As a biracial child who was raised primarily by the white side of his family, Larrick Potvin has long struggled to find what he feels like is a comfortable place for him within society.
“Sometimes I felt like I was shunned because I was both black and white,” said Potvin, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who grew up in Brooklyn Center, Minn. “I felt like I couldn’t be accepted into any form of society. I couldn’t be accepted into white society because of the color of my skin, and then at the same time, black society could tell that I was mixed.”
A journey to visit sites of historic importance to the civil rights movement has helped Potvin think more critically about his own history and gain a better understanding of his African-American heritage.
“Now I’m more accepting of it,” Potvin says of being biracial. “I saw everything that people had to sacrifice and I’m very thankful for that. If they hadn’t done it, being biracial, I wouldn’t be here today.”
For some people, history is only found in books. It consists of abstract images and stoic accountings from a time long since passed. For others, history is found in everyday life. It can be seen and touched, and the stories of those who lived it carry on forever.
For Potvin and hundreds of other UW-Eau Claire students who take part in UW-Eau Claire’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage, history is a journey into the lives of yesterday’s change makers, as well as a journey into their own history and place as change makers of today.
In January and March, nearly 200 students from UW-Eau Claire journeyed to the south on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, a student-led program offered every spring break and Winterim. Now in its seventh year, the pilgrimage immerses students in the sites of historic importance to the civil rights movement and introduces people who were part of the movement.
Each year after the emotional journey, many students come away with powerful reflections, greater self-awareness and a desire to make change in their own communities. Every student takes away something different from the trip, said Jodi Thesing-Ritter, an associate dean of students at UW-Eau Claire who mentors the students who coordinate the program.
“Some students are just scratching the surface and they’re seeing privilege and oppression for the first time,” Thesing-Ritter said. “Other students are passionate about getting rid of oppression and have been recognizing their own privilege for a long time, and some of our students of color have never really had the opportunity to think about race in a critical way. They get that opportunity here. Every student has something different that they bring to the table and that makes it all the more exciting and interesting for me as an educator.”
The Civil Rights Pilgrimage allows students to explore what civil rights history means to them through the sites and people in Atlanta, the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; and finally, Memphis, Tennessee, the site where King was assassinated.
Almost a century after the abolishment of slavery in the United States, African-Americans in the Deep South were continuously forced to live in a world of disenfranchisement, segregation and racial violence. During the 1960s civil rights movement, King encouraged fellow activists to engage in nonviolent protests and acts of civil disobedience to test segregation and establish change.
While in Atlanta, UW-Eau Claire students had the chance to meet one of the activists who followed King’s nonviolence philosophy. Charles Person was the youngest member of the original Freedom Riders, a group of young people who set out to test illegal segregation in interstate travel. On May 4, 1961, the 18-year-old college student boarded one of two buses departing from Washington, D.C., bound for New Orleans with stops in Atlanta; Anniston, Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama; and Jackson, Mississippi. Violent intervention from Ku Klux Klan members and other white supremacists prevented the riders from making it to their final destination.
Person’s courage and dedication to nonviolence during brutal beatings showed the passion and belief activists had in their work, students said.
“It’s unbelievable that for more than a hundred years they had to fight just to have the same rights,” said Potvin, a social work major. “Seeing that a college student did something like this shows me that everyone can benefit society. They just need to have that dream and have that courage to stand up. By having courage you can hopefully spark courage in somebody else, and that is how there is going to be change.”
The dream of racial equality and desegregation is what King focused his work on during the civil rights movement. He began preaching his ministry of nonviolence from the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, blocks away from where he was born. The original church is now a historical landmark and, along with King’s birth home and tomb, is a part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The 35-acre site is also home to Freedom Hall, a museum containing artifacts from King’s life and career.
Students toured King’s birth home and museum, where they say they got a glimpse into the life of the man who was the face of the movement.
“Seeing where Dr. King was born, I got a feeling that this was the start of everything,” said senior Kristen Heller, a social work major from Random Lake. “These are the roots, and being able to go through the museums and learn about his life was amazing. Having the ability to believe in something and have that faith carries a great amount of power. If you don’t believe in something, how are you going to be able to hold on and go forward through things that are absolutely terrifying?”
