SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2013

During spring break 2013, students, faculty and staff are taking a nine-day bus ride through the American South to visit civil rights landmarks and leaders in the movement. Political Science Professor Dennis Simon leads the pilgrimage with the SMU Chaplain’s Office.

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Day 6: Montgomery/Tuskegee

An update from Hayley, a junior majoring in anthropology, French and human rights:

Our first stop this morning was the Rosa Parks museum, and I really enjoyed the experience. I was a bit hesitant at first because I have been to some strange “interactive” museums, but this one truly captured the spirit of the Montgomery bus boycott. Watching the re-enactment of Rosa Parks’ arrest made me picture being surrounded by a mob of jeering and rude faces. Her stoicism and courage in this moment was reflected in the film, and her sense of unwavering calm was inspiring.

After the museum, Sorsha, Erin, Yusra, and I visited the Alabama state capitol as well as the Supreme Court building. The capitol was beautiful and filled with so much history. I stood on the steps where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as president of the Confederacy and walked where the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers ended their long journey. The capitol was also beneficial as a learning experience because it tied many of the other events and people we have learned about together. We saw a portrait of Governor George Wallace in the main room as well as a statue of his wife, Lurleen. Knowing the complex story of Wallace’s background and hunger for power made the context of the capitol building all the more interesting.

After lunch at an old-style soda shop (appropriate for the time period we are studying), we traveled to Tuskegee and visited the Human Rights and Multicultural Center there. It was a strange set-up, including the history of the city from the dinosaur age to the modern CRM. The most interesting part of the museum for me was the information on the Tuskegee Institute syphilis study. I had studied this before in a couple of my human rights classes, but seeing the campus where the research took place as well as photographs of the participants themselves made the information really sink in.

One photograph that struck me was one picturing a three-inch needle in the back of one of the participants: This needle was used to extract fluid from the spine to test for neuro-syphilis and the caption explained that no anesthesia was used. This epitomized the cruelty of the experiments as well as the overall deception of the program. I am still shocked by this use of human beings as mere cadavers, especially after the cruelty of the Nazis was revealed after WWII. I also found out that President Clinton officially apologized for the experiments in 1997, which is something I had not known before.  Although I am glad that President Clinton showed remorse for these events, it is really the conductors of the experiments that should be apologizing.

One of my favorite parts of the day was visiting Tuskegee University and Booker T. Washington’s house. I loved the feel of the campus and how welcoming it was. I also was excited to see the context in which critical portions of the CRM took place, such as the work and murder of Sammy Younge, Jr. I felt that the stories of this town have been largely overshadowed by those in Montgomery and Birmingham, and I’m glad the museum and university take the opportunity to showcase the city’s role.

Tonight we arrived in Birmingham and listed to lawyer and human rights activist Stephen Black discuss his NGO, Impact Alabama, and the race issue in general. I definitely had my “aha” moment tonight! We were all in awe of Mr. Black’s call to action and specificity in defining exactly what we needed to do in order to improve society. He did not sugarcoat anything and let no injustice go unnoticed, the true mark of a dedicated human rights activist. I was inspired by his work in education and health care for Alabama children and would love to apply after I graduate!

 

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