Justice Tour seeks to heighten awareness of racial issues and civil rights history

Justice Tour seeks to heighten awareness of racial issues and civil rights history

The Edmund Pettus Bridge was the site of Bloody Sunday in 1965, where police officers were met with African-American suffrage marchers. The Justice Tour made a stop at the bridge, where they met a woman who marched at just 14 years old.

Photo courtesy of Julia Close

While some Lee students spent their spring break relaxing on the beach, one group of students dedicated the week to visiting important civil rights locations and learning about social justice.

The Justice Tour is a student-led, five-day trip to cities central to the U.S. civil rights movement. While the group’s discussions covered various social injustices, race relations took the spotlight as the group traveled to Atlanta, Montgomery and Birmingham.

Junior nursing major Kirstin Griffin is the secretary for the Social Justice Committee, one of seven branches of the Student Leadership Council, which organized the trip. Griffin explained that we often do not realize the full scope of our nation’s civil rights history.

“People often learn about the highlight reel of the Civil Rights Movement in school,” Griffin said. “But sometimes we miss how bloody, sweaty and gritty the Civil Rights Movement really was. I don’t think we understand racial terrorism—what it was and what it is.”

The students visited various museums, monuments and landmarks throughout the Southern region and made pit stops while traveling to the three highlighted cities.

In Montgomery, the group visited the National Memorial of Peace and Justice, the only memorial in the U.S. dedicated solely to the victims of racial lynching.

According to the museum's website, the memorial has over 800 monuments, each representing a county in which victims were lynched because of their skin color. Each monument also has a duplicate, ready to be claimed by and erected in its home county in respect of the victims.

“Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not,” the website states. “Eventually, this process will change the built environment of the Deep South and beyond to more honestly reflect our history.”

Sophomore education major Austen Miller experienced first-hand the powerful testimony of the people who endured persecution.

“It’s so important, especially if you’ve never encountered that sort of injustice,” Miller said. “We weren’t in the Lee bubble physically, or in our mindset. We got to interact with people who lived the Civil Rights Movement.”

The group immersed themselves in the startling history of racism in the south, according to Griffin. However, the experience was not limited to planned events and extended to meeting people who were current activists against injustices.

One such encounter happened at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of Bloody Sunday in 1965. This bridge served as a crossroads between police officers and African-American suffrage marchers.

While at the bridge, the group met a woman who marched at just 14 years old. She carried scars on her neck and head from when a police officer hit her so hard she had to get stitches.

Even though it’s hard to hear such troubling stories, Miller explained, being upfront about our history is the first step towards social justice.

“You had to be unsettled for anything to be stirred up in you to make a change,” Miller said. “I know a lot of people were shaken by how deep the hatred in our history goes, and this history isn’t in our rearview mirror—it’s in our backseat.”

When faced with devastating statistics and stories, it can be easy to feel hopeless. However, the Justice Tour made it a priority to pair action with learning.

By making connections with people and serving alongside social justice advocates, the students were able to see how restoration can be achieved.

“So many of the people that we met are actively working towards social justice in their communities,” Griffin said. “I want people to take away that they can be an agent of change and healing in their communities. There is work to be done right now.”

The group spoke with community leaders in Clarkston, Georgia, which has the most ethnically diverse square mile in the U.S.

The group met Mayor Ted Terry, who some might recognize from his episode in the Netflix makeover show “Queer Eye,” who discussed how Clarkston, in the heart of the South, promotes harmony and equality between its diverse citizens.

The tour ended by visiting a site close to home, the Chattanooga Walnut Street Bridge. Though most people may not be aware of its past, the beloved blue bridge was the site of two lynchings about 100 years ago.

Griffin explained that recognition is an important part of restoration. At the lynching memorial, one of the exhibits had jars of dirt from places where lynchings occurred, and one jar was labeled “Chattanooga.”

“We don’t just have to look at the pain. We can look at the victories and how all those people’s sacrifices were worth it. We can take their courage with us,” Griffin said. “What can we do to not stand on the sidelines when there’s injustice, but to stand by the oppressed?”

For those interested in next year’s Justice Tour, contact Kirstin Griffin at kgriff02@leeu.edu.

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