John Jay students, faculty, and staff visit the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement and contemplate the unsettling history of race in America.
By Andrea Dawn Clark
THIS PAST JANUARY, students from our Honors Program traveled down to Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, to walk in the footsteps of America’s Civil Rights icons. Their goal was clear: immerse themselves in the history of the American Civil Rights movement to further propel their own journeys in the pursuit of justice and equality. What they didn’t know was that the world would be profoundly changed in the coming months. They didn’t know that a global pandemic was about to turn their world upside down, shedding light on deeply entrenched inequities throughout our country. They didn’t know the names of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. And, they didn’t know that the experience they were about to have would serve as a foundation of knowledge that would help inform them in the challenging times that lay ahead of them.
UNDERSTANDING THE HISTORY
In Alabama, our students confronted America’s painful history of racial segregation as they studied the insidious tests and intimidation tactics that denied Black people the right to vote. They walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the same bridge that the late Congressman John Lewis marched upon, where he faced violence and aggression fighting for their right to vote. At the Southern Poverty Law Center, they learned how the devastating effects of racism still affect communities of color today. And, at The Equal Justice Initiative, The Legacy Museum, and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice they absorbed the impact of thousands of racial terror lynchings in America.
“Seeing the pictures of Black men and women being lynched, beaten, and attacked, simply for wanting equality, hit me hard,” said Michelle Nairne ’21. “I’ll never forget a postcard that I saw at The Legacy Museum. There was a chilling photo of a Black man being hanged while a mob of white people surrounded him. This public lynching was their entertainment. This was exciting for them. This was—and in many ways still is—life in America.” Months later, after she mourned the death of George Floyd, Nairne made the connection. “Mr. Floyd’s death was a public lynching, just like what I saw on that brutal historical postcard at the museum.”
PROCESSING THE PAIN
After witnessing the shocking injustices Black Americans endured—and people of color continue to contend with today—it was inevitable, knowing how empathetic our students are, that they would grapple with feelings of pain and anger. That’s why Raymond Patton, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History and Faculty Director of the Honors Program and Macaulay Honors College, set up “reflection sessions” after each day of events. There, students, faculty, and staff shared their thoughts on what they learned.
“When I was at the museum, for a good two hours, I started to genuinely hate white people. They put laws in place that enabled people to kill, rape, degrade, and brutalize their fellow human beings, simply because of the color of their skin. Their systemic hatred, for generations, destroyed not only Black families, but Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans,” said Tyler Johnson ’22, who was visibly shaken by the experience.
Dara Byrne, Ph.D., Associate Provost for Undergraduate Retention and Dean of Undergraduate Studies assured her that it was okay to feel anger, rage, or sorrow. “I saw and heard so many of you crying today,” said Byrne. She then asked the students to take a step back and process what they were feeling, and envision the powerful things they could do to enact change in the future. “Really think about all the people that fought for your rights. What are you going to do with that legacy?”
Christian Bethea ’23 took Byrne’s words to heart, considering how he could contribute to the fight for equality, but he also delved into what the struggle for equality meant to him personally. During the trip, Bethea—who was born one day before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday—turned 19. “I’m forever grateful and eternally indebted to him, and all of the Civil Rights leaders whose shoulders I stand on. But if I reflect on what it’s like being an African-American man in the United States, it feels like everywhere you turn, something or someone is against you,” said Bethea. “I’m somebody’s son. I’m somebody’s brother. I’m a boyfriend. I’m a friend. I don’t bother anybody, and I don’t do anything that warrants that sort of unbridled hatred that would have someone stamp out my life.” Bethea told the group that one day he wanted to have a son, and play basketball and football with him. “But looking at all those names of Black people who were murdered because of their race, it made me think: Would I be selfish to bring a young Black man into this world? Just reflecting on that made me realize that it’s my obligation to do something to effect positive change.”
