Students’ trip brings greater meaning to civil rights struggles

By University Communications
April 19, 2017
The Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Ill., was among sites visited by UW-Stout students.

Photo: The Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Ill., was among sites
visited by UW-Stout students.


When her peace studies instructor warned students of the intensity of their upcoming trip to civil rights sites, Lois Cassell thought she was ready for it. She wasn’t expecting to feel real fear and shed tears. But the experiences sparked those reactions and left mental images that linger.

During their recent spring break, 28 University of Wisconsin-Stout students enrolled in senior lecturer Jim Handley’s Nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement course spent an eight-day required trip exploring historic and contemporary struggles for freedom. Handley has led the annual trip for three years. History professor Kate Thomas accompanied the group. 
UW-Stout students march over the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma,  Ala., during a recent trip to pivotal sites in the civil rights movement.

Cassell, a freshman psychology major, vividly described one experience that began as the group waited by the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala., thinking they were waiting to enter a slavery site. “An African-American woman came charging at us with a stick,” she said. She ordered the male students to line up against a wall and female students to line up in front of her. She demanded them to hold out their hands palms-up, called them a racial epithet and warned them that they risked death if they looked at her or their friends.

Then she ordered them to march toward a warehouse, berating them along the way. “Once I made the mistake of looking at her, thinking she was talking to me,” said Cassell, who froze, bracing for the consequences. “She said, ‘Didn’t I tell you not to look at me?’ and directed me to keep walking to the warehouse.”

When they reached the dark warehouse, they were ordered downstairs. The environment was meant to resemble the belly of a ship on which slaves were brought to America. Here the intimidating woman became compassionate, knowing the students’ fear. She had been playing a character, creating a lifelike simulation of being a slave. “The belly of a ship was the worst place to be,” she said. “Envision someone next to you dying, babies being taken away from their moms.”

Then she was back in character, now acting as a woman pleading with captors to let her keep her baby.
“We were all just shook up and crying,” said Cassell, of New Hope, Minn.

The goal of the trip, Handley said, is to weave a thread from slavery to the Civil War to Jim Crow to the civil rights movement of the 1960s to contemporary civil rights movements, to show that the struggle for freedom and justice continues today. 

“We go to historic sites of the civil rights movement of the 1960s to build our foundation,” he said. “We also go to places where the struggle continues and is adapting to current forms of oppression and violence.”

Ray Hinton, whose murder conviction was overturned after spending 30 years on death row, tells UW-Stout students about the case and his time in prison.Among the other visited sites was the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., where the group met Ray Hinton, who was wrongfully convicted of a double homicide and sentenced to death. His conviction was overturned in 2015 after spending 30 years on death row.

“After we watched a documentary about him, he walked through the door, sat down and told us his story,” Cassell said, including that gun experts said the gun in his mother’s closet didn’t match the murder weapon, yet he was arrested and convicted. “Thirty years of his life went down the drain for something he didn’t do. He just wanted an apology, and he didn’t get an apology at all.”

When visiting the site of teen Michael Brown’s death and Ferguson, Mo., protest sites after a police officer was not indicted, they heard accounts from activist, ordained minister and registered nurse Cori Bush about what happened in the aftermath of the shooting. Bush told how Brown’s body lay on the road for hours in view of family and friends, about people being tased if they stopped walking during protests and how she was kicked by police until she passed out: Police didn’t believe she was trying to reach paramedics to help a woman who was having a stroke.

Cassell saw the darker section of the road where Brown’s body once lay.

Jim Handley“There is also something powerful about full immersion into a subject,” Handley said. “From early morning until late in the evening, every day of the trip, we are immersed in struggles for freedom. Students come back changed, in part, because of that immersion. We cannot replicate that meeting in the classroom twice a week for 85 minutes.”

Cassell said the experiences definitely made civil right struggles more real than reading about them. “Until I came to college, I didn’t learn about civil rights or slavery or mass incarceration today.”

Born in Ivory Coast in West Africa, Cassel came to the U.S. when she was six. Her family received green cards to join her grandma in St. Paul, escaping turmoil between Liberia and Ivory Coast after civil war in the region. Cassell, who is black, never experienced racism while living in West Africa among a diverse ethnic population with no dominant culture. “I just knew them as my friends.”

Other trip activities included:

• Visiting Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Ill.
• Visiting historic churches in Selma including Brown Chapel, First Baptist and Tabernacle Church
• Meeting with foot soldiers who participated in the Selma to Montgomery March and were beaten on Bloody Sunday
• Meeting with Hank Sanders, who participated in the Selma to Montgomery March and has been struggling to improve voting rights in his capacity as an Alabama state senator
• Visiting the Southern Poverty Law Center and its memorial to those who gave their lives during the struggle for civil rights 
• Sitting in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four young girls were killed as a result of a bomb planted by the KKK 
• Visiting the site of the Children’s March, where police turned fire hoses and attack dogs on children in BirminghamUW-Stout students build garden boxes during a service project in Selma, Ala.
• Building four garden boxes in Selma for a service project

Cassell said images from the trip remain in her mind. The people they met encouraged them to consider what they could do in their own communities, and she wants those images to motivate action.

“You can’t come back to UW-Stout and not vote every year,” she said. “You can’t come back to UW-Stout and say racism doesn’t exist. You can’t come back to UW-Stout and not help your community.”

For information on UW-Stout’s applied peace studies in social sciences minor, visit http://www.uwstout.edu/programs/minors/aps/ or contact Handley at handleyj@uwstout.edu.

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Photos

Second Photo: UW-Stout students march over the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala., during a recent trip to pivotal sites in the civil rights movement.

Third Photo: Ray Hinton, whose murder conviction was overturned after spending 30 years on death row, tells UW-Stout students about the case and his time in prison.

Fourth Photo: Jim Handley

Bottom Photo: UW-Stout students build garden boxes during a service project in Selma, Ala.