Just like the Freedom Riders of the 1960s, a group of young people of varied ethnicities rode a coach bus this month through the South to Birmingham, Ala.
But this time, they weren’t protesting Jim Crow laws: They were taking a tour to learn about what young people like the Freedom Riders and other activists did during the civil rights movement, and how their actions are still relevant.
“You did get the feeling you were rediscovering history again and almost like you were driving with them,” said Melat Ayalew, a rising senior at East Mecklenburg High.
The trip was a first for area kids, offered through the Levine Museum of the New South in a program called History ACTIVE. The students were chosen after they submitted applications to Levine. Some heard about the program after they were approached by their history teachers, and applications were open to all high school students.
For four days, 15 students from the Charlotte area rode the bus to several civil rights-related locales, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood home in Atlanta and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four African-American girls were killed in a bombing in 1963.
Some students said walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., was the most powerful experience. That’s where civil rights protesters marched and were beaten by police, an event later dubbed Bloody Sunday.
“It reminded me that others died for that same opportunity we have now,” said Sherry Bailey, a home-schooled rising sophomore.
“In the past, people saw their family and friends getting hurt or jailed for exercising their right to walk across that bridge.”
Other students said they enjoyed visiting King’s boyhood home.
“He was a kid just like us,” Ayalew said. “It gave us the feeling you don’t have to be born with something special to make changes in the world. It starts with one ordinary person.”
The students spent the week before the trip learning about the 1960s civil rights movement and visiting places such as Johnson C. Smith University’s “COURAGE” exhibit and the Latin American Coalition offices.
Erin Marshall, a rising senior at Hough High, said she learned from spending time with students from different backgrounds that different cultures within American society are more similar than different.
She said she’d like to see young people work for greater equality for minorities, “because they get looked down upon a lot.”
“I don’t really think I realized how much discrimination there still is today,” said Marshall, who is Caucasian. She said discrimination can be as simple as a look or a derogatory remark.
To make a difference at home, Kamille Bostick, the program coordinator for History ACTIVE, said being aware of current events and local groups is key and that it’s easy to get involved.
“If you’re ready to think and question, you’re ready to be an activist,” Bostick said.
Marshall said standing up for what’s right can start in social media such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram because it can reach a lot of people through a ripple effect, although she said being obnoxious isn’t appropriate either.
She said the bus tour helped her learn the importance of speaking up, even if it’s not easy or comfortable.
“That’s part of the thing with teenagers: We all want to fit in. But if people are really your friends, they’re going to accept you.”
Ayalew said it’s important for young people to use their voices: “No matter how small you think it is, it can actually pack quite a punch.”
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