SPINDALE — A life-changing trip was the highlight of the semester for a group of Isothermal’s Uncommon Leaders.
“I refuse to be a stereotype. I will be better than people think I can be or should be,” said Marquise Hill upon his return from the journey to the heart of the Deep South to visit several important civil rights sites and to meet some notable people engaged in those struggles.
Hill was joined by his fellow Isothermal students, Stephen Hargro, Tremaine Stewart, Tyrell Peeler, Isaiah Mills and Noah Hipp. They were accompanied by Ken Hines, the coordinator of the Uncommon Leaders program, and Sandy Lackner, Isothermal’s dean of Student Services.
The trip was organized Steve Hunt, executive director of the Multicultural Office at Catawba Valley Community College, and Bill Jordan, vice president of the North Carolina Chapter on Black American Affairs. Joining the students from Isothermal and CVCC were students from Bladen Community College and Davidson County Community College.
The five-day bus trip that ran from Feb. 27 to March 3 started in Hickory and hit all of Alabama’s major civil rights sites in Tuskeegee, Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham.
One of the first stops was at the Tuskeegee History Center, where the students met Civil Rights attorney Fred Gray who shared stories of his work integrating schools throughout Alabama. Gray told the students of how he fought for basic human rights including the right to vote, the right to serve on a jury, the right to serve in all branches of the military, and the right to public education.
“How could you be satisfied learning about all of this from a textbook,” asked Hargro, a Mechanical Engineering student, when the group sat down to talk about the trip upon it return.
Perhaps the visit with the greatest impact on the students was to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. The site is dedicated to the “legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”
Part of the memorial includes tributes to approximately 4,400 documented cases of lynchings of black people in the United States between 1877 and 1950.
One of those cases was a man from Rutherford County, Avery Mills who was shot to death by mob on Aug. 28, 1900. Another was a Polk County man, Dick Wofford who was killed on Nov. 22, 1894.
Since the trip, one of the participants, Isaiah Mills, has confirmed that Avery Mills was one of his ancestors.
“What did they do to get lynched,” wondered Stewart. “Can you imagine? That kind of anger and sadness can motivate you to never let anything like that happen again.”
Stewart said the story of the lynching of a Missouri man provided a powerful lesson of the horror of that period for some people.
“The mob sold popcorn and drinks,” said Stewart. “They hung him and afterwards they counted 2,000 bullet holes in him where people shot him before the rope broke.”
The students also visited sites including the Rosa Parks Museum, the Sothern Poverty Law Center, the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Along the way, they met dozens of civil rights activists who shared so many stories. These included people like Joanna Bland and Willie Ricks aka Mukasa Dada, the Black Panther who coined the term, “Black Power.”
The students also saw a one-woman play, “Daughter of the Struggle.” It was written and performed by Ayanna Gregory, the daughter of renowned freedom fighter and activist Dick Gregory.
A major highlight of the trip was participating in a voting rights march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on the 54th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday March.
That morning, dozens of high profile candidates and political activists including Cory Booker, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Jessie Jackson headed up the crowd at the march. The Isothermal group found itself very close to the lead group and the students were surprised at the media attention.
“The experience of the march was almost overshadowed by all of the commotion around those candidates,” said Hargro.
Beyond the distraction though, Stewart said, once the march began with a prayer and a woman’s soulful singing, it gave him “cold chills.”
The trip had some lighter moments as well. The group enjoyed a meal at Chris’s Diner in Montgomery. The restaurant, which opened in 1917, was the first place in the city to serve blacks. The owners were also friends with Martin Luther King, Jr., who ate there frequently. The students met the original owner’s grandson and said the food was great.
As the powerful tour came to a close, the group reflected on what the experience meant to them.
“We really started talking about change,” said Peeler, “and how we can work to make things better here at home.”