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Civil Rights Tour Brings History to Life

Students say trip to Alabama and Atlanta inspires activism

Duke students visit the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.
Duke students visit the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.

Growing up in Kenya in the 1990s, Duke freshman Davis Muthoka saw his country ravaged by violence that left thousands dead and nearly half a million Kenyans displaced.

With his own country to think about, he came to Duke with little knowledge of America's violent civil rights history. 

But a two-day whirlwind trip to civil rights landmarks in Alabama and Georgia gave him and 16 fellow first- and second-year students  a close look at the history and sacrifice behind the movement.

"I didn't have a full idea," he says, other than casual awareness of Martin Luther King Jr. "I knew they struggled but I didn't know all they had to go through, Bloody Sunday and all."

Putting a historical face on the civil rights movement was a main goal of the trip, which was open to students who had participated in the fall 2011 and 2012 Focus Program, "Knowledge in the Service of Society (KISS)." The program focused on social justice, engaged citizenship, personal responsibility and social action.

The courses they took were designed around an interdisciplinary theme, including cognitive sciences, ethics and global citizenship, genomics, knowledge in the service of society, and international politics. Focus faculty come from across Arts & Sciences and Duke Medicine.

Edna Andrews, a professor of linguistics and cultural anthropology who directs the Focus Program, suggested that the students get back together in the spring for an event that would enhance what they studied in the fall. 

"I thought, 'Let's go beyond the wall and beyond Durham to experience the impact of the civil rights movement on all people, both historically and in present-day,” says Jan Riggsbee, director of Duke's Program in Education and one of four A&S faculty members in the KISS cluster.

On a cold Friday morning in February, 17 students, Riggsbee, fellow KISS faculty member Jehanne Gheith and Duke alum Toni Williamson, a civil rights buff who served as tour guide, boarded a chartered bus and traveled 10 hours to Montgomery, Ala., then to Selma, Ala. 

They toured the Southern Poverty Law Center, National Voting Rights Museum, visited the Wall of Tolerance, and a man and woman who participated in Bloody Sunday, the 1965 Montgomery to Selma protest march in which police attacked marchers.

The next day they toured civil rights sites in Atlanta and attended a service at Martin Luther King's former church. 

After their tour, the students were asked to reflect on the sacrifices made by civil rights activists of the past and to translate that into their own experience today. Several cited gay rights and the widening income gap in the United States as chief concerns.

"I think students came away with many important personal questions, 'What's my cause?, What's my moral courage?, What's worth fighting for?' " says Riggsbee, who lead the planning for the trip.

On a Thursday night in April, about a dozen students from the class gathered to eat pizza and watch a documentary of the trip made by classmate Rebecca Holmes, a sophomore from Lancaster, Pa. and the KISS Focus mentor. (See video below)

The documentary, including interviews with students on the bus rides and during their tour, ended with the question: "Where is your place in the movement?"

Holmes summed up her take-away with a view of what tolerance means to her: "You don't have to agree with what people are saying, but tolerate it and let everyone live out what they believe."

The trip brought her book knowledge to life. "Experiencing where it happened was a lot more impactful for me that just reading about it," Holmes said after showing the documentary. "They were everyday people. For me, I'll never forget these experiences and places."