Bringing history to life: Civil Rights tour puts race relations at forefront

Nearly 50 years have passed since the Civil Rights protests rocked the Deep South, but recent events including the shootings of Ferguson teen Michael Brown and South Carolina resident Walter Scott by white police officers have brought the problems of race to the surface once again.

Bryant's Grocery store in Money, Miss., where black teen Emmitt Till was killed is one of the historical sites SIUE undergraduate students will visit on the SIUE History Department's Civil Rights Bus tour. The trip begins on May 26. (Courtesy photo)

SIUE history professors Bryan Jack and Rowena McClinton said it is an appropriate time to raise awareness about the state of civil rights for African Americans.

From May 26-May 31, Jack, McClinton and fellow professor Jessica Harris will take 14 undergraduate students on SIUE’s first Civil Rights bus tour that will include stops at various historical sites in Tennessee and Mississippi.

Most of SIUE’s undergraduate students were born nearly three decades after but Jack hopes the tour can bring the events to life. The tour will commemorate the fight for quality that took place from 1954 to 1968.

“For our college students it may seem like it was a long time ago,” Jack said. “But when they get down to Mississippi and meet people who were alive during the time and speak with people who were involved in civil rights movement, they’ll realize that it’s not ancient history … maybe it’s not within their lifetimes, but it’s still within the memory of people who are still around today.”

The students will travel in a charter bus from Caseyville’s Vandalia Bus Lines and will watch various civil rights documentaries on the bus. The five-day tour  will visit the locations of some of the pivotal events during the Civil Rights movement including the former Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in the spring of 1968. The National Civil Rights Museum was built around the motel and features interactive exhibits including “The Culture of Resistance,” a circular display that features digital images of the worldwide growth of slavery.

“I think that (the bus tour) will bring history alive,” McClinton Said. “It will bring the past to the present. It will make them aware that we’re here in the present and we’re reliving the past. We’re looking at it in a way that we know that laws have changed because of their struggles. And all this violence–it did change the course of America forever.”

Students will also have the opportunity to meet the people who played key roles in the battle for equality for African Americans including James Meredith. Meredith was the first black undergraduate student admitted into the University of Mississippi in 1962. Amid the heckling and harassment from white students and protesters, Meredith attended classes at the Oxford campus where he graduated with a degree in political science. The tour will also stop at the campus, where students will visit the Center for Southern Culture and will also pass through the places where riots took place in 1962.

The SIUE undergraduates are also scheduled to meet former NAACP president Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers. Medgar Evers was a black civil rights activist who was fatally shot in the back by White Citizens Council member Byron De La Beckwith in 1963.  After three trials, De La Beckwith was finally convicted of Evers’ murder in 1994. During much of the 20th century, the state was a hotbed for violence and the state court systems and different white social groups kept the system in place.

McClinton said the U.S. continues to lag years behind in race relations among whites and blacks, especially in southern states such as Mississippi. During the summer of 2011, black teenager James Craig Anderson was beaten to death by 10 white teenagers in a parking lot. The first three of the 10 white teens were recently sentenced to prison in February. Members of a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma were caught on camera singing a song with racist lyrics. On April 1, a noose hanging from a tree was found hanging on a tree on the campus of Duke University.

McClinton said a white can commit murder in Mississippi and may not be tried for murder, but instead for a hate crime; avoiding stiffer penalties for committing murders against blacks.

“There is a two-tier system,” McClinton said. “They want justice when it involves whites against the blacks … It’s unsaid. It’s a different system for white criminality toward African Americans as compared to white Americans criminality toward whites. They would certainly be tried for murder if they murdered someone. If a white person murdered another white person that person would be tried for murder. But if a white person murders an African American, it’s not the same set. The law becomes comprised so many times.”

The tour will also stop in Money, Miss, at the site of Bryant’s Grocery Store and Meat Market, where black teenager Emmitt Till was shot in 1955 for allegedly whistling or talking to a white woman.

“White society in Mississippi as a whole was a very violent society,” McClinton Said. “Taking a bully stick and knocking an African-American male over the head was not to them considered a crime. They considered it their right to treat another people any way they wanted. They felt because they were white they were superior.”

Other highlights of the tour include the B.B. King Blues Museum in Indianola, Miss., near the birthplace of the blues legend of the same name. The students will spend three days in McClinton’s hometown, Jackson, Miss. And conclude the tour with a trip to the National Memorial Civil War Park in Vicksburg, Miss. Jack and McClinton hope their undergraduate students will gain a better understanding of the historic movements and realize that that problems of race remain in American society today.

“These racial overtones of hate is something that want to stamp out in our country,” McClinton said. “We also have to recognize its happening. We don’t have to accept it, but we’ve got to find ways to overcome it.”

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