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Students follow footsteps of the civil rights movement

Barry McNamara
The Monmouth group is pictured in from of the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – While following in the footsteps of civil rights leaders from the 1950s and ’60s, an important point was driven home to Monmouth College student Kasha Appleton ’20.

A senior from Chicago, Appleton was one of five students led on the “Civil Rights and Social Justice” trip March 6-12 by the Rev. Jessica Hawkinson, the College’s associate chaplain. The trip to Atlanta and iconic sites in Alabama was sponsored by the College’s Lux Center for Church and Religious Leadership.

“One thing I learned that really stood out to me was that everyone assumes that Martin Luther King Jr. started and led the movement, but there were so many grassroots organizations already doing the work of planning sit-ins and marches,” said Appleton. “They would invite Dr. King so that they could gain media attention and create a bigger impact. The whole movement was very strategic and really relied on collective work and multiple different initiatives to solve the problem. All of these working pieces is what helped push the movement to national and global attention and created change.”

And learning that lesson got Appleton thinking even more about what she could do.

“This trip exceeded my expectations because not only did I learn so much about the civil rights movement and current justice work, but also because it made me think about what I personally do to end racism in America and evaluate if what I’m doing is enough.”

Her classmate, Hadley Smithhisler of Valley City, N.D., agreed with Appleton that it was enlightening to learn about the collaborative element of the civil rights movement.

“I really appreciate the power of collective action now,” she said. “As kids, we learn a lot about individual heroes like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, but I now have a greater appreciation for the young people that effectively organized across the South and risked their lives.”

Smithhisler plans to apply lessons from the trip to her future career in law.

“I am going to law school next year and I want to study public interest/civil and human rights law, so I wanted to go on this trip to get a sense of the role that legal professionals and students played in the civil rights movement and what ways non-profits, legal aid organizations, museums and governments are working to preserve the memory – and the truth – of the movement while continuing to work towards equality today,” she said.

Hawkinson said the trip led to “meaningful conversations about student experiences at Monmouth College and the contemporary realities related to civil rights.”

Although she and the students were in the Deep South, Hawkinson said the group’s eyes were opened to the fact that lynchings were also very much present in Illinois.

“There were 56 documented lynchings in Illinois from the early 1900s through the 1950s,” she said. “This systemic white supremacy was happening right in our back yard. Several of them occurred in the St. Louis area, just across the Mississippi from Ferguson, which has become symbolic of the lingering realities of white supremacy today.”

Smithhisler was also moved by learning more about the “horrible history” of racism in America.

“We visited the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which commemorates victims of lynchings across the United States,” she said. “This memorial was effective, beautiful, horrible, shocking and impactful. It made me think about what local governments across the country – and Monmouth College even – can do to better recognize our country’s horrible history of slavery, lynching and racism and memorialize lives that were lost.”

For Appleton, the most impactful point of the trip, which included stops in the Alabama cities of Selma and Montgomery, was the Southern Poverty Law Center “because it did an amazing job of linking the past and the present. They showed that lynching terror has been replaced with black people being gunned down, and that there are still so many people losing their lives to racial injustice and others who have been forgotten along the way.”

Appleton said the center includes an option to sign a pledge of tolerance and to put one’s name on the wall of an ever-growing list of people who pledge to fight injustice and inequality in their daily lives.

“I think everyone should take a civil rights tour or pilgrimage to understand the true trauma that African Americans have and still face today,” she said. “Then learn to channel any guilt or sadness that they feel into action, because that is what is needed now. That’s what I will take away from this trip.”