In August, thousands of counterprotesters gathered to participate in a candlelight vigil at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Condemning the actions of neo-Nazis who had wreaked havoc on the city, the group sang a verse from the civil rights movement song “We Shall Overcome.” University of Detroit Mercy history major Michael Van Gundy felt the impact of the song despite being nearly 600 miles away in Michigan.
Nearly three months prior, the 22-year-old joined six other students on a civil rights movement travel course. Led by professors Greg Sumner and Roy Finkenbine, the week-long road trip made stops at historical sites in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama, one of which was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery.
“Being where [Martin Luther King Jr.] was is pretty awe-inspiring,” says Van Gundy, who along with the rest of his classmates and professors joined hands with their tour guide. Together, in the historical space where King had once served as a pastor, they sang their own rendition of the inspiring civil rights song.
“I’m sure it’s nothing compared to having been there, but it does give you kind of a good look at what might have been going on and why that song may have been important,” Van Gundy says. “[The trip] definitely helped me open up my eyes more to what’s going on in the country today.”
A decade in the making by Sumner and Finkenbine, who specialize in 20th-century America and African-American history, respectively, the travel course included stops at the Negro Southern League Museum in Birmingham, the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Miss., the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., and the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tenn.
The professors visited sites together the year prior to assure the venues they would be taking students would complement their lesson plan. “We did a lot of homework to try to get [the trip] together,” says Finkenbine. “[The course] gives the students the full story and hits a lot of issues, but does it in a more geographically compact way.”
Along with the historically relevant sites, the students also had some less serious stops, including a chance to cheer on minor league baseball team the Montgomery Biscuits during their home game against the Jackson Generals and dining at a slew of barbecue joints.
“They got more of a 360-immersion in southern culture with a consciousness throughout of how race and segregation and this history permeates everything,” says Sumner. He and Finkenbine hope to arrange future civil rights movement travel courses. “We stood back and observed them between our presentations, and we could see the power that would hit people. To see these physical things is amazing for the students.”
A collection of journals, which students were required to write in throughout the week, proves Sumner’s point. The contemplative way Van Gundy recounts the trip nearly half a year later isn’t an isolated incident. In fact, following the events in Charlottesville, Stevie Jones, a 23-year-old recent U-D Mercy grad who also went on the trip, drew from her experience with the class to write about the memorialization of Confederate relics for the school’s alumni website. (Click here to read more about Stevie Jones’ experience on the civil rights movement trip.)
While in Selma, she says Finkenbine presented a selection of news articles at the city’s library to explore the controversy surrounding the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which is named after a Confederate general despite being the location of Bloody Sunday,
when police beat protesters who were crossing the bridge on March 7, 1965. Both professors also led discussions about contested memory, pointing out the juxtaposition of statues in the South dedicated to Confederate leaders and civil rights activists.
“I didn’t cry when I saw the Confederate statues. I wasn’t angry, but I was trying to understand them,” Jones says. “I felt like I had to voice my opinion about it because I witnessed it, and I had something to say.”
One of two African-American students in the course, Jones says that she took the class in part to pay homage to those in the civil rights movement, like 63-year-old Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to desegregate a school, whom she met at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
Today, Jones is a tour guide for the Detroit Historical Museum’s ’67 exhibit, leading the museum’s visitors through the display about the city’s own tumultuous history with race. She says the trip’s immersive look at the civil rights movement has helped her think about the 1967 rebellion, gentrification in Detroit, Charlottesville, and the death of Trayvon Martin with more historical context. It has also allowed her to contemplate the sacrifices required for pushing a movement forward.
“We went to Montgomery first, then we went to Selma a couple days later. That put into real perspective for us how far they walked on foot [during civil rights movement marches],” Jones says. “Being in the classroom I can read ‘this many miles,’ but actually going from one place to another, I saw how far that was and got to ask myself: ‘Could I do the same thing?’”
Walk in Their Shoes
10 sites U-D Mercy students visited during the civil rights movement travel course
• Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (Montgomery)
• Edmund Pettus Bridge (Selma)
• Equal Justice Initiative (Montgomery)
• Montgomery Riverwalk Stadium (Montgomery)
• Negro Southern League Museum (Birmingham)
• Emmett Till Interpretive Center (Sumner)
• Birthplace of KKK (Pulaski)
• National Civil Rights Museum (Memphis)
• Stax Museum of American Soul Music (Memphis)
• Beale Street (Memphis)