Our Education Associate Erin Vong just returned from a moving journey along the path of the Civil Rights Movement with The Sojourn Project and 90 high school students. For almost 20 years, Sojourn has led thousands of students on life-changing educational trips through sites of the Civil Rights Movement, meeting veterans of the Freedom Struggle and connecting historic events to contemporary issues. We’ve been working with the Sojourn team to enhance their curriculum with oral history in order to deepen and extend the transformations that students experience.
In our current political climate, this year’s trip was particularly powerful for students. Here’s a look at where they visited, what they learned, and the moments that were most inspiring.
Students at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum
“It starts with us, the students who hear these stories and educate themselves and are inspired to make a change.” – Liz Boman, Carlmont High School
We spent the first full day of The Sojourn Project’s 90th trip at the newly opened Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which explores the state’s complicated history with the Civil Rights Movement. By viewing personal stories of activists who participated in Freedom Rides, photos and archives of sit-ins and protests, and multimedia exhibits of videos and interviews, students were given their first taste of how real change is made.
Students sing songs from the Civil Rights Movement with Minnijean Brown-Trickey
“We were just ordinary kids too. They count on our fear. They convince us to fear. But we can do it.” – Minnijean Brown-Trickey of the Little Rock Nine
Minnijean Brown-Trickey of the Little Rock Nine is one of the pillars of Sojourn’s trips. She travels with the students for the entire week, getting to know them individually and sharing stories from the Civil Rights Movement through her experience. She also teaches students a workshop on nonviolence, inspiring and pushing them to make change on their own, constantly reminding the adults to “Get out of their way!”
Bettie Dahmer, daughter of Vernon Dahmer, Sr., speaking to a student
Students visit the grave of Vernon Dahmer, Sr.
“Vernon paid a great price for a privilege we should have had already.” – Ellie Dahmer, widow of Vernon Dahmer, Sr.
Four generations of the Dahmer family joined our trip to share the story of Vernon Dahmer, Sr. and the sacrifices he made to secure access to voting rights for Black Americans. The students visited the Dahmer’s home and the site of their former shop, both of which burned down after an attack by the Klu Klux Klan, leading to Vernon Dahmer’s death. As a final stop, the students gathered around Vernon Dahmer’s gravesite and received a voter registration sheet from a member of the Dahmer family, continuing his legacy.
“From the storytelling on this trip, I’ve learned a really important lesson in empathy and feeling others’ pain and others’ hope and others’ emotions, and I think that transcends time, it transcends place, it transcends race.” – Mackenzie Clarke, Sequoia High School
Students at Kelly Ingram Park, listening to a local man share his story
At Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, AL, a landmark of student advocacy during the Civil Rights Movement, the students put their oral history skills to use all on their own. A local man was seated at a park bench when the students descended upon the park for an hour of free time. Curious, he asked about them, and then began to share his own stories of living in Birmingham from the decades past. A crowd of almost 50 students and local residents gathered around him to listen, and he closed out his stories with a warm message: “My name is Michael, and I welcome you all back to Birmingham any time.”
Elizabeth Eckford, posing for students at Little Rock Central High School
“Telling my story to students has strengthened me.” – Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine
As one of the last stops of the trip, the students went on a tour of Little Rock Central High School and met with Elizabeth Eckford in the school’s library. She was soft-spoken but shared openly about what it was like to be among the first nine students to desegregate Little Rock High School, and how the traumatic experiences brought on by her peers continue to affect her to this day. The students were respectful interviewers, and kept in mind Elizabeth’s request of “no loud noises,” using the ASL version of applause to celebrate her.
Students on the Sojourn Trip (Photo Credit: Dana Tyne)
“I think civil rights activists and leaders are always painted as almost divine and unattainable. We learn that everything they do is a statement and has an impact. And while this is true, and they change the world, they are also normal people like us. So what’s stopping us from doing the same thing?” – Adam Griffin, Sequioa High School
Part of the Sojourn trip includes college credit if students complete a three-part assignment, including an oral history interview. As the last day of the trip came to an end, students we’re sharing their ideas for narrators and looking forward to finding the “ordinary people doing extraordinary things” in their own lives.