Berea College Civil Rights Tour: An Unforgettable Journey

Nothing can prepare you for the Civil Rights Tour. NOTHING! But it is a journey everyone should take.

Every couple of years Berea College takes a bus full of staff and faculty from Memphis TN to Jackson MS to Montgomery AL to Atlanta GA, and all the way back to Berea KY, to visit historical markers like the Lorraine Motel, Bridge in Selma, and the Memorial for Peace Social Justice to commemorate the Black victims of lynching in each county of the United States.

As a staff member of the Appalachian Center I felt it was important to go, not only to understand our country’s roots, but also to learn how to become a better ally and supporter for my Black co-workers and Berea College students. Last summer, the murders of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor opened up old wounds in our country that never fully healed. I witnessed with my own eyes the contempt and hatred of people in my own hometown as I participated in Black Lives Matter protests in Berea.  It truly felt like we were thrown back in time to the 1960’s during the fight for Civil Rights. Black people in this country are literally fighting for their lives.

It is one thing to learn about Ruby Bridges in elementary school, watch the movie Selma, and accumulate pieces of Civil Rights facts from textbooks and online articles. It is quite another to set foot on these places in person. To see fresh flowers left by some anonymous person laid at the sight of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was murdered. To meet Hezekiah Watkins, the youngest Freedom Rider to be arrested (at age 13), and hear him tell his story in Jackson Mississippi. To feel the presence of those who came before as you walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. To meet activists and historians who are working so hard to preserve this history and tell these stories in a way that will have a deep and meaningful impact, even though there are many who would prefer these accounts to remain secret.

I wanted to somehow document the profound impact these experiences had on me so I illustrated the sites that meant the most to me on the bus from destination to destination. It took time and sometimes it was hard because the road was  bumpy, but this obsession took a hold of me and I felt compelled to see it through. This last illustration here is a self portrait of me at the Memorial of Peace and Justice in Montgomery Alabama. Of all the places we visited this one hit the hardest. Seeing the thousands of victims who died from lynching and realizing that thousands more white people stood there and watched as this happened. It cut deep.

We have a brutal history and the violence continues to this very day. But it does no good to despair. Tears cannot right the wrongs of the past. I came home from this experience emotionally exhausted, but resolved to do better. I can do more to ease the burden of my Black co-workers, friends, and neighbors as they shoulder enormous responsibilities. I can speak up when I see injustice. I can donate more time and money as we walk this path of reconciliation. I can do more self reflection as I seek to root out my own bias and apathy.

I want to thank everyone who made this experience happen, especially Jessica Klanderud and Rasheka Richardson, who planned this tour in the middle of a pandemic! I am grateful for time and money that was invested to make it possible for me to take this journey. I hope I am worth it.