Being in Atlanta with the memory of King and hearing Person’s story reinforced students’ belief in nonviolence as the way to change society, said Dennis Beale, a graduate student from Chicago.
“I respect Dr. King for what he did and really saw his work on this trip,” Beale said. “He fought and stood for nonviolence. He had a dream to make a change, and his words still live on. His legacy still lives on. What he stands for still lives on. That’s something we really have to embrace. I will forever teach nonviolence.”
Students soon learned that the racism and violence Freedom Riders faced in Alabama wasn’t an isolated incident for African-Americans. At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, they saw the city’s past brought to life in displays, artifacts and personal stories. Among the items on display was a replica of the Freedom Riders’ burned out bus and a Ku Klux Klansman’s robe.
“It was intense to see that,” Beale said. “To see what the Klansmen wore and what they stood for. When I saw it, it hit me in the heart. I thought, wow, these people really just hated African-Americans, but why?”
Birmingham was home to 50 unsolved racially motivated bombings that occurred between 1945 and 1962, earning the nickname “Bombingham.” Because of the city’s reputation of violence and segregation, civil rights activists launched one of the most influential campaigns of the civil rights movement in spring 1963: The Birmingham Campaign. During the campaign King was arrested and wrote the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and on May 3, 1963, Birmingham police and firemen, under orders of City Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, attacked young demonstrators at Kelly Ingram Park with high-pressure fire hoses, police dogs and mass arrests.
Learning about Birmingham’s history at the museum and then crossing the street to walk through Kelly Ingram Park, memorialized with sculptures depicting the brutal attack, reinforced the heaviness of the movement, Heller said.
“It’s the feeling you get when you walk from the museum to the park,” Heller said. “It’s negative and immense, but it’s something you need to take away with you and keep for the rest of your life. That feeling makes you so much more aware of what really happened here. It’s a hard thing to accept, but I don’t know where we would be today without knowing that it happened.”
Reliving the violence inflicted against African-Americans as they fought for their rights to be equal members of society prompted Beale to think about the violence he experienced growing up and where he is today.
“Coming from Chicago, you have to understand that there’s a lot of violence happening out there,” Beale said. “I’m so blessed to be in Wisconsin where I’m bettering myself. When I see the good happening here, I try to take it back to Chicago with me to make a difference for people there. It might not be much, but at the end of the day, it’s still a difference that’s being made.”
As UW-Eau Claire students continued their way through Alabama, they began to see the important part young people had in the civil rights movement. Nowhere was this more evident than in Montgomery and Selma, two cities tied together by the historical 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights.
During their time in Montgomery and Selma, students met with two of the original marchers: Aroine Irby and Joanne Bland. Irby, now docent at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, was 19 years old when he made the march 50 years ago, and civil rights protestor Bland was just 11 years old when she watched police beat her fellow demonstrators during the “Bloody Sunday” march.
“Thinking about myself or other people I know around my age going through that struggle trying to fight for what we believe in, put the whole movement into perspective for me,” Heller said. “It was my age group going through all of that, willing to fight for something. Society is still facing struggles and we have a responsibility to take that further.”
While at the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, students learned the stories of those who sacrificed and fought for racial equality. The center honors the achievements and memories of those who died in the civil rights movement between 1954 and 1968. It was here that the people and their struggles were brought to life.
“Seeing the stories of so many young people who got involved and made changes during the movement has made an impact in my life,” Potvin said. “I’ve learned that the civil rights movement wasn’t just about the major people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., it was about the little people too — the people who took part in the protests and marches. We lost a lot of people to make a bigger change. All of those deaths made a difference.”
Throughout the entire Civil Rights Pilgrimage, UW-Eau Claire students heard emotional stories and visited significant places in history, but they say the most impactful and emotional place was Selma. The city that was once the center of the civil rights movement continues to struggle with issues of racism and segregation 50 years after the march for voting rights.
“Walking through Selma really put me in their shoes,” Beale said. “To see that segregation is still happening in the South put me in an emotional place that’s really unexplainable. I respect my ancestors for what they went through to get us freedom. They stood for something, and every day throughout the movement they kept doing what they had to do in order to make things right for today’s society. I feel we take our freedom for granted sometimes, and that’s something we have to be aware of. We have to continue every day to make society better.”
