Georgia. Selma, Alabama. Jackson, Mississippi. Little Rock, Arkansas. Birmingham, Alabama. What happened in these cities changed our country and the world. With the help of 59 alumni and friends of VCU, 13 College of Humanities and Sciences students got the opportunity to experience 19 historically significant sites along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail in June. The experiential learning course Politics of the Civil Rights Movement offered by the Department of Political Science and taught by Alexandra Reckendorf, Ph.D., provided a combination of traditional curriculum and in-class seminars that introduced the historical background leading up to the peak years of the struggle for racial equality in America and culminated in a trip that included visits to like the Edmund Pettus Bridge and Equal Justice Initiative Museum and Memorial and 17 other sites in Alabama and Georgia. Students got a chance to learn about the civil rights movement by walking in the very shoes of its countless leaders, activists and citizens who fought for equal access to voting rights, public education and public transportation.
Student reactions to their experiences on the Civil Rights Trail
“I was extremely anxious to even go on this trip, being away from where I felt comfortable for that time length, in places that were unfamiliar, and with people whom I was unfamiliar with was way out of my comfort zone. However, when it was time to apply to go on this trip, I came to the realization that my anxiety would keep me from experiencing so many opportunities, and I also had to realize that sometimes putting myself outside of my comfort zone is a sign of growth, it is a part of adulthood. I’m so unbelievably glad that I was able to bring myself to go on this amazing trip.”
Michaela Friend, African American Studies and Political Science double major
“Being able to travel to these historical sites throughout the state of Alabama and the city of Atlanta, I was able to feel as though I was more connected to the information being presented both in the discussions we had in our group classroom settings along the way and in our independent assigned readings and reflections assignments. When we were being presented with information in the museums that we visited, the connection that I had with the information allowed for a better understanding and pushed me to become more invested in the material.”
Marc Rabourdin, Political Science major
“The walk to this building from the hotel was absolutely beautiful, but to walk from Selma must have been terrifying. I felt the same spirit on the streets of Montgomery that I did in Selma and to hear Dr. King’s words at the end of that march must have been so relieving.”
Eden Gordley, Political Science major, about The Alabama Capitol Building
“I cried out in public as I walked through and learned about our history. I knew this trip was going to be life-changing, invigorating, depressing and exhausting.”
Michael Barnes, College of Humanities and Sciences student, about the National Center for Civil & Human Rights
“When I called my mom near the end of the trip she was asking me how it was and I told her how most of what I had been learning was just reality. Living in Northern Virginia, the majority of the population is in the upper middle class, and the environment is starkly different. Living in this bubble of wealth and privilege makes it easy to misunderstand some of the root causes of racism and poverty in America, but going and seeing the raw nature of these issues—it’s something you can’t argue against. This trip was a very emotional one. I had a lot of sadness and empathy and disgust, but I also felt a lot of pride, and empowerment."
Jordan Moye, Political Science major
“One specific figure in the civil rights movement that I loved hearing more about was Harry Belafonte. Belafonte is a famous calypso singer and used his influence to help with the civil rights efforts.”
Ajana Bradshaw, African American Studies major
“When I did the sit-in simulator [at the National Center for Civil & Human Rights], I thought I knew what to expect. I thought I would be able to get through it without flinching or getting too emotional but I was completely wrong. I’m sure there were fans or something built into the headphones because when the yelling was right in my ear, I felt breath on the back of my neck—that or I was imagining things. I know that what I heard wasn’t a true representation (there were no racial slurs or profanity) but I do feel like I gained a better appreciation for what the protesters went through and understand how incredibly brave each one of them must have been."
Alex Cornbrooks, Political Science major, about the lunch counter sit-in simulator at the National Center for Civil & Human Rights
”I was interested in this course because a different way to learn. Being able to go to these historic places was such a unique experience that I will never forget. There is one thing to read about something in a textbook but it's another thing to visually see these places and the vibe in the areas. The place that you could really feel was Selma. I am not religious but walking into Brown Chapel AME church, you could feel all the history that came with that place.”
Brad Lofton, Political Science major