Civil Rights Pilgrimage opens students' eyes to struggle for racial justice

·4 min read

Jan. 18—EAU CLAIRE — Martin Luther King Jr. Day took on special meaning this year for dozens of UW-Eau Claire students who arrived home Monday from a 10-day tour of civil rights landmarks in the Deep South.

The last stop for the 86 participants in the university's Civil Rights Pilgrimage was the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee — the site where King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

"Being able to experience the MLK sites and the Lorraine Motel Museum was very eye-opening," said UW-Eau Claire student Elyjah Johnson, a 2020 graduate of North High School. "Just reading about his last wish and how it all happened was very powerful."

The trip that ended Monday was the fourth Civil Rights Pilgrimage for FranChesca Riley, a UW-Eau Claire student from Milwaukee who was the lead student coordinator for the travel immersion experience. She said the trips have permanently changed the way she views Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which she planned to celebrate Monday night through the virtual ceremony organized by the university.

"I used to just think of him and his speeches and the fact that he was assassinated," Riley said. "But now I think of Charles Person, Joanne Bland and so many other activists and people connected with Dr. King. It helps me reflect on the entire movement as a whole."

Participants in the latest trip had the opportunity to hear directly from Person, the youngest of the Freedom Riders who protested segregated bus terminals in the 1960s, and Bland, the co-founder of the National voting Rights Museum and a civil rights activist who was the youngest person jailed during any civil rights demonstration in that period.

"It's different when you're reading about history than when you actually talk to someone who was there," Riley said. "That definitely makes it seem real and makes you see that it was not that long ago."

Riley called the pilgrimage an "incredible experience" and said she often promotes the trip to other students.

"It doesn't matter if you're Black, if you're white, if you're Hispanic or if you're some other ethnicity, it's going to have a strong impact," she said.

In Selma, Alabama, the students participated in a slavery re-enactment that resonated with Johnson.

"We did it for an hour," Johnson said. "They did it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 250 years."

The MLK story bookended the journey, beginning with visits to King's birthplace, his tomb and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and ending with the stop at the Lorraine Motel and the Masonic Temple where he gave his last speech in Memphis. The students also listened to some of King's famous speeches as they rode the bus between key sites.

Program founder Jodi Thesing-Ritter, UW-Eau Claire's executive director for diversity and inclusion, joined the twice-a-year pilgrimage for the 25th time and said it was just as moving as her first trip in 2008.

She loves seeing how the trip opens students' eyes to the struggles of the civil rights movement.

The students learned from one of King's former lieutenants, Bernard Lafayette, about the six principles of nonviolence that King learned from Mohandas Gandhi and about how to be part of what King called the "beloved community."

"It's important for me that college students meet people who were college students when they made change," Thesing-Ritter said, noting that pilgrimage participants are asked to identify three actions they will take or things they will do differently as a result of the experience.

Johnson and Riley are among the many students over the years who have been moved to make changes.

In the near term, Johnson said he plans to join a couple of clubs for Black community members in Eau Claire and share his newfound knowledge about the struggle for racial justice with others. In the long term, he expects his deeper understanding of the civil rights movement to affect how he communicates with his future children and his white mother.

Riley entered college as an information technology major and switched to psychology and family studies after going on the pilgrimage. She now works as a mentor for at-risk youths and plans to pursue a career as a middle school counselor in hopes of funneling children out of the legal system.

It's her own version of change-making, inspired by King and other leaders of the civil rights movement.