Civil Rights: A bridge in Alabama. A hotel in Memphis

‘There was just something about walking across that bridge … ’
16 March 2015
Mark Trainer

A bridge in Alabama. A hotel in Memphis. A secondary school in Arkansas. The locations might seem unremarkable, but they are suffused with history, as thousands of students have learned through a program called Sojourn to the Past.

For the last 15 years, the program has brought 6,000 students and their teachers to these locations to teach them about America’s civil rights movement — the nonviolent struggle to bring racial equality in the United States.

Like most Americans, Alicia Menendez-Brennan had learned something about the movement in school. “I read a picture book about Dr. [Martin Luther] King,” she said. “And I knew he made this great speech and that there was a march on Washington. I’d heard of the Little Rock Nine, but I couldn’t have given you any of their names.”

Menendez-Brennan took part in Sojourn to the Past during her sophomore year in secondary school. She was about the same age that the nine black students had been in 1957, when they went to their new school on the first day and were met by angry mobs and state troopers barring the doors. Their integration of that school provoked a national crisis. Menendez-Brennan knows all about it now, and she knows all nine names. In fact, she can say that she knows personally two of the Little Rock Nine after meeting and conversing with Elizabeth Eckford and Minnijean Brown Trickey, two of the surviving students, who are now in their early 70s.
Sojourn to the Past is the brainchild of Jeff Steinberg, a history teacher from San Bruno, California, who wanted to bring the civil rights era alive for his own students. The first 10-day trip he put together went so well that he expanded it into a program that hosts five trips of 100 participants every year. Steinberg’s program has been presented with the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award by first lady Michelle Obama.

Speakers who meet with the students on the trips include John Lewis, a prominent leader in the civil rights movement and a current U.S. congressman; Myrlie Evers-Williams, a political activist and the widow of assassinated civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers; and the Reverend Billy Kyles, leader of the sanitation strike that brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, Tennessee, and one of the few people with King in the last hour of his life.

The 10-day excursions begin in Atlanta and move through Alabama and Mississippi before ending up in Memphis at the Lorraine Motel — now the National Civil Rights Museum — where King was assassinated in 1968.

For Rosie Davidowitz, who went on the sojourn last year, when she was 17, the culmination of the trip came in Alabama, along the route of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march for voter rights. “We had the opportunity to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge [the site of Bloody Sunday, when voting-rights marchers were beaten back by state troopers and civilian thugs]. Then we got on buses and drove to the state capitol building, symbolically completing the march,” said Davidowitz. “There was just something about walking across that bridge, where history happened. It was like nothing I’ve experienced before.”

The goal of Sojourn to the Past is not only to teach about incidents from half a century ago, but also to transport the lessons of that time to the present, where racial prejudice may still exist.

One of the last stops was at a school similar to the ones to which the participants would return. “We stood outside Central High with Jeff [Steinberg] and Elizabeth Eckford,” Davidowitz said, “and he asked us, ‘When you go back home are you really going to be any different? Are you going to accept that there needs to be a change within your own little society?’”

The students learn to speak out against bullying or racial prejudice that they might witness. “Minnijean [Brown Trickey] stressed that, when she was in Central High, she was being terrorized by only a small number of students who were being physically violent and verbally abusive to her,” Menendez-Brennan said. “It was the rest of the students — who didn’t make eye contact, who didn’t speak up or do anything about the abuse she was suffering. She said they were where the problem lies.”