Penn’s Alliance for Understanding Retraces Civil Rights History in the South

Earlier this spring, a group of Penn students immersed themselves in history in order to gain a deeper understanding of the struggle for civil rights and equality.

Alliance for Understanding includes an annual alternative spring break trip organized by the Greenfield Intercultural Center, African-American Resource Center, and Penn Hillel, that delves into the history of the Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of Black and Jewish communities. Students learn the ways in which segregation laws have had a long-lasting impact on communities across the South, and draw parallels to contemporary issues.

Valerie De Cruz, a trip organizer and director of the Greenfield Intercultural Center, says students meet people who were on-the-ground participants during the Civil Rights Movement, deepen their knowledge of the American social movement, and gain a sense of empowerment and commitment to create social change.

“One of the program’s goals is to introduce the students to ordinary people who did really extraordinary things. It has a huge impact on students who are thinking about their future,” De Cruz says, noting the trip has even inspired some students to change career paths. “It’s transformative and has them thinking differently about life and what they want to do.”

This year, the Alliance for Understanding led 20 undergraduates and one graduate student to five cities from March 5 through 10: Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Selma, and Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta, Ga. Before the trip, students attended six weeks of meetings, lectures, and bonding activities.

The journey began with a visit to the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University, southeast of Montgomery, and the Civil Rights Memorial, where the names of pioneers are engraved in a touchable granite sculpture that invites visitors to connect with those who risked their lives for civil rights.

Organizers say the trip is not just about facing the demons of the past. The cohort also visited organizations that examine today’s issues, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, which illustrates that there is still a need to track groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

In Tuscaloosa, the group was present when the Equal Justice Initiative and members of the community unveiled a marker in front of the Old Tuscaloosa Jail to honor eight African-American men who were lynched between 1884 and 1933.

Junior philosophy major Naomi Kadish of Teaneck, N.J. had heard about how meaningful the trip was from her friends at Penn Hillel, but she found the program to honor the victims at the First African-American Baptist Church moving.

“Everyone was there to acknowledge what had happened and try to grapple with the past in order to move forward,” says Kadish, who comes from a traditional Jewish background and had never attended a church service before.

Wenting Sun, a sophomore in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, went on the trip to gain a firmer grasp of the historical context of race relations in the U.S., but didn’t anticipate the movement’s connections to religious organizations and how faith helped so many to be resilient. She considers herself agnostic.

“I am more conscious of the role religion and spirituality plays in cultures and communities,” Sun says. “The tolerance and understanding we have for others is crucial to create this alliance of humanity.”

Robb Carter is the associate director of the African-American Resource Center and has worked at Penn since 2005. This year marked his 11th Alliance for Understanding trip and he says the program is designed to help students “go back” in order to move ahead.

“Look to your past to understand from whence you came to move forward. We have a rich, but traumatic racial history in our country, and there’s still much work to be done,” Carter explains. “Angela Davis’ mom said it best: ‘This is the way it is: but, it’s not the way that it should be.’ This is one way of moving toward ‘what should be.’”

Aviva Marchione, Penn Hillel’s IACT Coordinator for Israel Engagement, adds intentionally making time to have tough discussions with people who are different is a necessary step in moving ahead in a positive direction.

“The trip is deeply inspiring, especially in our current moment in the U.S.,” Marchione says.

The most memorable part of the trip for Sun was when the cohort visited Selma. Sun grew up in Jining, China and moved to Jackson, N.J. at age 11. This was her first visit to the South, and Sun documented the trip with photographs and videos.

“I have always emphasized the importance of using cameras to pause time,” Sun says. “It was great to be able to do that for an experience that I don’t want to ever forget.”

Their guide in Selma was Joanne Bland, who participated in the Voting Rights Movement in Selma as a young girl and started the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute there.

For Wharton junior Briana Johnson, who hails from Somerset, N.J., meeting Bland was the most impactful moment of the journey.

Bland escorted the group to multiple historic sites in Selma, such as the Brown Chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Johnson says she connected with history on a deeper, more intimate level after listening to Bland’s firsthand accounts.

“Having her talk about [some of the things we had seen] was incomparable to any textbook, any museum, any artifacts. We rarely get to have a conversation about the people who are really the backbone of the movement,” Johnson says. “It was just way more powerful than anything else I could’ve imagined.”

Bland also brought them to one place that’s forever etched in her own memory.

In March of 1965, the Edmund Pettus Bridge was the location of what came to be known as Bloody Sunday.

Led by John Lewis, now a Congressman in Georgia’s 5th district, 600 peaceful marchers crossed the bridge in 1965 on their way to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights.

