Sojourn puts students on rights track


At a glance

Seven Youngstown area high-school students recently returned from a 10-day traveling history course called Sojourn to the Past, where, among other things, they learned ways to incorporate into their lives the six principles of nonviolence Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. espoused. Nonviolence:

Is a way of life for courageous people and is active resistance to evil.

Seeks to win friendship and understanding, with the end result being redemption and reconciliation.

Seeks to defeat injustice, not people, while recognizing that evildoers also are victims.

Holds that suffering can educate and transform and willingly accepts the consequences to its acts.

Chooses love instead of hate without sinking to the level of the hater and recognizing that all life is interrelated.

Believes that the universe is on the side of justice and will eventually win.

Source: Sojourn to the Past

By Sean Barron

Special to The Vindicator


Vyrdasia Ball feels a pinch of sadness when she thinks of a tragedy that occurred nearly 50 years ago at a famous Southern church.

“The story of the four girls in Birmingham [Ala.] touched me a lot because I have sisters around that age,” the 16-year-old Youngstown Early College sophomore said.

She was referring to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, who were killed in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which also was a pivotal location for civil-rights leaders’ activities, mass meetings and plans. The girls were between 11 and 14.

Vyrdasia, who has four sisters age 8 to 12, has a deeper knowledge of and appreciation for those who made countless sacrifices during the modern civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to her participation in a recent Sojourn to the Past experience.

More than 7,000 high-school students nationwide have taken part in Sojourn to the Past, a 10-day, five-state bus trip and traveling history course through the Deep South that allows participants to retrace the paths of the movement and gain greater insight regarding that portion of American history. The program was founded in 1999.

Vyrdasia was one of seven local students who joined about 135 fellow students, educators and parents, most from California and New York, on the trip, which took place from March 28 to April 6. The other six were Jazzlynn Watkins of Chaney High School; Micah Smith, Seannille McRay and Shawanda Jones, all of YEC; and JaBraya Moore and Dyshia Stone, both of East High School. All are sophomores.

Participants spend the first three days in Atlanta, where they visit the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, before traveling to Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, Ala.; Meridian, Hattiesburg and Jackson, Miss.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Memphis, Tenn.

Along the way, they meet and hear from key civil-rights figures, including U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who was severely beaten during a 1965 march in Selma; Minnijean Brown Trickey and Elizabeth Eckford, two of nine black students who in September 1957 integrated Central High School in Little Rock; Simeon Wright, a cousin of Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered in 1955 in Mississippi at age 14 for having whistled at a white woman; and the Rev. Clark Olsen, a Unitarian Universalist minister who came to Selma in March 1965 at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The program’s main goals include instilling in participants the six principles of nonviolence King had espoused, encouraging them to be more tolerant of those different from them, increasing their sense of community-mindedness and giving them tools to stand up to bullying and other forms of injustice, says Jeff Steinberg, Sojourn’s director and founder.

“Before, I was a silent witness to people’s dehumanizing people, but now I’m better at not being a silent witness,” Vyrdasia said.

It didn’t take her long to put those ideals into practice.

Shortly after her return, Vyrdasia said, she encountered one student leveling a derogatory name toward another before she reminding the student of the association between such language and violence. As a result, the student apologized for her actions, Vyrdasia added.

“I feel honored to have met him. Not many people hear Emmett Till’s real story,” said Jazzlynn, referring to Wright, who shared with Sojourn participants his recollections of two men, including the husband of the woman Till had whistled at days earlier, who kidnapped his cousin in the middle of the night before brutally killing him.

Jazzlynn also was deeply moved after learning about a civil-rights leader named Vernon F. Dahmer, who was president of the local NAACP chapter before several Ku Klux Klan members firebombed the family’s Hattiesburg, Miss., home Jan. 10, 1966, killing him.

Dahmer’s widow, Ellie Dahmer, and several of the couple’s eight children speak regularly to Sojourn participants and have forgiven the perpetrators, an act that has inspired many students, including Jazzlynn.

Toward the end of the trip, students and their teachers develop action plans for their communities based on what they gleaned from the experience. The strategies incorporate the six principles of nonviolence.

Since their return earlier this month, several Sojourn participants have read portions of King’s famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail at an April 16 ceremony in the Mahoning County Courthouse marking the 50th anniversary of the occasion, and have participated in workshops at Youngstown State University’s annual English Festival, where they discussed Till. Most recently, they spoke at a Youngstown City School board meeting about their experiences.

The first week of October is Nonviolence Week in Youngstown, as well as at Youngstown State University and in the city schools, thanks to the 2009 Sojourn students’ plan and efforts, noted Penny Wells, director of the Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past organization.

Wells, a former middle-school history teacher who has taken about 58 Youngstown students on Sojourn since 2007, said she’s impressed with the seven students who went this year, as well as how they embrace looking at themselves differently and welcome opportunities to positively influence their schools and community.

Wells also noted that state Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd, recently introduced a bill that would declare the first week of October Nonviolence Week statewide. The measure is to go before the state House of Representatives.

For more information about Sojourn to the Past, go to

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