Living History: Detroit Mercy students experience civil rights sites on journey south

July 23, 2018

For the second year in a row, a group of University of Detroit Mercy students studied the American civil rights movement where it happened, as history professors Roy Finkenbine and Gregory Sumner led a weeklong trip through Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. The journey was part of a “Topics in African American History” class, and instead of reading about the Edmund Pettus Bridge and Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in a textbook, participants experienced these sites — and many more — in person. They returned home from the trip having eaten more than a little barbeque and with many stories to tell. One student, Mary Kate McNally, has agreed to share her experience on this eye-opening trip.

Detroit Mercy students examine the site where the KKK was formed.On May 13, after saying goodbye to our families and packing up the van that we would grow well acquainted with during the weeklong trip, our group began our journey south. The first day was a travel day, as we made our way from Detroit to central Kentucky. That night we reflected in our journals on any expectations and fears we had for the trip.

In her journal, Damilola Frazier wrote, “Going into the next few days, I am nervous about visiting some of the historical sites… I am also scared going into these small towns, because growing up and visiting the south with my family, we were always told the south still wasn’t safe, and we would only visit ‘black areas’ and only go out with our family.”

Many of us shared a similar sentiment of not knowing what to expect. The following day marked another long drive, along with our first visit to a civil rights landmark. In Pulaski, Tennessee, we visited the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. The location was marked with a plaque placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy memorializing the site. In the 1990s, when the location was purchased by a new company, the owners turned the plaque to face the wall so that it could no longer be read. This move was a symbolic gesture representing the town’s disapproval of the past while still acting as a reminder of the events that occurred there.

The location was haunting, but offered only a brief glimpse of the hatred toward African Americans we would learn about during the trip.

After finishing the day with the first of many barbeque dinners, we went to bed in preparation for an eventful day in Selma, Alabama. On Wednesday we drove a short distance from the hotel and parked in front of the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge. The Edmund Pettus Bridge was the location where Bloody Sunday took place.

On Sunday March 7, 1965, a group of Selma marchers planned a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest voting rights in their district. They were stopped, however, shortly after beginning their march, at the base of the bridge, where they were met by rows of state troopers. When the marchers refused to turn around and abandon the march, the troopers advanced, beating them with clubs and spraying them with tear gas.

Walking over the bridge and imagining the fear the marchers must have felt when faced by the police made the Edmund Pettus Bridge one of the most memorable parts of the trip. One of my classmates, who does not wish to be named, wrote that the bridge was one of the most valuable experiences for her because it was at “the heart of the revolution” and “the reason why today’s generation has so much empowerment and such a strong foundation.”

Another extremely impactful site was that of the Viola Liuzzo memorial. Liuzzo was a Detroit housewife who, after hearing King’s call for people to come to Selma, participated in the final march to Montgomery. While driving back from Montgomery with an African American marcher, she was surrounded by the KKK and shot to death in her car. Her story reminded us of the role individuals played in the civil rights movement. We tend to lose sight of the power of individual people in the civil rights movement and only concentrate on the big names involved. Viola Liuzzo helped bring our focus back to the many individuals who sacrificed their safety and, in many instances, lives to forward the cause of civil rights. This remained in our minds as we continued our travels over the next couple of days.

To be continued….

— By Detroit Mercy student Mary Kate McNally