Last spring I had the privilege of traveling with students enrolled in my “Civil Rights and American Memory” course to historic sites associated with the mid-century black freedom struggle. With the support of a Domestic Intercultural Immersion grant, my students and I joined dozens of their peers on UW-Eau Claire’s annual Civil Rights Pilgrimage. This trip allows participants to immerse themselves in historic landscapes and interact directly with movement veterans like Charles Pearson — a Freedom Rider — and Joanne Bland — a participant in the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march.
Through direct engagement with the history of the civil rights movement, we can deepen our understanding of the long history of systemic inequality in the United States and the prejudices and practices of white privilege that continue to sustain it today. Sustained study of the past also empowers us and challenges us to reflect on our own agency — our individual capacity and collective responsibility to reshape our environment and address injustice.
As we traveled across the country last spring, students participating in the Civil Rights Pilgrimage were emboldened by their interactions with speakers, activists, museum docents and tour guides who called on them to bring their unique skills to bear on issues of concern to them and the nation at large. As the trip unfolded, students committed themselves to mentoring youth, addressing discrimination on our campus, promoting women’s rights and serving as advocates for social justice — even as they planned careers as pharmacists, lawyers, journalists, psychologists and soldiers.
In this spirit, UWEC students embody the promise of the Wisconsin Idea, which not only challenges the university to be of service to the state, but challenges each of us — students, faculty, staff and administrators — to bend our efforts to the greater public good. The liberal arts education the university is founded on prepares students for rewarding careers AND a purpose-driven life rich with opportunities to serve their communities.
This October, all students on campus will have the opportunity explore, learn and engage in meaningful conversation about the dynamic legacy of the civil rights movement. The “Risking Everything” series of events and exhibits scheduled this fall prompt us to bring the Civil Rights Pilgrimage home and to reflect on how we can act to foster equity, diversity and inclusivity at UW-Eau Claire. All members of our campus community are invited to participate in this conversation and be emboldened.
Photo caption: Alabama state Capitol in Montgomery