Valley students prepare for sojourn

YOUNGSTOWN — Lilly Snider, Katherine Abrego, Terra Robbins and Deshawn Langston yearn to learn a variety of aspects of American history, with the umbrella being the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

“I want to see firsthand what we’ve read and experience it,” Abrego said last week.

For the last several months, she and the other three Chaney High School students have attended weekly study classes at their school to prepare for an eight-day traveling American history experience through many civil rights sites in the Deep South, called Sojourn to the Past.

Conducting the sessions is Penny Wells, the Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past’s executive director.

The students’ readings are taken from the 1999 book “Walking with the Wind,” by the late Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis. On numerous occasions, Lewis spoke to Sojourn groups.

“I’m hoping to meet new people and see new places that will influence my art,” Snider said, adding that her artistic interests lie in poetry, drawing and writing short stories.

Snider added that she is interested in learning more about Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, the three civil rights workers who were killed in 1964 in Mississippi, as well as about the four girls slain in the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. She also is looking forward to crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in a manner reminiscent of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights.

Robbins is hoping the eight-day bus journey will offer her a more thorough perspective on that aspect of history — especially since it’s something “they don’t teach us in school,” she said.

Langston’s primary hope is to expand his knowledge of the movement, he explained.

In total, nine high school students from Mahoning and Trumbull counties will be part of the journey that begins Thursday in Birmingham.

Before they return late March 31, the group will travel by bus to Montgomery and Selma, Ala.; Meridian, Hattiesburg and Jackson, Miss.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Memphis, Tenn.

Along the way, their itinerary will include stops at Central High School, which nine black students integrated in September 1957; the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated April 4, 1968, and is now a civil rights museum; the Legacy Museum in Montgomery; and cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

In addition, they will hear presentations from several people who were active in the movement and worked to change history, such as Janice W. Kelsey, who participated in the 1963 Children’s March in Birmingham; Sarah Collins Rudolph, who was severely injured in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and whose sister, Addie Mae Collins, was killed; and Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine students who integrated Central High in Little Rock.

The transformative Sojourn to the Past program, based in Millbrae, Calif., was started more than 20 years ago by Jeff Steinberg, a former advanced-placement history teacher in the San Francisco school district. The program’s overarching goals for participants include developing greater tolerance, inclusion and compassion for others; using the lessons of the movement to empower especially young people; providing tools for them to develop greater civic responsibility and critical-thinking skills; and learning then applying the six principles of nonviolence in their lives.

Wells hopes that the local students who embark on the journey later this month will see the big picture, yet discover something invaluable within themselves.

“I hope they’re able to really feel the impact of the civil rights movement and just how it impacted this entire country — not only for black Americans, but how it changed this country for all Americans. (The program) is a history-immersion, leadership-development and life-changing experience, and that’s what I hope it will be for these kids.”

Wells added she’s confident the journey through four southern states will show the young people the importance of adopting the philosophy of nonviolence, and for them to see they have the power to make a difference in their lives, schools and communities.


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