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Experience the Civil Rights Road Trip

Many schools are offering civil rights trips over spring break. Find out how you can engage students in your communities and across the country.

The 50th anniversary of the Children’s March will occur Thursday. Last month marked the anniversary of Bloody Sunday.  And this month saw the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” These events make spring a great time to reflect on civil rights history.

In his letter, King emphasized the interconnectedness of all crusaders struggling for racial equality. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” 

The geography of this network has inspired many educators to teach the civil rights movement in the streets, in churches and in other gathering sites where these events took place. Some schools expand these experiential learning opportunities into weeklong alternative spring break trips where students travel and learn about people and places that were once only names on a page. Students not only visit significant locations like Memphis, Little Rock, Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery (the SPLC-supported Civil Rights Memorial Center is a frequent destination), but they become immersed in the stories of everyday activists, visionary leaders and those who sought to halt the march of change. 

Marianne Magjuka, director of campus life at Wake Forest University and a former high school history teacher, has conducted civil rights road trips at a number of institutions. She leads excursions to address state and national social studies standards and nurture critical thinking about how history connects to contemporary political and civic life.  

“[Spring break 2013] was timely because the Supreme Court was hearing arguments about the Voting Rights Act,” Magjuka remembers. “So to say, ‘This is what people went through to have that Act created in the first place,’ and to walk in Selma and go to the National Voting Rights Museum, it connects [that history] to current events and what people have gone through to make these rights available to everyone.”

Magjuka said she observed a change in the activist spirit of her students throughout the trip. “A natural question is, ‘If I had been living in that time, what would I have done?’ But I think instead focusing on, ‘What can you do right now?' Those are some of the major questions and changes I have seen in students.”

Like Magjuka, humanities teacher Lucas Schaefer of The Girls’ School of Austin, Texas says the civil rights road trip he planned with his eighth-grade students not only grew their knowledge, but also their confidence to express it.

“We set up a lot of meetings with people. It was pretty intimidating at first for them. And it’s intimidating to talk about civil rights issues and racial issues. Over the course of the trip they became more comfortable asking questions and articulating what they knew already and stuff they were learning as they went.”

If your school doesn’t have the bandwidth to plan a road trip, you can investigate how the civil rights movement impacted your own community and examine current local justice and equality issues. Visiting nearby historical sites, conducting oral history interviews and doing archival research are all hands-on ways to bring the movement to life. Consider also taking a “virtual” road-trip by viewing films, investigating primary source documents, arranging Skype interviews and studying historical moments in the context of their geographic locations. Visit our Civil Rights Road Trip Map for ideas on which communities to profile or use one of our activities to bring these important anniversaries to life. 

van der Valk is associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.