Named for a Confederate officer, a former U.S. Senator, and a local leader of the Ku Klux Klan, the bridge led the marchers directly into the path of state troopers and an army of recently deputized Dallas County residents who were waiting with tear gas and nightsticks.

“The students walked arm-in-arm across that bridge together and it was a really poignant moment,” De Cruz says.

Walking across the Pettus Bridge each year is like going to a Mecca of sorts for Carter, who was 16 when he watched Bloody Sunday unfold during the evening television newscast.

“I’m paying my respects to the people who suffered there. I am with the ghosts on that bridge and I feel their pain,” Carter says, noting he’s also honoring the genius of Martin Luther King, Jr. “At 16, I didn’t understand why he chose non-violence and each year it brings me back. Knowing what I know now, using non-violent tactics was a brilliant strategic move,” he says.

Bland was 11 in 1965 when she witnessed her sister’s beating on the Pettus Bridge.

“Ms. Joanne told us what happened once the cameras left: how the marchers were chased back to their homes and had their windows shot out; how the mob followed marchers into churches where they sought refuge and continued beating them; and how the film offers only a small snapshot in a nightlong experience filled with terror,” Carter says. “It’s sobering, but I walk across the bridge fortified: The work must continue beyond voting.”

It was an eye-opener for Sun and a reminder to continue the work of social justice pioneers.

“The news has made us numb to racial injustices,” Sun says. “Being in Selma on the 52nd anniversary of Bloody Sunday was a powerful reminder of the work that’s still left to do.”

After such an intense experience, the cohort processed their feelings as an entire group, and also engaged in small-group discussions.

“I put on my social worker hat and made sure that everyone who wanted to talk had a chance to convey their feelings,” Carter says. “I asked them about their emotions. Some said ‘sad,’ ‘confused,’ ‘traumatic,’ ‘and ‘resilient,’ to describe that particular day.”

Each year, Penn alumnus Stephen Black delivers a lecture for the cohort of Alliance for Understanding students when they visit Birmingham. As the director of Impact America, he talks about the country’s fragmentation, which results in a lack of understanding and misguided governance.

In Birmingham, the group visited the 16th Street Baptist Church, where Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were killed in 1963 after the Ku Klux Klan planted an explosive device under the church’s front stairs. This garnered support for the Civil Rights Movement and eventually led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Earlier this year, it was designated as a national monument.

Stopping at Kelly Ingram Park put the students in the shoes of those who marched for civil rights. During the ’60s, it was the backdrop of many protests, but today it is filled with sculptures that depict chaotic scenes, including the May 1963 Children’s Crusade, when the city’s youngest civil rights advocates spoke out against segregation. Birmingham was thrust into the national spotlight when the police were authorized to address the children’s peaceful assembly through arrests, the use of night sticks and fire hoses, as well as the unleashing of dogs. Considered a victory for the movement, the Children’s Crusade made sure segregation could no longer be ignored.

“Being there, you really just get the context that you could never get by reading a book,” Kadish says. “Just being in those places and thinking about the way that things have changed and the way that things haven’t changed, it was really intense.”

During the two-hour bus ride from Birmingham to Atlanta, Sun had a life-changing chat with a classmate who she did not really know before they embarked on this journey.

Marchione says this is common among Alliance for Understanding travelers.

“Because the centers serve different communities, many students who might not otherwise meet each other form close bonds and have meaningful discussions on the trip,” she says.

While in Atlanta, the travelers met with Georgia State Sen. Emmanuel Jones, a 1981 Penn alumnus, who showed them the capitol and joined them in attending “The Temple Bombing,” a play recreating the October 1958 bombing of the city’s oldest synagogue.

On the plane ride back to Philadelphia, the travelers digested everything that they’d learned on the trip—not only about the struggle for civil rights, but also about themselves and how to strengthen their resolve to advocate for those who need equality today.

“The Civil Rights Movement holds so many lessons for us to learn that are applicable right now,” Marchione says.

De Cruz adds that the program is more relevant today than it has ever been, as an in-depth examination of the civil rights struggle provides essential insights for tomorrow’s leaders. She stressed that it is important to remember history because those who don’t may be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

“There is so little knowledge about our history and it has caused us to be misinformed and susceptible to polarization,” De Cruz says, explaining that it may impact voting choices, policies, and laws. “Lessons from our past can help us to bring our country together.”

The idea is for program participants to pay it forward in thoughts and deeds, Carter explains.

“We want students to take what they’ve experienced on the journey and bring it back to Penn, incorporating what they’ve learned about social justice into their daily lives and becoming stronger advocates for diversity on campus and elsewhere,” Carter says.

During the Alliance for Understanding alternative spring break trip, participants toured The Reform Temple, a synagogue in Atlanta that was bombed in 1958. While nobody was hurt, the synagogue had nearly $200,000 worth of damage.