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American civil rights movement focus of students’ fall break trip to Alabama

WKU’s Department of Political Science, University College, the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, the International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), and English as a Second Language International (ESLI) sponsored a cultural excursion to Alabama over fall break to give students a deeper understanding of the American civil rights movement.

WKU students gathered at the granite fountain at the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo by WKU student Kimberly Adkins)

The International Reach model of the University Experience consists of both domestic and international students and is designed to add a cultural component by having the students engage in activities together and reflect upon each other’s cultures in class.

Dr. Saundra Ardrey, head of the Department of Political Science, organized and led this excursion. “Dr. Ardrey deliberately assigned students from different backgrounds to room together and partner on the trip.  Bringing these students together promotes cross-cultural growth and understanding while building friendships.  When you see students from China, America and Saudi Arabia talking about civil rights and teaching their culture’s songs to each other on the bus, you are witnessing meaningful international reach,” said Beth Murphy, a University Experience International Reach instructor and Assistant Director of ISSS.

The group of 45 WKU students began its excursion in Birmingham at the Civil Rights Institute. “The museum was interactive with many displays,” said WKU sophomore Kimberly Adkins of Lawrenceburg. “One display that stands out in my mind is of the segregated classrooms in the ’50s. In the whites-only classroom, there was a picture of George Washington and in the blacks-only classroom the pictures were of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The displays of the KKK made my skin crawl.”

Kelly Ingram Park made an impression on WKU freshman Zainab Nasif of Qatif, Saudi Arabia. “I liked this park very much. The professors divided us into groups and as we walked around and read the signs we had open discussions about the individuals and how they contributed to the civil rights movement,” Nasif said.

This stained-glass window was donated to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., after a bombing in 1963. (Photo by WKU student Kimberly Adkins)

From the park, the group walked to the 16th Street Baptist Church, which served as an organizational headquarters for the civil rights movement in the 1960s. In September 1963, a hate group planted 19 sticks of dynamite outside the church and the blast killed four young girls. The tragic loss of these lives got the undivided attention of citizens outside of Birmingham and the South.  Outrage at the bombing and the grief that followed helped ensure the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.  “I was amazed to hear the church was sent more than $300,000 from people all over the world,” said Adkins.  “The blast blew out four stained-glass windows. A man from Wales donated a beautiful stained-glass window to the church, this just shows how far the news of this tragedy spread.”

In Montgomery, the Rosa Parks Library and Museum was an important stop for Nasif. “The guide was really good and made everything easy and clear,” she said. “ He explained the significance of the location of the museum, it was on the street that Mrs. Parks’ boarded the bus and refused to give up her seat.  This helped me understand it much better than just listening to a lecture.”

At the Civil Rights Memorial Center, the group congregated around the circular, granite fountain with the names of 40 people who died in the 1950s and 60s.  Inside the Center, each person on the fountain is remembered with pictures and further descriptions of their contribution to the movement.  Each student signed their name on the Wall of Tolerance which signifies that the signee takes a pledge to stand against hate and injustice everywhere.  Their names now scroll continuously on the Wall with all the others who have already committed to doing the same.

WKU students re-enacted a civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. (Photo by WKU student Kimberly Adkins)

Lastly, the group traveled to Selma to learn about the Selma To Montgomery Voting Rights Trail. They visited the Tent City between Montgomery and Selma where many protestors set up camp during the time of the marches. To re-enact the march the group walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. “It was incredible to walk over the bridge thinking that I am walking in the footsteps of activists that risked their lives for the right to vote,” Adkins said.

In addition to learning about the history of America, a goal of the trip is to foster interaction and meaningful dialogue between students of different cultures and backgrounds.  Nasif and Adkins agreed that the trip to Alabama helped them understand the civil rights movement at a deeper level than listening to lectures and reading books.

“It is a lot different than reading about it or watching documentaries,” Adkins said. “When you are physically there, you can feel that the atmosphere is full of history.”

Contact:  Diana Howard, International Outreach Coordinator, (270) 745-4587.

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