2 years ago
Spring Break — two words that when put together may bring many images to mind. Perhaps it’s the sun reflecting off the water during a trip to a local lake or to the beach. Maybe it’s that your dad acted silly with a cartoon character during a family vacation. Or it’s just the shadows in your room caused by the midday sun as you wake up from a blissful morning of sleeping in after a late night of hanging out with friends.
But for five ASMSA students and two residential mentors, there was no water or cartoon characters or sleeping in (though there were late nights hanging out with friends) during their Spring Break this year. Instead, the group spent a week in Selma, Ala., volunteering with the Freedom Foundation, an organization that promotes unity within the community through programs for youth.
Participating in an Alternative Spring Break was the idea of Margaret Humphrey, a first-year residential mentor at the school. Humphrey participated in two Alternative Spring Breaks as a student at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. Her first trip was to St. Louis and the second to Selma, working with the Freedom Foundation. She hoped to be able to volunteer on another Alternative Spring Break in Selma again.
“When I went to St. Louis that first year, it was a great trip. But something about Selma really made me want to go back,” she said.
Humphrey was discussing her desire to participate in another Alternative Spring Break in Selma during ASMSA’s Spring Break with fellow residential mentor Jennifer Goodwin. During their talk, Goodwin said she would be interested in participating, too. They both thought it would be really cool if they could take some kids with them as well.
They spoke to Bill Currier, dean of students, about the possibility of taking students on the trip. He encouraged them to apply for an ASMSA Innovation Mini-Grant to help cover some of the trip’s expenses. The goal of the program was to test out new ideas, tools and experiences that engage ASMSA students.
Within two weeks of first proposing the trip, Humphrey and Goodwin were awarded a grant for $2,000. They also knew which students were going. Three seniors — Katelyn Lauderdale of Cabot, Meagan Brazier of Batesville and Laura Lin of Stuttgart — and two juniors — Angelina Anderson of Humphrey and Kim Le of Little Rock — were chosen after filling out an application, writing several short essays, getting recommendations from a faculty member as well as a residential mentor, and an interview with Humphrey and Goodwin.
Humphrey said her contacts at the Freedom Foundation were excited about the ASMSA group because there had not been a high school group volunteer before. It would be a new experience for the Freedom Foundation as well as the students, who likely had never experienced something similar to what waited for them in Selma.
Selma is a small town of about 20,000 people in western Alabama that sits on the banks of the Alabama River. About 80 percent of its population is black and 18 percent white according to the 2010 Census. More than 27 percent of the population is youth under the age 18.
Selma is best known for a couple of events. The first is the Battle of Selma during the Civil War. Selma’s foundries and naval yard made it a target late in the Civil War. Union Gen. James H. Wilson led an assault on Confederate troops, including soldiers led by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, at Selma on April 2, 1865. Union forces eventually overpowered the town’s fortifications and sent Forrest and many of his troops into retreat. Union soldiers looted the town after Confederate forces retreated.
The other notable event took place almost 100 years later and became known as Bloody Sunday. Selma was a focal point for the Civil Rights Movement beginning in 1963. Local civil rights leaders in the Dallas County Voters League began organizing with national leaders to protest segregation and voter registration inequalities in the town.
By January 1965, the DCVL joined with Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leaders to bring attention to the lack of voting rights of blacks throughout Alabama — especially in Selma. Efforts to register black voters in Selma had been met with much resistance from white leaders.
On Sunday, March 7, 1965, about 600 civil rights marchers decided to walk the approximately 50 miles to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery to petition the state legislature for reforms in the voter-registration process in the first of what would become called the Selma to Montgomery marches.
The marchers began their journey at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church. They made it about six blocks out of town before they were met by local and state law enforcement officers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The officers used billy clubs and tear gas to turn the marchers around. Almost 20 people were injured in the incident. The violent encounter led the national press to call the event “Bloody Sunday.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a symbolic march of 2,000 people to the bridge for a prayer session the following Tuesday. On March 21, 1965, after a federal court order that would prevent police from interfering with a march was issued, about 8,000 people left the church on a march for Montgomery. By the time the march reached the capital city, approximately 25,000 had joined it.
