Reflecting on the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement

Sophomores in the Bonner Community Fellowship spent a week over winter break exploring the culture and history of Tennessee and Mississippi
by Susie Pentelow, Communications Coordinator
January 30, 2020
Students standing in front of a mural of civil rights leaders in Memphis, TN.

Mural at Facing History and Ourselves in Memphis, Tennessee.

Students at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis

Students at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

Students at the Amzie Moore House Museum

Students at the Amzie Moore House Museum and Interpretive Center in Cleveland, Mississippi with James McBride.

Students at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis

Students at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

As winter break drew to a close, 19 students from the Bonner Community Fellowship were in Tennessee and Mississippi on a week-long civil rights trip. Part of the historic Brown-Tougaloo partnership which spans over 50 years, this annual trip offers students the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the area’s culture and history through site visits, meetings, talks, and classes.

For the first time this year, four Brown undergraduate students from outside of the Bonner program also joined the trip. They were accompanied by Swearer staff and Professor Françoise Hamlin of the Departments of History and Africana Studies at Brown, who is leading a course, “Memory, Movements, Mississippi,” this semester to contextualize and reflect on the experience.

"The Swearer Center trip granted me an invaluable opportunity to learn about the complexities, hidden stories, and overlooked narratives of the civil rights movement in Memphis, Tennessee, and Jackson, Mississippi,” said Kimberly Collins ‘22, a Public Policy concentrator, and a 2019 Social Innovation fellow. “Visiting museums, memorials, and historical sites followed by sharing reflections during seminars enhanced my own understanding of the Black freedom struggle. As an African American woman who has been limited in my opportunities to fully explore my own history, this experience developed my sense of self and personal connections to the civil rights movement at large."

The students flew out on Sunday, January 12, and spent the first day in Memphis, Tennessee, where they visited the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The group then traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, where they toured the Mississippi Freedom Trail with civil rights leader Charles McLaurin, visiting sites such as the Aaron Henry freedom marker, which celebrates the life and career of Henry, an American civil rights leader, politician, and head of the Mississippi branch of the NAACP, the Sumner Courthouse, where Emmett Till’s murder trial was held, and Fannie Lou Haner’s gravesite and memorial garden. At each stop, the group spoke with civil rights leaders and locals about the history and significance of the marker.

On Wednesday, the students joined up with students and faculty at Tougaloo College, an institution that played a pivotal role in the Jackson Civil Rights Movement, with students, faculty, and staff fighting to integrate Jackson’s public library, restaurants, and churches, creating “a safe haven for activists fighting for dignity, equity, and justice.”

The group spent the next three days touring local sites to better understand the rich history and culture of Tougaloo. They met with civil rights leader Hollis Watkins and visited the home of Medgar Evers, the first NAACP field secretary, where he was assassinated in 1963. Opened as a museum by Tougaloo College in 1997, the site falls under the stewardship of curator Minnie Watson, who guided the group on their tour.

“Although the contents of the trip remain the same, I am lucky to see the various impacts it leaves on all participants, year after year,” said Joshua Rogriguez, program manager at the Swearer Center. “I am always excited to see students return to campus motivated with energy and apply the skills and stories learned to their community.”

The group returned on Saturday, two days before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a time to honor the vision and spirit of Dr. King, and reflect on our personal and collective responsibility to continue his legacy. As Minnie Watson remarked during the tour of Medgar Evers’s home: “One day you will be reading about yourself in these history books. Keep going with those signs and protests now and make a difference.”