MAKING THE CONNECTIONS
As a school focused on issues of justice, our scholars naturally drew on their educational experiences, and then connected the dots to what they were seeing. “In Dr. Davidson’s class, we’ve been taught that power dictates the law, and laws change based on the shift in power,” said Denny Boodha ’22, referring to a class with Charles Robert Davidson, Ph.D., the Director of the Pre-Law Institute, who also attended the trip. “When people stopped taking the bus during the boycott, capitalism started to crash, power was taken away from white supremacists, and they changed the law. We have to look at our society and see where we’re giving our power and who we’re taking power from.”
Along with making connections to their studies, students from different races and cultures made connections to their own social justice struggles. “The African-American experience is really close to me because of what’s happening to my people in Tibet,” said Tenzin Andrugstang ’20. Seeing the jars of soil at The Legacy Museum—where volunteers gathered fertile bits of earth, red clay, and sandy soil from sites where Black people died from lynchings—triggered a memory for Andrugstang, making her reflect on the struggles of her own people. “It made me think of a small project that was happening in India, where I was born. A Tibetan guy smuggled a few kilos of soil from Tibet, where he was born, and brought it back to India. Generations of Tibetans who came to India in exile just wanted to touch that soil and feel their homeland. The exploitation of African-Americans, the culture, the language, everything is so similar.” After seeing the power of the soil exhibit in the Legacy Museum, Andrugstang vowed to start documenting the stories of exiled Tibetans.
For President Karol V. Mason seeing students like Boodha and Andrugstang make connections to the history before them and consider all the ways they could enact change was the highlight of her experience. She’d seen her parents fight unjust systems of racial segregation, and she’d lived through moments of discrimination herself, but seeing the way the students listened and asked thoughtful questions filled her with pride. “One of the things we learned at the Southern Poverty Law Center is that they don’t want you to just learn history, they want you to leave thinking about what you can do to positively change the world. From the questions that you guys are asking, I have no doubt that you will take this information and figure out what to do next,” said Mason. “One of the specific things that we’re going to be talking about in our community is the power of voting. To me, voting is sacred because my parents were in the generation that had to fight for Black folks being able to vote.”
Walking through six-acres of sculptures, messages, and waterfalls dedicated to the lives lost to racial terror instilled an emotional mixture of sorrow, reverence, and even peace within the group. At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the souls of thousands of men, women, and children finally had a place to be remembered.
As Marcela Ventura ’21 walked in between the 800, six-foot-tall monuments, each with the names of racial terror victims etched on their surfaces, she posed a question to her fellow students. “I understand that this happened, but bad things have happened to other groups of people, too. Why are Black people always so angry?” Three of her friends, all coming from different parts of the world, started to tell Ventura what they already knew and what they recently learned about African-American history.
“The truth was, before the trip, I had no clue what racism was. I’m not white, but I was unaware of the deep-rooted discrimination Black people have faced and continue to face,” said Ventura, months after the trip. “In Alabama I saw photographs of kids younger than me, marching, protesting, and demanding that people acknowledge their rights and recognize that their lives mattered. I thought of them when I saw videos of George Floyd being murdered.”
After the trip to Alabama, Ventura was forever changed. She started making signs in both English and Spanish supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, but she soon realized that one of the most important things she could do was to educate her own family. When Ventura’s mother asked, “Why is there all this fuss about Blacks, but no one mentions the struggles of Hispanics?” She heard her own words in Alabama and remembered how her peers helped to educate her.
“When I came back from Alabama, my mother didn’t really understand my transformative experience, no matter how hard I attempted to explain it.”
Then one afternoon Ventura watched 13th, the Netflix documentary that explores the long history of racial inequality that African-Americans have faced, with her parents. “My mom just sat there in silence surprised at the segregation signs and the image of Emmett Till,” said Ventura. “I asked my mother to imagine having to bury me at the age of 14—with my face bludgeoned like his—just because my skin was a shade darker than hers. My mother’s eyes spoke for her.”
This past June, Ventura went to a BLM protest, and her mother insisted on going with her. Yes, her daughter’s safety was a big concern, but Ventura’s mother proudly marched alongside her daughter and intently listened as people told their stories. “After my experience in Alabama, I’m committed to spreading the knowledge that I gained. Seeing how moved and involved my mother was during the march has given me hope that real change can happen.”
Photography: Andrea Dawn Clark