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Traveling Classroom Uses Landmark Civil Rights Sites for Teaching


The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated just one day before Sharon Matlock turned 10.  Her birthday brought gifts and her mother’s tears, and ever since she has tried to understand the hatred and violence of those times. Now 49 and a college staff member, Matlock recently joined professors and students on a five-state trip to civil rights landmarks to find answers.

More and more colleges are leading trips through the South — to cities such as Memphis, Tenn., where King was shot in 1968; Little Rock, Ark.; Atlanta; Selma, Ala.; and Jackson — to help students understand the long, bitter struggle for equality.

The trips bring events of that period to life and provide students with insights they could not get in a classroom, say officials of Southern Methodist University, who sponsored the tour Matlock joined.

“Seeing Medgar Evers’ house was sobering because we saw how that family had to live back in that time,” says Matlock, describing the home where the Mississippi NAACP field secretary was fatally shot. It is in Jackson, the tour’s first stop. “The house was designed with no front door. They had to live on the floor. They were prisoners in their home.”

In 2005, SMU created its Civil Rights Pilgrimage Travel Seminar, which takes students to historical sites during spring break. Matlock, who works in the university’s human resources department, traveled with 40 others, including four from another Dallas school, historically Black Paul Quinn College. Their chartered bus stopped in eight cities over eight days.

“Civil rights tours are very popular among colleges, senior citizens’ groups, historical groups and high schools,” says Clotie Graves, who led the tour of Evers’ house. Graves’ business works with the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau, noted,

According to Graves, the house was restored by Castle Rock Entertainment, which used it for scenes in the 1996 movie “Ghosts of Mississippi.”

Another stop was Peaches Café, which owner Roderick Ephram says had been frequented by Freedom Riders in the 1960s.

Matlock took the trip as an independent study for the liberal studies master’s degree she’s pursuing. The trip cost $275 per person.

The Rev. Michael W. Waters, pastor of Greater Garth Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dallas, came up with the idea for civil rights trips in 2004 when he was an SMU theology student.

“I’ve always had a passion for the civil rights movement and in revisiting the achievements of the movement,” Waters says.

SMU’s chaplain’s office and the William P. Clements Department of History oversee the trips, which are supported by grants. Students who want three hours of academic credit must read material, watch videos, keep a journal and write a paper about the trip, says William M. Finnin Jr., SMU’s chaplain.

The trip focuses on the years 1955 to 1968, says SMU history professor Glenn Linden, who serves as trip historian and leads discussions about the sites and the videos the travelers watch en route.

“We have meetings in the evening and we process it. For a while, some of the White students feel anxious,” says Linden. “Some of the Black students begin to understand why their parents were trying to protect them and [they understand] what could happen to them in a fairly racist society.”

Still, he says the trip is not about guilt.

“You’re not blamed if you’re White. When the trip is over, we meet and say, ‘How can we make SMU a better place?’” Linden says.

Next year’s pilgrimage itinerary is already being planned and will be different. Finnin says next year’s trip will put more emphasis on Mississippi and the blues.

“We hope to go to Money, Miss., where many people believe the emotional and cultural trigger for the civil rights movement began with the death of Emmett Till,” he says. “We hope to add a stop in Philadelphia, Miss., where Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were killed.”

Besides the Southern experience of race relations from slavery and the Civil War through Reconstruction and Jim Crow, the 2008 trip will consider some aspects of Hurricane Katrina.

Matlock says the most moving part of the trip was the group’s visit to a slavery and Civil War museum, housed in the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma.

She wrote in her journal: “moved to tears as we were treated like slaves.”

The group was told not to make eye contact with the museum guide, she says. And when they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge — site of 1965’s “Bloody Sunday” march — Matlock wrote, “Oh Lord! The horror, the pain, the courage, the determination, the fights, the victories of a people.”

The trip answered many questions, she says.

“Some of the people said it was life changing and I didn’t believe it,” she says. “But it has changed my life, my outlook, my understanding and my willingness. It kind of puts you more at a peace about yourself.”

— Associated Press

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