Throughout this entire trip, we learned, felt, and saw quite a bit of the Civil Rights Movement, but I was most astounded by the lack of progress in some places. The South has a stereotype of being racist and not especially progressive, fortunately, many of the places we visited defied that stereotype, while others continued to fulfill it.
In Oxford, MS we visited Ole Miss, a university notorious for their racist past when a riot broke out in response to integrating the school in 1962. Fifty years later, the students protested President Obama’s re-election in November with racial slurs and I can’t help but be reminded of his first election and the tension that erupted in my high school in rural North Carolina in 2008. On the way to Ole Miss from Birmingham, we watch a documentary about the riot in 1962 and I couldn’t believe the violence and the anger of the students and the community of Oxford!! The administrators we met at Ole Miss and the narrators of the documentary noted that the riot was the last battle of the Civil War for many and that it was again a battle against the “liberal” Yankees. Although I did not grow up in the deep South, I can recognize, though not fully understand, the pride and honor many Southerns feel in their heritage. Despite its blemishes and the disunity it promotes in our country, it is vital to many Southerns that they remain loyal to the history of their ancestors. After the history that our group has been immersed in this week, I am still astonished that such injustices, like the Obama protests still occur. I was excited to hear about the measures that the University of Mississippi’s administrators were taking to hold their students accountable for their distasteful behavior and we had the privilege of meeting Dr. Cole, the Assistant Provost, who attended the school a few years after it was integrated.
However, an hour or so down the rode is Memphis, TN, home to just as much history as Oxford. In Memphis, it was incredible to finish our week at the end of MLK’s Civil Rights career at the Lorraine Motel, after we began our tour in Montgomery where he began his career. It was surreal to imagine, again, the cruelty and disrespect that many had for the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders and participants. While I was on the balcony, near the room where Dr. King was shot, I couldn’t help but wonder about how the Civil Rights struggle would have continued had he not been shot. Did his murder deter others from taking up the struggle or discourage the efforts of others? Would communities and schools still remain segregated? Would there still be more black men in prison than in universities? How would our world and our country be different?
After the Lorraine Motel, the group enjoyed some Memphis barbecue and then visited BRIDGES, a nonprofit that seeks to created a diverse group of leaders in Memphis. I found the program especially inspiring. As its name suggests, the program creates bridges within the Memphis community and its youth while encouraging them to focus on responsibility, education and sustainability. It was a great way to end a week that was spent talking about polarities.
We ended this amazing and exhausting week at Beale Street in Memphis and celebrated Nancy’s birthday!!