I have wanted to travel through the south ever since I was young and became fascinated by the history of the Civil Rights Movement, most notably Martin Luther King, Jr. My mother and I talked about doing it over spring break of my senior year, but driving from Michigan would have made for way too much time in the car. As soon as I heard of the Freedom Ride course, I knew it was a class I would take during my four years here. Having always wanted to take this trip, I had pretty high expectations. However, these were the expectations of someone who had never studied the movement at a collegiate level. My excitement and my expectations were based in the love of history that started when I was very young.
I can now say, at the end of the course, that my expectations were completely blown away. Traveling through Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee taught me a lot more about civil rights then any normal class could have. I was forced to confront the fact that racism and segregation are still the way of life in some parts of our country. While this angers me greatly, it is something I am grateful to have learned first-hand. Visiting the sites of important historical events was also a great learning experience. Even just standing in the same places as those who fought for freedom was an opportunity I will always treasure.
The chance to meet with Joan Browning was one of the most memorable parts of the class for me. It was powerful to see Freedom Riders speaking in interviews and to visit the places they traveled, but actually engaging with someone who participated in the movement was something I never imagined I would have the chance to do. Talking with Joan, who was a young college student like myself during the Civil Rights Movement, made me want to make more of my college career.
While the traveling was what drew me to the course in the first place, and while it was a valuable and enriching experience, I am also very pleased with the time we spent in class. Watching news footage of the movement, and hearing movement veterans reflect on their actions was more influential than I expected. It amazed me to remind myself how young the bulk of the movement was, a fact that can be easy to look over. Watching their interviews in later decades made me realize that many of the most important people from the movement are around today. This forces one to acknowledge the power that youth can have. I had previously not taken any history courses that included a time period where video footage was available, so this was a new opportunity. Analyzing the primary source video from a historical perspective was interesting, and made me look at the movement in new ways. I no longer see civil rights as a glorified movement where everything they fought for was accomplished. From the video and the text that we studied, in addition to the traveling, I now have a much more complex understanding of what the Civil Rights Movement truly was; a movement that accomplished a lot on paper, but was unable to succeed in changing the way people think.