Penn State’s Presidential Leadership Academy was established to further develop necessary leadership fundamentals, generate diverse viewpoints, and create informed and respectful discourse that leads to action. This spring, the Academy has chosen to take a “Freedom Tour” providing the unique opportunity to speak with activists, engage in important conversation, and learn more about the Civil Rights movement. Student and Underground cofounder, Candice Crutchfield, plans to share her experiences throughout the week.
“Don’t wait for a Ghandi, don’t wait for a King, don’t wait for a Mandela. You are your own Mandela, you are your own Ghandi, you are your own King.”
-Leymah Roberta Gbowee
I feel more emotionally connected to the Civil Rights Movement— now more than ever before. Between meeting activist and community organizer, Bree Newsome just days before the trip, taking a course that highlighted influential Black Women during the 1950s and 60s, and further developing my passion for social justice advocacy, the opportunity to embark on this journey was something that I couldn’t overlook. Having visited Atlanta suburbs numerous times, I was excited to adventure into the city and learn more about the, “Empire City of the South.”
Post fourteen turned seventeen hour journey to Atlanta, the idea of leaving one bus for another wasn’t necessarily the most comforting feeling. Fortunately, everything changed as I was introduced to Tom Houck, oral historian and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s driver.
Houck’s face displayed pure joy as he recounted his varying experiences with Dr. King and family. Interestingly enough, Houck was kicked out of high school at age 19 after leaving classes early to participate in the Selma to Montgomery march. New to Atlanta, he decided to volunteer at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and would later go on to be the King family’s driver for nine months.
The bus tour lead us through historic and modern day Atlanta, shining light on the downfall and progress of various aspects of the rich city. Traveling through what’s known as the National Historic Site, I found myself standing on the curb of 234 Sunset Avenue — Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final home. I and others stood in the driveway that housed Dr. King’s possessions. We walked in the grass where he played with his children, gathered in fellowship, and pieced together strategies for nonviolent protests and movements. How many can say they’ve walked where Dr. Martin Luther King walked? There are truly no words to describe the experience.
Following the bus tour we traveled to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights museum. Opened in 2014, the museum was established to shine a light on Atlanta’s contributions to the civil rights movement and worldwide human rights advocacy. From the story of Emmett Till to re-constructing a diner sit-in experience, the museum turned history into a life changing experience.
The most heart wrenching portion of today’s events came when I approached one of the final museum exhibits. I’ve never heard the story of Henry Ezekial Smith, a college student murdered by police for promoting racial integration at a local bowling alley. History books don’t tell us the details of Mack Charles Parker, accused of a crime, but kidnapped and lynched three days before his trial. I was never taught about those arrested by police and released directly into the hands of Klansmen. Teachers didn’t teach about Herbert Lee, Medgar Evers, Cynthia Wesley, and the thousands of unnamed martyrs.
Though I’ve never categorized myself as a “sensitive” person, today was the beginning of what will be an emotional journey. As we exited the museum, parted ways with tour guides, and heard the final words of prominent leaders within Atlanta city limits and beyond, a common theme of action became prevalent. Joined by a diverse group of students with varying backgrounds, interests, and beliefs, pursuing active change is not only possible, but necessary.
This is only day one. This is only the beginning.
Keep up with the Presidential Leadership Academy’s Freedom Tour via social media and follow #PLAJourneyForJustice2016 for live updates.