Lean on Me
The days leading up to the trip I became more and more envious of my friends who were flying to tropical locations for spring break. Yet, days after the trip, I found myself wishing I was back on the bus traveling with my new friends. The OU Civil Ride was a life-changing experience. I learned so much, not only about our nation's history, but also about myself.
On the first day, we attended a service at 16th Street Baptist Church. We learned in class that that is where four little girls died after the church was bombed by four Ku Klux Klan members. I had only been to church one time before this, and I dreaded the idea of a two-hour service. I had no idea what to expect when I sat down in a pew with my classmates. During one point in the service, the reverend called for members of the church to welcome the visitors. Many smiles and handshakes were exchanged throughout the room, but one woman’s gesture specifically stuck out to me. She walked toward me, wrapped her arms around me and squeezed me tight. In that moment, I felt so much love from a complete stranger. The hug sent chills down my body and brought tears to my eyes. I felt so welcome in her space and remember thinking to myself, how could anyone invade someone’s place of worship to hurt them and their loved ones? It was mind-blowing to me that the people who belong to the church are so trusting of the guests they allow in, considering people who shared the same skin color as me have been historically cruel to them.
That moment was the first of many tears for me throughout the trip. Prior to this trip, I never thought I would be so emotionally drained by the end of the week. Going from different museums and talking to people who have lived through the Civil Rights Movement really put it into perspective for me. It’s really hard to put into words everything that I felt from this trip, and I found a sense of community with the people I shared those experiences with. Going back to my ‘normal’ life at OU made me more aware of how privileged I am and how unaware people are about the Civil Rights Movement.
One of my professors urged me to enroll in Media and the Civil Rights Movement last semester because of my intersecting interests in social issues, race relations and the media. While I read a lot about historic and contemporary struggles throughout the course and in my free time, I did not realize how much understanding I would gain from seeing the sites of such events in person, rather than just hearing about them.
While many moments from this trip were very jarring, one of the most impactful was the day that we traveled through Mississippi to see the lynching site of three Freedom Summer workers, as well as Bryant’s Grocery Store, where a white woman alleged that Emmett Till wolf-whistled at her. It was chilling to know that these sites are not properly memorialized because of the deep racism that still exists in those areas. The descendants of people who inflicted those hate crimes seem to refuse to reconcile with their ugly pasts.
Many people want to believe that racism is a thing of the past, and that the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. ended the deep, systemic hatred that runs deep in the veins of the country. However, it is abundantly clear that racist bias and hatred are still alive and well today. That was crystallized for me when we visited the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery. While visiting the museum, I read that 1 in 3 black boys will be incarcerated in their lifetime and about the disproportionate incarceration of African-American people in the United States. Trips like the OU Civil Ride are important for people to learn about not only the history of the Civil Rights Movement, but also to learn how to confront the enduring legacy of racism in the United States.
It is hard to put into words how the experience impacted and changed my life. I signed up for the Media and the Civil Rights Movement course on a whim and with little knowledge about what was in store. Throughout the semester, I learned about the various places we would be visiting through written articles and documentaries. I had never been to any of those places before, so I was never able to fully understand what it would be like to experience it first hand, to stand in some of the same spots that historical events occurred or where courageous and inspiring leaders made their voices heard and fought for equality.
One of the most memorable aspects throughout the entire trip was walking through The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It has been open to the public for a little less than a year, and I had been unaware of the message that it left not only with me, but with each visitor who takes the time to walk through the entire memorial. It is a commemorative representation of over 4,400 African-American men, women and children that had their lives taken away from them between 1877 and 1950. Walking through, reading all of the names and seeing all of the dates, some of which were relatively recent left me feeling all sorts of emotions.
The experience taught me many different things about our nation’s history along with knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement. I became more in tune with my emotions and learned a lot of life lessons in a short week. I was lucky enough to get to go on the trip with such an amazing group of individuals, who I am now able to call some of my very good friends. I became inspired to utilize the opportunities at my fingertips to make my voice heard and to keep doing and learning more.
Prior to the OU Civil Ride, I had never attended a week-long class trip in college. I was anxious about the trip as our departure quickly approached. I knew a handful of students from previous classes or involvement in a student publication, but most of our relationships were professional rather than personal. I never would have imagined that I would return to Athens with 17 new friends, bordering on family members.
By Thursday, we had bonded through our close proximity on the bus and vulnerability during our evening debriefs, but I felt the most connected to my peers at the murder site of the three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. After our tour guide informed us of the graphic details of the Freedom Summer volunteers’ deaths, three of us held hands and bowed our heads to pray for peace. Then, the entire class huddled together to pray for the eternal rest of the men’s souls and for love to conquer hatred. When we boarded the bus, one of the graduate students comforted me as I cried.
As we headed to lunch, the second tour guide led our class in singing Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” which ultimately became the theme song of our trip. When we arrived in Athens Saturday evening, we all huddled together at the top of Baker to belt out the lyrics of “Lean on Me” one final time. We shared a group hug before individually enveloping each other. Tears rolled down my cheeks as our trip reached its finale and I squeezed my new family members tightly. Throughout the trip, we bickered occasionally, but that’s what siblings do. I am forever grateful for the experience and the amazing people it brought into my life. I will cherish the memories I made that week for a lifetime.