Visit to memorials expands high school students' civil rights views

Visit to memorials expands high school students’ civil rights views

Visit to memorials expands high school students’ civil rights views

Civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. talks with U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson in this undated photo. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law July 2, 1964. (Credit: NS photo/Yoichi Okamoto, courtesy LBJ Library.)

Students learn more about racism.

ST. PAUL, Minnesota — St. Thomas Academy senior Sean Hubbard understood the story of Rosa Parks in a new light when he saw the bus stop in Montgomery, Alabama, where she boarded a bus Dec. 1, 1955, the day she refused to give up her seat because of her skin color.

“It’s a completely different thing because you actually get the feeling of being there where actual history took place, so you actually have more of a feel for it, and you don’t take it as something light,” said Hubbard, 17, a parishioner of St. Peter Claver Church in St. Paul.

He joined 19 other local high school students and chaperones from four Minnesota parishes for a civil rights field trip in Alabama this spring. The group visited civil rights museums and memorials in Montgomery and Selma that told the stories of slavery to modern-day racism.

“It was a very eye-opening experience for me,” Hubbard said, noting that the trip taught him more about that part of history.

Everlyn Wentzlaff, 67, a St. Peter Claver parishioner, organized the youth trip after sharing her experience with fellow parishioners about her own trip to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery when it opened last year.

Social justice groups from St. Peter Claver Parish and Guardian Angels Parish in Oakdale sponsored the trip. Wentzlaff also received a grant through the National Black Catholic Conference.

Wentzlaff, who chairs the St. Peter Claver social justice committee, said a lot of African American history isn’t taught regularly in public schools. She said the trip deepened the students’ understanding of civil rights and blacks in the Catholic Church.

She said the students were amazing on the trip, and she thinks it was a good experience and life lesson.

As part of the trip’s application process, the students responded to essay questions about why they wanted to go. Before leaving, they read the 2010 book “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church” by Father Bryan Massingale, a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University in New York.

“It really made me think about our history,” said Elise Carroll, 15, a member of St. Cecilia Parish in St. Paul. She said seeing exhibits of people’s struggles for civil rights and hearing stories told by tour guides made things come alive for her.

Hubbard said the sites helped him understand “the deeper context of the civil rights movement.”

Liza Pirjevec, 17, a member of St. Peter Claver, said she was particularly impacted by letters on display written by incarcerated African Americans, noting that some were from people as young as 15.

In Montgomery, the group visited the National Civil Rights Memorial, the Freedom Riders Museum and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. first served. In Selma, they visited the Slavery and Civil War Museum, the National Voting Rights Museum and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of brutal beatings during a 1965 civil rights march that came to be known as Bloody Sunday.

“It’s important to know this information and to be able to share it with other people,” Carroll said.

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Davis is on the staff of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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