Civil Rights Pilgrimage: march through history

Story by Nick Erickson, Staff Writer

Every third Monday in January, America designates the day to honor Martin Luther King Jr.  This winter break, over 90 UW-Eau Claire students and faculty members designated ten days to celebrate his life and learn about the topic of civil rights on the tenth Civil Rights Pilgrimage.

Virgil Ward, a senior student coordinator, said the trip strategically followed the life of King.

It started in his birthplace of Atlanta and  ended in the city of Memphis, Tenn., where King was assassinated. Overall, the trip had destinations in five states over the ten days.

Ward said one of the goals of the trip is to open people’s minds to different people and cultures.

“I want people to expand their minds and viewpoints to be more accepting,” Ward said. “That way they can actually experience things before they make assumptions.”

Those who went on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage had the opportunity to fulfill Ward’s goals by visiting an array of historical places that were important during King’s quest for civil rights.

The trip’s first three days were spent in Atlanta, where the group was able to attend a church service at Martin Luther King Sr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, a place where King began to preach his ministry of nonviolence and peace. They also saw King’s birth home in Atlanta.

After that, the group traveled to Alabama, making stops in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma.

Yingxing Zhang, a foreign exchange student at UW-Eau Claire, was particularly impressed with the Wall of Tolerance at the Civil Rights Memorial Center, where visitors are able to sign a promise that they will continue to fight for equality.

“Each of us in the group signed their name to pledge to contribute themselves in the development of the peace of the world and try to build an equal society,” Zhang said. “That was my favorite part.”

In Selma, the group walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a place where marchers had to cross to Montgomery and were subject to police brutality, Ward said.

He said Selma was an extremely significant place to stop.

“To actually walk where (the marchers) walked was just a really significant and important thing we got to do,” Ward said.

After taking a bus tour in New Orleans, the group got to enjoy a bit of downtime in the Big Easy.

Students could hang out in the French Quarter, attend a Jazz concert at Preservation Hall and even take a swamp tour.

The group then spent time in Little Rock, Ark., including a stop at Central High School, the site of a race riot after schools were forced to integrate due to the court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education.

The final days of the trip were spent in Memphis, Tenn., highlighted by a trip to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination.

Rachel Minske, a junior journalism major who took advantage of the trip’s journalism opportunities, said the trip left quite the impression on her.

“It really opened my eyes to see not only what our country has overcome, but still how much work is left to do,” Minske said.

Ward said students from all walks of life gain something from this pilgrimage.

“We don’t even have to ask them to (promote change),” he said. “No matter what field you go into, there will have to be some social change and social justice.  People never forget this trip and what it does to them.”