By: Monique Linder          

Photo Credit: Bianca Rhodes

ARTS-Us methodology of developing youth leaders through an integrated program of Arts, Culture and Sciences, traveled with Twin Cities high school students to the South recently on a 5 cities,  5 Days Civil Rights Research Experience (CRRE.).

Day 1: Minneapolis – Memphis- Tuskegee

Day 2: Tuskegee-Montgomery- Selma

Day 3: Selma – Jackson, MS

Day 4: Jackson, MS – Memphis, TN

Day 5: – Memphis, TN – Minneapolis, MN

My thoughts were . . . this tour schedule would make any major entertainer dizzy.  How would the students reconcile the hate and cruelty against humanity, their ancestors, during this journey?   I put together an outline of highlights of the ARTS-Us Civil Rights Research Experience that shows the outstanding performance results of an organization that has a 26-year history developing youth leaders through cultural integration of arts, innovation and scientific discovery, that can’t be captured quantitatively.  It is important for the community to see what youth development looks and feels like.

Along for the ride wearing my media hat and as co-producer of the upcoming ARTS-Us Sankofa: Spirit of the Ancestors Celebration 2019, there were moments observed that simply took my breath away, as-if scenes playing out real-time in a movie.   I will highlight a few of those moments  accompanied by photos that only tell part of the story. CRRE students under the direction of award-winning cinematographer Bianca Rhodes, created a video of their journey that will be shown at the ARTS-Us Sankofa: Spirit of the Ancestors Celebration 2019 taking place on April 13th at Concordia University’s Buenger Education Center, from 5pm – 8pm.

Highlights:

Day 1: Memphis, TN -Students boarded a Southwest flight from Minneapolis on April 3rd, with a stop in Denver, CO before arriving in Memphis and transported by bus to the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.  It is no coincidence that on this day, in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the iconic “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, TN at the Mason Temple, the evening before he was assassinated.  More about the visit to Mason Temple on Day 4.

The students had many questions at the Boarding House museum where James Earl Ray stayed prior to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Their disbelief in the way the story was portrayed was talked about in the debriefing that evening.

At the end of each day, debriefing took place with students and teachers engaging in powerful conversation about their experience. 

After dinner, the students boarded the bus for a 5-hour drive to Tuskegee, AL.

Day 2: Tuskegee, AL – Tuskegee, University 

Students consumed the large campus with a guided tour led by a Tuskegee senior who had vast knowledge of the history of Booker T. Washington and the women he entrusted to build the University’s legacy that we bear witness to today.  Visiting Dr. Booker T. Washington’s gravesite with Gerorge Washington Carver burial plot in close proximity was poignant and pride-filled at the same time.  The very bricks that built the chapel were made by the students.  Producing Agriculture, Aerospace, Science, Engineering and Technology leaders is the DNA of the University.  Boeing has a recruitment program with the Aerospace school.  Students toured the George Washington Carver museum and marveled at the size of Booker T. Washington home, “The Oaks” located a short walk from the main campus entrance.

Next stop, Equal Justice Initiative Lynching Museum and Peace & Justice Memorial located in Montgomery, Alabama.

The students tours Equal Justice Initiative’s Lynching Museum followed by a tour of the Peace and Justice Memorial.  Bryan Stevenson was scheduled to meet with the students, unfortunately, he was called to New York to meet with Civil Rights leaders about the 56-page report on the Alabama prison system that was issued by the Justice Department on April 3rd. His apology was definitely not necessary.  The students felt honored that his story was being played out real-time while they were visiting the museum.  

Articles:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/03/us/alabama-prisons-doj-investigation.html

https://www.phillytrib.com/news/across_america/alabama-vows-action-on-prison-conditions-after-biting-report/article_98891814-172a-5514-a5a7-37ebf225f8f2.html

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/alabama-passes-budget-funding-address-state-s-prison-violence-problem-n992806

An emotional debriefing was held in a small alcove at the end of the museum tour.  The young men were visibly shaken by what they saw on this self-guided tour and found it difficult to talk about.  They wanted to deal with the pain inwardly.  The young women on the other hand, talked about the pain, suffering and resiliency of oppressed people that witnessed the torture of their loved ones. Visible pain and grief on the faces of the students was seen as they walked through the hanging lynching exhibits with countless names in cities across America where lynching black people was done for the entertainment of the public.

The students boarded the bus for the next city, Selma, AL.

Day 3: Selma, AL -The first stop was at the slave warehouses that line the main street next to the Edmund Pettus bridge. 

Ms. Afriye Wekandothis stepped on the bus in character depicting a slave trader.  She yelled “n–gers get off the bus and line up facing the wall.”  You better not talk or look at me.  You are nothing . . .you are lazy . . .you eat too much. . .” – shocked we all did as we were told.

The students stepped right off the bus and into the full re-enactment of the slave trade in Selma, Alabama.  Ms. Afriye debriefed afterwards and her love and earth in making sure the students were alright was heart-warming.   This experience was shocking and truly one of the most painful experiences that I have ever felt depicting the brutal history of the institution of slavery, lynching and most egregious human rights atrocities.

Ms. Afriye used the students to illustrate what the Willy Lynch model did to pit the slaves against each other and to illustrate how slave masters manipulated the minds of slaves to promote fear, distrust and envy in their minds using age, color (shade of skin), intellect, size, sex, hair, height and status on the plantation, to name a few.  This depiction feel hate-filled in knowing our ancestors were in a no-win situation every day of their life as a slave.  It felt like a death sentence given to you by a man who owned, treating you worst than he treated animals.  This very idea that a black person was considered 3/5 of an human being is insane.

https://youtu.be/Q5Cglc-_VME

https://youtu.be/qNs8XLzEjUU

https://archive.org/stream/WillieLynchLetter1712/the_willie_lynch_letter_the_making_of_a_slave_1712_djvu.txt

Online Blog describing the slave trading re-enactment. 

Joanne Bland then led a tour of Selma, AL to many historical civil rights sights stopping at the church where the Bloody Sunday march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. where she shared her story as a youth participating in that march.  The students took the historic walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The next city was two hours away in Jackson, MS. 

Day 4: Jackson, MS -The Civil Rights Museum located on the campus of Jackson University was another outstanding museum focused on telling the Mississippi civil rights history.

Ms. Minnie Watson allowed the students to walk through every room of Medgar Evers home.  She explained that the National Parks service is taking over the home and the type of tour they are getting today will not be possible after they take over. 

Minnie Watson, as a student at Tougaloo College, heard Medgar Evers speak and became a loyal student of his teachings.  She was selected by the college to assist the film crew during filming of The Medgar Evers movie, who left the furnishings in the house.  Ms. Watson has been arranging tours of the house since then and spoke of Myrlie Evers (Medgar Evers wife) pain and fear that forced her to leave Jackson, MS quickly after her husband was murdered. Mrs. Evers spent all her life fighting for justice for her murdered husband.

The day ended at Mason Temple where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his last speech “Mountaintop” the night before he was assassinated.

Gathered in the massive sanctuary, students listened to a portion of the “Mountaintop” speech. 

After listening to the speech, the students each shared their personal reflection of the trip through spoken words, poems, song, words which was a powerful defining moment in the entire trip.

The debriefing that took place could not have been planned or scripted.  It was the raw emotions from the students that created this Sankofa moment of understanding from where they come from and deep reflection about their potential to be the best human being they can be and to stand up for human rights.

I often heard the students use the word “period” after they heard someone  say something powerful that seemed to indicate ” you just said all that can be said about that topic.”  The world is a much better place with ARTS-Us youth leaders in it.  

Period.