The experience in Selma and throughout the pilgrimage provided a unique learning environment, said Yan Lin Lee, a senior psychology student from Malaysia.
“Learning so much about American history throughout this trip helped me understand a lot more about the culture and identity of Americans,” Lee said. “To actually walk through their history and walk in their footsteps, I was able to understand parts of the identity that simply cannot be captured in books alone. The word I hink of to describe the civil rights movement is ‘empowering,’ but I think that’s still an understatement. I never knew how much was behind the movement. It was about more than the right to vote, the right to not be segregated forcefully by law — it was also about the right to simply be human.”
The fight against racism and segregation began long before the 1960s civil rights movement. It occurred in cities and towns all across the American South. One city in particular drew the attention of the nation and forced the federal government to step in and take action to ensure civil liberties to African-Americans. Little Rock, Arkansas, became the center of the battle for public school integration after nine African-American high school students were forcibly denied entrance to Little Rock Central High School on Sept. 4, 1957.
UW-Eau Claire students were prompted to question their own strength while walking the grounds where young people were forcefully denied access to quality education because of the color of their skin.
“I don’t think if I was put in that scenario I would be able to do what they did,” Potvin said. “They had a lot of courage because they wanted to get an education. They wanted to make a difference, and by them going to that school, they showed the nation and the world that no matter what your skin color is you can make a change. No matter how little you are you can make a change. They were just teenagers and able to spark a movement. That was really empowering.”
Almost 50 years after the integration of Little Rock High School, a statue was erected to honor the students who bravely walked into harm’s way in 1957. The sculpture, named “Testament,” is located on the north lawn of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock. It depicts the Little Rock Nine walking together with books in hand.
While visiting the grounds, students formed a circle around the memorial to honor the nine African-Americans who paved the way for the thousands who would follow.
“I looked around the circle and noticed we had a wide range of people there,” Potvin said. “There were white, black, Asian and Hispanic students, and we all were reflecting on the people that had to sacrifice for us to be here to learn about this. We have to keep pushing for more equality and more change in the world to honor them.”
Quite often, history is taught in segments, preventing students from forming a complete picture of the past. On the UW-Eau Claire Civil Rights Pilgrimage, however, students are taught to link together significant moments in time to fully understand the places and people of the civil rights movement. They began the trip at King’s birth home and visited the places where foot soldiers challenged unjust laws and made progress for all African-Americans. Their final stop came in Memphis at the site where King was assassinated.
The National Civil Rights Museum, which contains a comprehensive accounting of African-American history, is built around the Lorraine Motel where King was shot and killed on April 4, 1968. Having the chance to experience the progression through civil rights history made a lasting impact, Heller said.
“For me, being able to stop at those sites in a chronological way brought things full circle,” Heller said. “We saw how Dr. King’s life started, the marches and the changes that were made. Then at the end, seeing where he was assassinated, it didn’t feel like things were done. It felt like a mark for where we have to continue on. You learn about the struggle for civil rights in the history books, but you can’t fully appreciate and understand it until you come here and actually see what happened and where it happened.”
Many of the students on the pilgrimage learned more than they expected about themselves.
“This trip helped me to appreciate my own history a lot more,” Lee said. “To see things from other people’s perspectives and see different people come together, I learned that every person holds a piece in an effort. If everyone does even a tiny speck to contribute, when brought together, it’s actually a huge thing. With the knowledge that I’ve gained on this trip, I will encourage people around me to continue questioning. I think that’s really important in order to keep the process of change going.”
At the end of the trip, students say they were excited to share what they had learned and will encourage others to go on the journey. Whether they’re someone from an inner city or a small town, a family that might have faced slavery or even a family that might have owned slaves, everyone can benefit from this trip, Beale said.
“This experience has changed not only my own life, but the life of every individual who went on this trip,” Beale said. “History has meaning behind it, and this trip will show you how people suffered. Not just their body and emotions, but their souls, their minds and who they are as a person. I will tell anybody to go on this trip. To keep seeing the everyday freedom we’re getting in Wisconsin compared to places like Selma. This is history. This is what makes the world a better place today. Don’t just read a book. Reading a book isn’t going to place you there. When you physically see it, when you really experience it, your mindset is going to change.”
For more information about past or future Civil Rights Pilgrimages, contact Jodi Thesing-Ritter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 715–836–3015.