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The 1960s Civil Rights Movement and Its Struggles

Civil rights Museum
The UMD group visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. with UMD Chancellor Lendley C. Black (third from the right, maroon shirt). The Lorraine Motel, which was often used by Martin Luther King, Jr.. for meetings, is now the site of the museum. The wreath on the balcony marks the place King was standing when he was assassinated in 1968.

performances University of Minnesota Duluth
UMD students presented a Living History performance for the Durant, Mississippi High School.  
During UMD's Spring Break, 24 UMD students, staff, faculty, and community members traveled south on the Civil Rights History Tour. UMD Chancellor Lendley C. Black joined the group in Memphis, Tenn.

The trip immersed the travellers in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement as well as slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and related topics.


The group also performed a Living History presentation for colleges and high schools where each person gave a speech as a civil rights leader. As the group passed historic sites, individuals shared the story of the person they chose to learn about.

For instance, as the bus crossed the Tallahatchie River, in Mississippi, Hamdi Barre told the story about 13-year-old Emmett Till who was murdered for whistling at a white woman. In Biloxi, Miss. at Beauvoir, the last home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, freshman biochemistry major Alberta Nkrumah told the story of Mary Elizabeth Bowser. Bowser was an educated black slave with a photographic memory. She pretended to be illiterate in order to spy on Davis and feed secrets to the Union.

A visit to the Freedom Summer and Civil Rights strongholds University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg, the COFO headquarters in Jackson, and Tougaloo College near Jackson, offered a rare look at the people who made history in Mississippi during the 1960s. In Jackson, civil rights activists Flonzie Brown-Wright and Hollis Watkins gave presentations to the group.

In Holmes County, Miss., Civil Rights leaders from this Delta region told their stories and in Memphis, the Slavehaven Underground Railroad museum was immensely informative.

At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the life and story of Martin Luther King, Jr. was told, complete with the opportunity to see where King spent the last few hours before he was assassinated in 1968. The museum presented a comprehensive history of the American civil rights movement, beginning with the African slavery trade and ending in the present. The final stop on the trip was at the Dred Scott memorial in St. Louis, Missouri.

Chris Davila, UMD staff member, said the worst experience was touring Beauvoir, the last home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Davila witnessed staff and visitors acting in a rude manner to some of the diverse UMD group. Then the tour guide pointed out that the man who built Beauvoir and many pieces of furniture was a black person. "The guide credited the workmanship as the reason the house was only one of a few on the Mississippi coast that was able to withstand hurricane Katrina," Davila said. "The tour guide said that the house servants were like family and were even included in some of the photos and paintings. BUT, the one thing the guide couldn’t tell us was the names of any of these people! The reason the home is even standing is because of a black slave and the guide didn’t even know his name. But the guide could tell us about every little luxurious detail in this decadent house. All of these experiences left a bad taste in my mouth, but I was glad that we started the trip out here. The Davis plantation was a stark reminder and visual representation of the inequality and injustice that existed. The personal experience I had there reminded me of how much more work there still needs to be done."

Davila said that while conditions have improved for many African Americans and Jim Crow laws have been done away with, there are still many examples of modern day slavery and racial inequality. "Minnesota has one of the largest achievement gaps in the country for students of color compared to their white counterparts," Davila said. "Black men are incarcerated at a rate which is alarming higher than any other ethnic group. The examples go on and on. It is by learning about OUR history that we can identify those injustices and work towards rectifying them. We all have to make a conscious decision to learn what policies, laws and other strategies are used to systematically deny the rights of others, so that way we are able to know whether we are ourselves are part of the problem!"

Several of the students took the course for credit, and John Arthur, UMD professor in the African and African American Studies program, joined the group as a leader. Additional trip leaders from UMD included Chris Davila, Mary Cameron, Betty Greene, Kaohlee Vue and Cheryl Reitan.

Reitan, who has been to Mississippi twice before, collaborated with Sue Sojourner on the book, “Thunder of Freedom,” which is about the group of people in the Mississippi Delta who helped elect the Robert G. Clark, the first African American, to the legislature in 1967. The concept for the trip originated when Zelpha Montgomery Whatley gave a Civil Rights history presentation at UMD in spring 2013 and invited UMD students to Mississippi.

The trip was sponsored by the Black Student Association and the Office of Cultural Diversity.


Kodah University of Minnesota Duluth Valentine University of Minnesota Duluth Ashley University of minnesota Duluth
Kodah Mohamud, senior biochemistry major: I’ve learned an incredible amount of knowledge on this trip that I would never have been been able to learn about Civil Rights movement. I lived in Minnesota except for a short time when I went back to Kenya. I had to memorize facts like the Brown vs Board of Education case and the Rodney King case, but that was only facts. It was amazing to hear the personal stories and see the physical evidence of history. It was amazing to be in the house of Jefferson Davis because now I know what he stands for. We need to learn the ideology of the people on both sides of history and even the stories of the slaves that built their houses and cooked their food. Valentine Irungu, sophomore, biology major: Going to Medgar Evers home was surreal, especially stepping on the same places he stood and seeing where the shots ricocheted in the kitchen. Also, we learned about his personal life, his wife, and children and we learned that he was a mild, nice, gentle man. I never met a civil rights veteran before meeting Hollis Watkins. Talking to him one on one was a moving experience. He was so humble, resilient, and forgiving. He wasn’t bitter and didn’t hold a grudge, even after all he went through. His personality reminded me of my grandmother. I loved how he interacted with all of us through song. That was a key part for me. Ashley Perry, sophomore psychology major: Tougaloo College was built on a plantation. It was so ironic that the same place that broke down African Americans became a college that uplifted students. It reversed from a place where African Americans were nobody to a place where they were somebody. Walking around the campus, I kept thinking of Maya Angelou’s  phrase from the poem, “Still I Rise.” She said, “I am the dream and the hope of the slave.”  Just walking around I felt that phrase so strongly. Just by educating myself I have done that, I have lived the dream of my ancestors and many people that came before me.


Written by Cheryl Reitan, March, 2014

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