A Reflection on Fifty Years of Change

Our group at the Civil Rights Museum
in Memphis, TN.
Though I thought about it as our trip began, one fact stuck with me during the course of our journey. If anything, its meaning and significance grew, enhanced by the sites we visited and stories we learned. Only fifty years after the forces of segregation lashed out violently at the challenge posed by the civil rights movement, twelve student--black and white--traveled together through the Deep South, sharing space in vehicles, hotel rooms, restaurants, and countless other places. Perhaps from the perspective of students fifty years seems like immense amount of time, but our grandparents, and many of our parents, have seen five decades come and go. Considering how deeply entrenched Jim Crow segregation was, I think it is amazing that we could travel as a group to learn, not having to make a political statement or protest simply because we made this journey together.

Shortly before we crossed the Edmund
Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL.
Freedom Riders arrested for challenging
segregated interstate travel in 1961.
(courtesy of 1961freedomriders.org)

 It may seem insignificant. Who cares if twelve students can travel together? I hope, however, that what we learned along the way allows us to place our trip within the context of history. Integrated travel, work, and play were potentially grave undertakings in the 1950s and ‘60s. The firebombing of the Freedom Riders’ bus in Alabama in 1961, the murder of three civil rights activists in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964, and Emmett Till’s brutal murder in 1955 are only a handful of the countless examples of hateful violence wielded to maintain the status quo. So, maybe we should consider our travels as a distinct historical moment. Are things perfect? No. Civil rights is, visibly, an ongoing struggle—particularly with the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act, but I hope the people who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, only fifty years before we did, can find some solace in the fact that a group of twelve students could peacefully, happily walk in their footsteps. After all, real progress will come through cooperation, mutual respect, and, perhaps most importantly, friendship.

Daniel Manuel


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