by Caitlyn Wilbur
This past semester break, a group of five students from the education department and our professor had the incredible opportunity to attend a trip called the Civil Rights Pilgrimage with the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. The trip lasted ten days, and we visited six southern states and important cities that played pivotal roles in the events before, during and after the Civil Rights Movement. We visited included Atlanta, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; Montgomery, Alabama; Selma Alabama; Gulfport, Mississippi; New Orleans, Louisiana; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Memphis, Tennessee. In each of these cities, we were able to visit museums, famous historical markers, participate in a slavery reenactment, and have the privilege of hearing stories from individuals who participated in and witnessed many events firsthand, including the youngest original Freedom Rider and a few men and women who participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery which took place across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday.
I can honestly say that this trip has transformed me in countless ways. It immersed me in our country’s history, given me a vast amount of knowledge and opened my eyes to just how prevalent racial issues are today. Although this trip has increased my awareness and given me perspectives I might not otherwise have heard, it is my disclaimer that I am in no way saying that I now understand what people of color have gone through in the past and still go through today. I, as a white person, will never be able to “get it” or say that I understand the struggle that is still alive and prevalent today. Although I experienced so many emotions on this trip, I am simply able to say that I’ve gained knowledge of what it is like to be living as a person of color in America.
One of the biggest ways in which this trip has impacted me is that it has increased my awareness about just how much racial issues are still alive today. Slavery did not end with The Emancipation Proclamation, and oppression did not end with the Civil Rights Movement; it evolved. Especially in the places we visited, there is still a deliberate attempt to suppress what has happened in the past. One really special aspect of this trip was getting to talk with the people who experienced these events and hear firsthand accounts from them. It is such a humbling experience and incredible opportunity to hear from them.
It would take days (literally, I’m not exaggerating) to discuss all the ways in which this trip has impacted me and the rest of the participants, and how this will impact the way I will teach my students in my classroom, but I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to immerse yourself in an experience like this one. It will challenge you, overload you with information, push you to the brink of exhaustion, break your heart, mend it back together again, and give you an indescribable sense of nostalgia once its finished all at the same time. This is our history as a country, and the sooner we are able to embrace it, the sooner we will be able to learn from it and move forward together as a united people.