LITTLE ROCK Ark.
Just a day into a tour of civil rights landmarks in the South, Nadia Samie says she already sees parallels between the Jim Crow era and the apartheid period in her country, South Africa.
Samie, a student at the University of Cape Town, is among 19 college students from Africa who embarked Friday on a tour of many of the landmarks of the civil rights struggle.
“The practices were similar in the ways black people were segregated and just the way black people were treated,” Samie said. “It’s become even more apparent how similar the fights were between the people on both continents.”
The students from Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa began their tour at Little Rock Central High School, where nine black youth were met with jeers and threats nearly 50 years ago. The school celebrates the 50th anniversary of its desegregation this fall.
The tour to landmarks in Memphis, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; Atlanta and Greensboro, N.C. was arranged through an international exchange program at the University of Arkansas’ Spring International Language Center.
The center received a grant from the U.S. State Department and participants in the program have been taking classes over the past month on civil rights and social justice, said program coordinator Gabrielle Idlet.
“We wanted them to tour the South so they can see what this all means and think about what they’ve learned so far,” Idlet said.
Masai David, 21, a business student at the United States International University in Nairobi, said he looked forward to visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which is built around the motel where civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.
“We are taught about this on a minimal scale,” he said. “Coming to the places where these real things happened and seeing it in contemporary American eyes makes all the difference.”
Oscar Kituyi, 23, who is studying mathematics and business in Nairobi, said he knew nothing about Central High School.
“When I came here, the first introduction of the whole issue of civil rights was that Central High was an epic scenario in this whole struggle,” he said.
Selaelo Modiba, another student in South Africa, said learning about U.S. civil rights history has opened her eyes to the fact the U.S. is still struggling with race relations.
“I used to think of America as a completely perfect world,” Modiba said. “I didn’t think racial issues were as bad as my country’s experience was. … I can see that there’s still a lot to be done.”
Samie said that after studying the history of the civil rights struggle in the U.S., seeing the landmarks in person will probably be an emotional experience or her.
“We’ve been hearing so much about it in theory in our classes, but to actually be at the scenes will be very dramatic,” she said.
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