On The Freedom Road

Issue Date: 
June 13, 2016

On Saturday, nine Pitt students boarded a 50-seat bus in Beaver Falls, a small town about 40 miles from the Oakland campus. Their destination: history and the Civil Rights South.

It marked the beginning of a nine-day trip during which the students—and other passengers—will crisscross five states and travel more than 2,300 miles as part of the 15th annual Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights bus tour. The excursion, begun in 2002 by a nonprofit organization of the same name, will revisit some of the most memorable milestones that marked a turning point in this nation’s history of racial progress.

The tour also taps into Pitt’s nationally recognized Outside the Classroom Curriculum (OCC), an initiative that promotes co-curricular student development and experiential learning. 

“This is like a classroom on the road,” said Steve Anderson, associate dean and director of Residence Life at Pitt, whose office helped to connect the students to the tour. 

The trip itinerary touches upon issues of race and social justice, integral parts of the lessons of inclusion that students are exposed to at Pitt and issues that are important to this nation, said Kayla Shawley, senior resident director with Pitt’s Office of Residence Life. “So with this project, we want the students to be intentional about learning, to be reflective, to gain insight, to question.” 

The Pitt students’ academic interests include everything from history, gender and sexuality, and Hispanic languages, to social work and Africana studies.

Darlyn Reaves, a junior majoring in Africana studies, heard about the trip while working as the community outreach chair with the Roberto Clemente Minority Business Association. Reaves, who is also president of the campus’ Delta Sigma Theta, an African American sorority dedicated to public service, was immediately engaged. 

“I have always been very interested, as an African American woman, in the history of our people, and greatly influenced by their struggles and prosperity,” she said. Reaves added that she expects to be educated and inspired by the journey and hopes to return with “a heightened awareness and an even greater aspiration” to do all that she can for her community and the world. 

Ava Mosbacher is also on the bus. She is a Pitt senior majoring in Hispanic languages and literatures as well as history. After learning about the trip from her history advisor, Mosbacher took a class last semester that examined the Civil Rights Movement. It “lit a fire within me to study this part of history,” she said.

By “visiting the battlegrounds” for civil rights, Mosbacher said she hopes “to honor all those who were killed or physically, spiritually, or psychologically wounded by the hatred and violence of bigotry.”

Residence Life views participation in the tour as a way to bridge the University’s recently completed Year of the Humanities with the Year of Diversity and Inclusion, which kicks off this fall. More importantly, said Anderson, as an OCC experience, the tour represents an opportunity to resuscitate the Civil Rights Movement’s heroes. It can connect the students intellectually and emotionally to the humanity of what the civil rights participants endured, showing that they were much more than just a historical footnote.

The students will visit the old Woolworth’s store where four Black college students sat at a soda fountain in 1960 in one of North Carolina’s first sit-ins against discrimination; they will walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the site of one of the bloodiest confrontations of the era in 1965; and they will sit in the Birmingham, Ala., church where four little girls died in a bomb blast one Sunday morning on their way out of children’s Bible class in 1963.

The students will have the chance to walk through the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and visit gleaming state-of-the-art museums where they can view sepia newsreels and black-and-white photographs dedicated to archiving and sharing the history of the movement.

But the journey will be more than visits to brick-and-mortar institutions. A key part of the tour will be hearing from the men and women who participated in the movement. Many of those who stood up to the hatred of the era were young people, about the same ages as the nine Pitt students. In their own voices, they will share with the students how they marched, braved water cannons and dog attacks, and changed the world. 

The students are scheduled to meet Rutha Harris, the preacher’s daughter from Albany, Ga., who was home from her first year in college when she decided to join the Freedom Singers and inspire freedom’s pilgrims in song; Joanne Bland, a founder of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, who was arrested at age 8 in Selma for protesting; and in Nashville, Rip Patton and Kwame Lillard, Freedom Riders whose courage to travel with White passengers desegregated interstate public transportation. 

For Anderson, participation in the trip was part personal mission. He was a graduate student in Akron, Ohio, in 1999 when he first heard about David Faber, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. They would meet a year later, and over the years, as Anderson built his career, he stayed in touch with Faber, whom he invited to speak to groups in Iowa and North Carolina.

“People were drawn to David,” no matter the size of the crowd, said Anderson, “I saw his impact and how his story made a struggle human.”

Anderson is hoping that the Civil Rights journey will reproduce that kind of impact for the students. That they will be able to sit, listen, and hear the stories of the human lives behind the history. 

“These are the kinds of moments that help us to understand other people’s experiences,” he said.

Beginning June 13, you can follow the Pitt students on “History’s Journey: On the Road to the Civil Rights Past.” From June 13-18, they will share their highlights via photography, blog posts, and videos of the people and places they experience on our website.