Finding Dr. King
"All men are created equal."
Nearly a century after they were written those words from the Declaration of Independence provided millions of African Americans with a foundation for their struggles against slavery and violence. Although the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned slavery in 1865, the social injustices affiliated with it persisted, and it wasn't until millions of African Americans made history during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that they were granted legal equality in this country.
With the mid-20th century in mind, 12 first-year Martin Luther King Jr. scholars traveled to Atlanta and Birmingham to retrace some of the steps leading to the civil rights movement. Over the course of four days in October the scholars experienced what it would have been like to live during those decades, when segregationists resisted the desire of African Americans for equality with bombs, fire hoses, and marches, and the South was thrown into chaos. By visiting landmarks and listening to firsthand accounts of those who worked for equality using nonviolent tactics, the students gained a greater understanding of why and how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.
Maria Gonzalez '08 especially appreciated a visit to the Civil Rights Institute, where, she says, the movement, and Martin Luther King Jr., came to life for her in photographs and exhibits. "The trip was structured perfectly," she adds. "By the end I think all of us felt as if we understood Dr. King."
Because history has mythologized King, it is easy to forget that he was a human being -- something Brian Saa '08 became aware of after visiting Morehouse College, where King studied sociology. Saa says he felt empowered after seeing photographs of King not as a leader of a major movement, but as a college student. "It is possible that one day all of us in the program will do something as great as he has," he says. "This trip made me think about the things we can do now to make a better future."
It was from other civil rights leaders that the scholars learned of the struggle to achieve equality from a personal perspective. Dorothy Cotton, the former education director of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a longtime Ithaca resident, talked with the students about the important role nonviolence played in the movement. She also shared the lessons she gleaned from working closely with King.
The participating scholars continue to study the civil rights movement in their weekly MLK foundation seminar, where they have the opportunity to develop their sense of responsibility and commitment to social change and diversity.
Joining the scholars for the tour were Edward Twyman, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs; Stephanie Adams, assistant director of OMA; and Zach Williams, assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity. The trip coincided with the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," thus denying the legal basis for segregation in education.