Class trip gives students new perspectives on American civil rights movement

Chakena Sims '16 poses with Akinyele Umoja, a scholar-activist and author of
Chakena Sims '16 poses with Akinyele Umoja, a scholar-activist and author of "We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement." Umoja signed Sims' copy of the book during Professor David Canton's class trip to Atlanta.

RosAmen Oladuwa ’15 sits down at the lunch counter, slips on a pair of headphones, and is instantly at the center of the American civil rights movement. She senses the tension of waiting for service that would never come. She hears the threats shouted at her by a mob of angry patrons. And, finally, she feels the chair shake as the mob moves closer.

“I had a hard time sitting through it, but I got a much better understanding of the role of non-violence during that time  and what people had to go through to sit calmly in that kind of situation,” she said.

The interactive lunch counter simulator is one of the most dramatic exhibits at the newly opened National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. With her interaction, Oladuwa gained a deeper understanding of what black protesters experienced as they sought to end segregation and racial discrimination in America. This new, more complex perspective is what History Professor David Canton was seeking for all of his students when he took his HIS460 class, “The Black Freedom Struggle, 1946-1968,” to Atlanta during the fall semester.

Canton’s class is part of the College’s “Traveling Research and Immersion Program” — or “TRIPs” — in which students and faculty travel to a specific domestic or international location for hands-on experiences and research that complement the work of their course.

“I took my students to Atlanta so they could see the civil rights movement from a bottom-up perspective and better understand the central role that black colleges, black college students and black business owners, ministers, working class men and women played,” said Canton. “Visiting these historic sites allowed students to gain a greater appreciation of sacrifice those individuals made.”

In addition to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the TRIP included visits to The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (“The King Center”), Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s childhood home, and other historic sites along Auburn Avenue in the heart of Atlanta’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Historic District.

It also included guided tours of Spelman and Morehouse colleges, where the Connecticut College students met with the Morehouse history department chair, took part in a roundtable discussion about race with Morehouse and Spelman students, and conducted research using primary sources at the Robert W. Woodruff Library, which houses the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection.

It was familiar territory for Canton, who received his bachelor degree from Morehouse before completing his masters and doctoral degrees at Ohio State and Temple University, respectively. But it was all new for many of his students.

“It was incredibly moving for me to be at a historically black college,” said Jasmine Kelekay ’15, who grew up in northern Europe and said she had been the only person of color in her high school class. “Everything looks different in a majority black space. It helped me understand the complex narrative we’re being taught in class, the characters we are studying and the actions people took  actions that were fostered by these institutions which impacted the flow of history.”

On the third night of the four-day TRIP, students from Morehouse College history clubs hosted an open discussion on race with students from Connecticut College and Spelman College. For the Connecticut College students, who had been taking part in conversations about race on their own campus, it was an opportunity to take a multicultural discussion to a new level. And each student took something a bit different away from the conversation.

“We all had similar ideas about social justice, so there was continuity there,” said Chakena Sims ’16. “In the discussion itself, it was interesting to learn we were all ideologically different. We challenged each other.”

“I’m from Chicago, from a high school of mostly black and Hispanic students. Everyone understands racial struggles there. Yet, on the TRIP, I had a discussion with one of the history club leaders who assumed I was from the Middle East. I felt alienated from the struggle, and this was a new perspective for me,” said J.J. Ramos ’15.

“For me it was the first time in my life I have been very obviously in a minority. I didn’t speak much at the roundtable because the whole time I was thinking, ‘What is my role?’ and ‘How can I engage in this narrative in a helpful way?’ I was conscious of my role and what I said the entire weekend,” said Leah Swinson ’15.

All the students agreed it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to immerse themselves in the history of the civil rights movement and to consider new perspectives on that history and the racial tension that continues nationwide today.

 



December 23, 2014