Dana Hull – Mercury News
Dec. 9, 2008
For college senior Justin Allegri, the civil rights movement is a sepia-toned jumble of historic places, people and events that forced a reluctant America onto the long road toward electing its first black president last month.
Selma and Montgomery. The Tallahatchie River and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Martin Luther King Jr. and Emmett Till. A sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. The Ku Klux Klan bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls.
Now Allegri, a broadcast journalism student at San Jose State University, and nine other students are preparing for a rare road trip back through some of the bloodiest and most intense corners of America’s racial and political history. But this journey, through key civil rights landmarks in the American South, will culminate in Washington, D.C., with the group joining a throng of millions celebrating Barack Obama’s historic inauguration Jan. 20.
“All I know of civil rights is what I’ve read in books and seen in video clips,” said Allegri, who grew up in Santa Cruz and has never been to the Deep South. “But this way I’ll be meeting people who were actually there.”
San Jose State’s journalism professors Michael Cheers and Bob Rucker, both African-American, are leading an ethnically diverse group. The journalism students had to write an essay detailing their understanding of civil rights history as part of the application process, and the professors selected students who have a strong command of multimedia technology.Throughout the trip, the students will meet with and interview local residents who were part of the dramatic events as they unfolded. The students will blog, write stories, shoot photographs and video and edit multimedia packages as part of a special independent study project through San Jose State’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
The group is now feverishly racing against the clock to raise about $25,000 to cover the cost of plane tickets, a rental van, and inexpensive hotel rooms. The students and the two professors hope to fly to Memphis for the start of the road trip on Jan. 10.
“The morning after the election, I saw how energized and moved the students were by the historic night,” Cheers said. “By midday, the idea of the trip just came to me.”
Cheers’ grandfather was denied admission to the University of Mississippi 30 years before James Meredith integrated “Ole Miss” in 1962. As a teacher in Mississippi before coming to San Jose State, Cheers has been to several of the civil rights landmarks numerous times.
He planned the trip to begin in Memphis, Tenn., at the Lorraine Motel, the site of King’s assassination in 1968 and part of today’s National Civil Rights Museum. Because King was killed 44 years ago, the slogan of the road trip is “44 Years to the 44th President: Connecting Our Civil Rights Past with America’s Historic Future.”
From Memphis, in one large van, the group will drive through the Mississippi Delta and stop at the Tallahatchie River, where 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Photographs of his mutilated body, first published in Jet magazine, haunted and inspired an entire generation of civil rights activists.
Other stops on the road trip will include a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where armed officers attacked peaceful civil rights demonstrators in 1965. The group will also visit Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, and the original Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where college students launched the first sit-ins.
After 10 days on the road, hours in a cramped van and more than 1,200 miles, the group will arrive in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 19. They will earn three academic credits for the trip, which will count as an independent study program. They plan to fly back to San Jose on Jan. 21.
“I’m most interested in meeting people in the South and getting their take on the past, the present and the future,” said Derek Sijder, 25, a photojournalism major from Los Angeles who has never been to the South. His only time in D.C. was on an eighth-grade field trip. This time, he says, it will be a more profound experience.
“I didn’t vote in the last election, but I voted this time,” Sijder said. “I heard there are going to be about 3 million people there. It was a watershed event when Obama was elected in November. But to be there when it’s made official — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Throughout his nearly two-year campaign toward that presidency, Obama always made it clear that his improbable political career — as the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya — was only possible in America. And he regularly thanked the men and women of the civil rights movement, whose willingness to march, protest, withstand beatings and even die made his success possible. “I’m here because you all sacrificed for me,” he said in 2007. “I stand on the shoulders of giants.”
A journey through civil rights history that is topped off with the historical inauguration will be special in so many ways.
“I have never been to the South in my entire life, I’ve never been to an inauguration, and this election was the first one I could even vote in,” said Nick Dovedot, 21. “I was trying to figure out a way to get to D.C. on my own, but this is the best idea by far. It’s going to be magnificent. I may not experience this type of exhilaration again in my lifetime.”
Time is short: The students and professors have less than six weeks to raise money, and are holding car washes and bake sales to generate desperately needed funds and attention.
“There’s not a lot of money flowing around this place,” said Bill Briggs, director of San Jose State’s journalism school. “When an opportunity like this comes along we’d love to be able to say, ‘Do it, and we can foot the bill.’ But we can’t.”
Briggs supports the trip because he has strong memories of attending the March on Washington in 1963 as a high school student. The Mall was so crowded that he couldn’t see or hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and he ended up sleeping in a church basement with dozens of other teenagers.
“I had never seen so many black people in my life,” said Briggs, who grew up in San Mateo. “I had never felt that kind of energy. Everything about it was overwhelming. It made an indelible impression on me for the rest of my life.”
In many ways, Obama’s inauguration will be this generation’s March on Washington. Experiencing the day in person will far surpass any learning that would take place in the classroom. At the same time, the pioneers of the civil rights movement are aging and dying — and this might be the last chance for San Jose State students to talk to those who began blazing the trail for Obama in the 1950s and ’60s. Obama’s inauguration is historic by any nature; arriving in Washington via the Deep South will make it all hit home.
“In 2012 or 2016 we might elect more black people to high public office, but this is the first time,” said Briggs of the presidency. “I want our students to be able to participate in this piece of history. It ain’t gonna come around again. We have to seize the moment.”