Students Explore History of Civil Rights

  • Five students next to an MLK quotation status
    The Pitt contingent stands in the Charles M. Sherrod Civil Rights Park at the Albany Civil Rights Institute, in Albany, Georgia. The fountain commemorates the heroes of the movement. From left, Jonathan Richards, resident director with Pitt’s Office of Student Affairs, with Shawn Jackson (A&S '17), Sienna Xu (EDUC '17G), Tyler Hendricks (A&S '17) and psychology and neuroscience major Ngozi Obidike.
  • Status of men recognized for their sit-in
    The tour stopped at the February One Monument on the campus of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. The bronze statue honors David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. and Joseph McNeil, four students who helped to launch the national sit-in movement to protest segregation at lunch counters.
  • Group of six smiling at camera
    Juanita Abernathy, wife of civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy, shares her experiences of participating in the movement. The Pitt student group gathers with her at Georgia State University in Atlanta. From left, Tyler Hendricks (A&S '17), Shawn Jackson (A&S '17), Sienna Xu (EDUC '17G), Abernathy, Pitt Resident Director Jonathan Richards and psychology and neuroscience major Ngozi Obidike.
  • Neon sign that reads "Ebenezer Baptist Church"
    The group visited Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. and his father, Martin L. King Sr., served as pastors.
  • Bus displayed at a museum
    An exhibition at the Albany Civil Rights Institute in Albany, Georgia, shows a replica of a 1960s bus station entrance, which highlights the effect of segregation and Jim Crow laws in America.
  • Five students looking down the Edmund Pettus Bridge
    The Pitt group holds hands before crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The bridge is the site of one of the movement’s most violent confrontations, which took place on March 7, 1965, a day that became known as Bloody Sunday. It was here that voting rights marchers were attacked by law enforcement personnel on horses. Nearly five months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
  • Statue with four girls releasing birds
    In Birmingham, Alabama, Kelly Ingram Park is a memorial to the four little girls who died in the bomb attack at 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. It also pays homage to the Children’s March in Birmingham, where the young people were met by a police force equipped with riot gear and attack dogs, and firefighters armed with fire hoses to blast the youth participating in the march. A thousand children — some as young as 6 — were arrested.
  • Memorial for Emmett Till
    A panel at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, commemorates Emmett Till, 14, whose death in 1955 became a rallying point in the civil rights movement.
  • Museum display of Otis Redding memorabilia
    An exhibition spotlights the career of singer Otis Redding at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, in Memphis, Tennessee.
  • The balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot
    The tour made a stop at the Lorraine Motel, where visitors can view the balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
  • Man in a TSU shirt speaking to a crowd
    Kwame Lillard, one of the original Freedom Riders, gives a tour of downtown Nashville, Tennessee, where the protest organizing took place. The Freedom Riders were black and white citizens who rode public buses in the South to register voters and advocate for integration.
  • Plaque commemorating the first golf course opened to African Americans
    The final stop of the tour was Clearview Golf Club in Canton, Ohio. It is the first and only golf course in the United States designed, built and owned by an African American, according to the Professional Golfers’ Association of America. William J. Powell built this golf course in 1946 so that anyone who wanted to enjoy the game of golf had a place to go regardless of race or gender. Today, the club is operated by his daughter Renee Powell, who was one of the first black female professionals on the golf tour.

A 50-seat bus, nine days under the summer sun and four University of Pittsburgh students made for one enlightening journey to important sites of the civil rights movement.

For the second year, Pitt participated in the “Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights,” a 2,300-mile journey, mostly through the South, stopping at churches, lunch counters and museums where history was made. Visits were arranged so that travelers could speak with participants of some of America's most famous civil rights marches and protests.

Shawn Jackson, a 2017 Pitt graduate who majored in computer science and economics, said the trip helped him to get a closer look at how African-Americans responded to segregation and discrimination and helped to transform society during a critical portion of U.S. history.

“I learned that the African-American people are a sophisticated, powerful, motivated and persistent people,” he said. “I learned that against most of the horrific evils that were perpetrated against them in American history, they used love, theological beliefs and values and iron will to overcome.”

The tour left from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and made its first stop in Greensboro, North Carolina, the site of lunch-counter sit-ins. Other stops included Birmingham, Alabama; Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; and Atlanta. The journey ended in Canton, Ohio, at Clearview Golf Club, which, according to the Professional Golfers’ Association of America, remains the only golf course owned, designed and built by an African-American.

Getting the students on this bus is a way to be intentional about learning of diverse experiences and exposing students to knowledge of how many different cultures shaped our nation.

Jonathan Richards, adviser for the trip

The tour also allowed the one returning Pitt undergraduate student in the group to earn credit in Pitt’s nationally recognized Outside the Classroom Curriculum (OCC). OCC is an optional, nonacademic course of experiences, programs and events that promotes student development and experiential learning in 10 goal areas

“This is like a classroom on the road,” said Steve Anderson, associate dean and director of the Office of Residence Life at Pitt, whose office helped to connect the students to the tour. 

For Pitt, the trip puts the University at the forefront with other national teaching efforts to confront the history of the civil rights era, putting a new generation in dialogue with the past about the role of the individual and the government in building a better society.

For Sienna Xu, who graduated in 2017 with a Master of Education degree, hearing from participants who survived dog attacks and who lost friends when churches were bombed provided lessons in understanding personal strength and standing up for your beliefs.

“I greatly admire the people who fought for their rights. They did not just do it for them, but for us, the people living today. They are so brave. I learned that I should always remember I need to do the right things and never give up my dreams,” she said.

The trip itinerary touched history and music and faith and politics. Embedded in each stop were issues of race and social justice, integral parts of the lessons of inclusion that students are exposed to at Pitt.

For teaching and learning, “getting the students on this bus is a way to be intentional about learning of diverse experiences and exposing students to knowledge of how many different cultures shaped our nation,” said Jonathan Richards, a Pitt resident director, who served as a trip adviser this year. “This experience is about growth and understanding. At the end of this journey, our students have become more self-aware and are eager to share what they have learned with the campus community.”

This slideshow of images represents some of what the students experienced on the tour.