Today, Selma is still segregated in many ways — segregated in mindset and actions rather than through legal means. According to the Freedom Foundation, the local country club has yet to admit a black member. Because of the population base and where people live, some of the schools in the public school system have all black students. One private school that was established in June 1965 admitted its first black student just five years ago.
“A lot of us thought that everywhere had been integrated,” said Anderson, one of the two juniors who went on the trip. “Getting to Selma and seeing it’s not equal, it’s not what we’re used to. It’s not like that there. [Blacks and whites] are in different groups.”
The Freedom Foundation is a nonprofit group that started in Colorado but moved to Selma after a member passed through the town on a civil rights history tour. The foundation saw the need for an organization to work with youth in the town that could make a positive impact. It does so through Alternative Break opportunities that bring diverse groups in to volunteer with the organization as well as the Random Acts of Theatre Co., or RATCo.
RATCo is a youth theatre program staffed by volunteers that teaches self-expression, confidence and leadership through performing and visual arts. The goal of the program is to encourage youth ages 3 to 21 to learn how to find their voice while participating in community service projects, leadership development and performance tours.
ASMSA students had the opportunity to volunteer with RATCo as well as helping at a local daycare, working in the foundation’s afterschool programs and helping renovate the Tepper’s Building, a historic building in downtown Selma. The Tepper’s Building will serve as the future site for the foundation’s youth programs, a training and education center and the foundation’s national headquarters.
“It will be for students from all over Selma,” Brazier said. “It will be a place students can come and be themselves.”
The group made their day of working at the building a competition with the other volunteer groups, Humphrey said. They worked to remove debris from the building by filling up buckets on upper floors and using a pulley system to lower the buckets to be emptied into a wheelbarrow and taken out of the building.
The trip had an educational purpose as well. The students spent one day touring significant civil rights sites in Selma and Montgomery. They also participated in a day of nonviolence training that included a guest speaker. Lynda Lowery was one of the youngest participants in the Bloody Sunday march. An officer hit her in the head that day, and she later passed out when tear gas was deployed. She woke up in a hearse. She saw her sister being placed in a vehicle and thought she had died. Lowery was worried because she was supposed to be looking out for her sister that day.
Lowery participated in the March 21 march to Montgomery. In various accounts, she described that day as one of the scariest periods of her life when she realized the Alabama National Guardsmen federalized to protect the marchers included some of the same people who had been on the bridge to stop the marchers before.
For all the differences they experienced, it was the times the ASMSA group spent with the youth of Selma that were the most encouraging, each of them said. It gave the volunteers a chance to bond with the people they were there to help.
“After one or two days of talking and dancing, I felt like we could be best friends,” Le said.
Lauderdale said she felt very comfortable around the Selma group. “I actually got up and danced and sang to songs. That’s not what I would normally do,” she said.
The students and ASMSA residential mentors grew closer as well. The group spent the week in Selma in a house provided by one of the volunteers. Most nights they had group meals at the house, with each person taking turns preparing the meal or washing the dishes. They also gathered together each night to talk about what they had done that day and what they had learned.
Each person also kept a journal about the trip. Humphrey said it was important not only to get each person to reflect about their personal experiences on that day but so that, in the years that follow, they will have a record of what they were thinking, what they learned and what they shared.
Le said the week served as an inspiration for her. “It makes me believe that if they (Freedom Foundation volunteers and the kids involved with the organization) can do something that great with their life, so can I,” she said.
Le and Anderson both said they would go back again next year if Humphrey and Goodwin take another group. Until then, Humphrey will remember the experience of this year — which she says was better even than last year.
“Last year was great, but this year was so much better. There weren’t as many colleges this year, and the way the volunteers surrounded us and embraced us was great. This year, we got to know the volunteers a lot more. They legitimately wanted to hang with us all the time,” Humphrey said.
Currier said the trip was so successful that he plans to fund another trip during next year’s Spring Break from his budget.
“One of the things we stress [at ASMSA] is citizenship,” Currier said. “I felt that the program more than justifies the expense. It offers people unique opportunities to bond. They get to spend quality time together to learn each other’s values.”