Today, March 7, marks the 50th anniversary of a bloody milestone in the Civil Rights Movement – when marchers in Selma, Alabama were attacked by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On Friday, a busload from SMU began retracing the route a group of students, faculty and staff took a half century ago.
In 1965, Kenneth Shields was an English professor at SMU. It bothered him when he heard about the attack on protestors that fateful Sunday in March. It became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Two weeks later, Shields boarded a bus with his colleagues and 20-plus students and headed to Montgomery. They were answering the call for support from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Friday afternoon, Shields sat on a campus bench, watching a younger generation get ready to take off on a similar journey. He’s 83 now and walks with a cane, but he still vividly remembers that trip and what it meant to him.
“You just can’t stand to one side when things like this happen,” he said. “From the time I was fairly young, I always felt this need to stand by the marginalized and people who were unfairly treated. That’s who I am.”
It’s no surprise then that Shields was thrilled to see this busload of students off. Suitcases, pillows and bags scattered around them as hymns like “Go Tell it on the Mountain” played in the background.
“They are eager to understand something which for them is simply history, and I couldn’t be more pleased, really,” he said.
SMU junior Caitlin Burke says she most looking forward to talking to people in Selma who were part of original group of marchers. When they arrive in Selma, Rev. Jack Singleton, who was an SMU theology student in 1965 and traveled to Alabama, will greet them.
“Hearing their stories – it’s just, it’s such an emotional experience,” said Burke. “And I feel like it really, when we come to them, it validates their experience. It shows them that they were fighting for an amazing cause and that people still believe in the cause.”
Burke, who’s 21, says it’s important for people her age to learn about this part of history. She and the other students going on the trip have been reading and watching documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement in their political science class.
“A trip like this educates everybody in my generation that a lot of times thinks that, ‘Oh, human rights problems, they aren’t my problems,’ ” Burke said. “So it gives them a chance to see it first-hand.”
Political science professor Dennis Simon leads this annual class trip. He says students will get to see, hear and touch what they’ve been learning.
“Touching is kind of important – like the metal, the beams on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, or the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, or the church that was burned during Freedom Summer.” Simon said. “And so it’s both emotional and intellectual and the combination of that is rare.”
The students will get to walk across the bridge. Their guide has a connection to it.
“She was beaten on that bridge when she was 11 years old and she’s with us for the better part of afternoon,” Simon said. “She’s a very powerful – a force to be reckon with – and spending the time with her and going through that experience is just memorable. It’s life-long.”
Kashundra Foreman is a 41-year-old grad student at SMU. This trip has special meaning for her – her relatives were part of the Civil Rights Movement.
“So I think it’s important for me to understand them a little bit better in their struggles that they had overcome just for me to have things that are better in my life.”
Foreman says walking across the bridge will be like reliving history. She wants to know what that march felt like.
You can keep up with the students and staff on the trip by checking out their tweets at #SMUSelma.