Lessons of past remain relevant today

For the ninth time, I have embarked on a life-changing experience called Sojourn to the Past.

It’s a weeklong traveling American history course that takes high school students and adults to many civil rights sites in the South and introduces them to people who made history by nonviolently fighting on the front lines to have our nation uphold the values and principles it outlined on paper.

This time, however, I will be writing accounts chronicling each day’s activities in words and pictures. I feel this is especially important, partly because much of the journey is highly emotional for our students and adults, and I seek to capture that, as well as their reactions to what they see and interpret.

These stories will begin in the newspaper on Monday.

For me, the two emotional pinnacles are sitting in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that was bombed in September 1963, resulting in the deaths of four girls ages 11 to 14. That is enhanced by the fact that we also receive presentations from the sisters of two of the girls, both of whom remain deeply affected by the tragedy.

The other is standing next to two second-floor windows at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., (now a civil rights museum) — one of which overlooks the spot on the balcony where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood when he was assassinated, and the other that shows a reconstruction of the room in which he had stayed.

I aim to convey the power of these two sacred sites — and all we do for the next week — in my series of stories and photos.

Sojourn to the Past, which was launched in 1999 in the San Francisco area, conducts anti-racism work and incorporates lessons from the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to promote greater tolerance, compassion, community-mindedness and critical-thinking abilities in those who take part. Participants see firsthand the damaging effects and corrosiveness of racism, bigotry, sexism and many of the other harmful “isms” used to divide and unfairly rank people.

I would argue that such lessons couldn’t be more relevant today.

Toward the journey’s end, participants meet in groups to hash out “action plans” based on what they learned, that they will implement upon their return home. Voter-registration drives and our annual Nonviolence Parade and Rally in early October in Youngstown are but two such results.

Examples of highlights for this occasion will be:

∫ Janice Kelsey, who took part in the 1963 Children’s March in Birmingham and spent four days in jail for her actions.

∫ Elizabeth Eckford, one of nine black students who integrated the all-white Central High School in September 1957 in Little Rock, Ark.

∫ The Jackson, Miss., home of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in June 1963 in his driveway, and hearing from his daughter.

∫ The Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., that contains the names of 40 martyrs.

∫ The Legacy Museum in Montgomery that displays the history of slavery and lynchings in this country while honoring the more than 4,400 black men, women and children who were lynched between 1877 and 1950.

These and other civil rights activists changed our nation for the better. I hope to capture the importance of part of this history via this series.



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