Spring Break With a Difference

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Road Trip Traces Civil-Rights History

STUDENT ACTIVITY | “When everyone else goes off to the beach for spring break,” Valerie De Cruz, director of the Greenfield Intercultural Center (GIC), was saying, “these kids go down South together and take a bus through Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, and Atlanta. They visit civil-rights sites, meet with veterans of the movement, and try to visit firsthand many of the places in which critical moments of the civil-rights movement occurred.”

The “kids” are the 12 students participating in the center’s Alliance and Understanding (A&U) program, which “focuses on bringing students together to study the civil-rights era, and the historic partnership between blacks and Jews during this era in the South,” De Cruz adds.

Begun in 1997, A&U is a collaboration between the GIC, Hillel, and the African-American Resource Center. Each fall the organizations recruit for the year-long program, and by October choose 12 students from among numerous applicants. “It’s not exclusively for black and Jewish students, but for anyone who’s interested in the era,” De Cruz explains. “And we’re not looking for students who know everything, or who’re very involved in Hillel or DuBois. We’re looking for a range of students, so you’ll find Orthodox Jews, people who might describe themselves as nominally Jewish, black students who are trying to learn what it meant to be part of the civil-rights movement.”

Over the course of the year, students participate in a series of lectures and discussions, and spend time organizing and facilitating campus programs whose purpose is to promote understanding and educate other members of the student body.

“We met two or three times during first semester, then weekly this semester to prepare,” says Rachel Rosenthal, a College junior and A&U member. On the trip itself—which took place over four days, from March 7-11—the students visited sites such as “the Martin Luther King and Jewish Heritage Centers in Atlanta, the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, and Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, where protesters were attacked with dogs and fire hoses,” she says.

One of the most powerful events for many group members was “crossing the Pettus Bridge, where Bloody Sunday happened,” Rosenthal adds, referring to the March 7, 1965 incident in which state troopers in Selma, Alabama, brutally assaulted civil-rights activists who were marching from there to Montgomery, the state capital. The attacks galvanized the nation and led to a larger, resumed march on March 21. They also led directly to the U.S. Congress passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed every American over the age of 21 the right to register to vote.

“It was the 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, so there were really amazing, famous civil-rights figures all over,” such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Democratic Representative John Lewis of Georgia, who was hospitalized after taking part in the 1965 march, Rosenthal recalls. “It was so inspiring to hear them speak about how they were involved; about how when they were 14 they had already been arrested seven times. It was very inspiring to talk about how people can really effect change in their own lives.”

Group members also had the chance to meet with several Penn alumni, including Birmingham resident Irby Cohen W’61 and Democratic Senator Emanuel Jones EAS’81 of Georgia, to discuss contemporary issues in the South regarding civil rights and equality. “We try to give the students some sense of current questions and movements,” De Cruz says.

The students are determined to raise awareness about the upcoming renewal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “A lot of people don’t realize this is something that’s happening [now],” says Rosenthal. “Several provisions are set to expire in 2007, notably Section Five, which outlaws poll taxes and other forms of voter discrimination and intimidation,” and requires that many Southern states have every voting change pre-cleared by the Justice Department.

The most important thing, says De Cruz, is just giving “these two different groups of students a chance to interact. Especially after they’ve built these relationships while on campus, many of them end up doing interesting work with each other’s communities. It doesn’t stop at graduation.” 

Alison Stoltzfus C’05

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