St. John’s Students Immerse Themselves in Civil Rights History

St. John’s Students Immerse Themselves in Civil Rights History. Group of students taking photo of historic sign on street corner.
June 9, 2020

During winter recess, several St. John’s University students took a Journey for Justice to Atlanta, GA, as well as Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, AL, studying the history of racial violence and civil rights in the United States, and returning with an intense desire to carry on a struggle that exists to this very day, as recent events have borne out throughout the country.

This program was led by Sharon R. Marshall, Associate Professor and Coordinator of the First-Year Writing program, and Victoria O’Keefe, Residence Campus Minister for Social Justice, Campus Ministry. The trip was sponsored by St. John’s Campus Ministry, the Office of the Provost, and the Division of Student Affairs.

“As a black woman who grew up in the north during the Civil Rights movement, this journey to places I feared because of the history of violence against black people and others who fought for equality in this country required courage,” Prof. Marshall observed. She found that courage in the fellowship she experienced with the students she accompanied, as they all visited important historical sites, ate together, prayed together, and shared their faith traditions with one another.

Mornings consisted of community service at Resurrection Catholic Missions of the South, Inc., tutoring children in school, helping ground maintenance, and organizing social ministry in the parish. Afternoons were largely spent at museums and Civil Rights centers learning about the nation’s history and call to peaceful activism.

Some highlights of the week included a dinner with local activists and advocates who work to end the death penalty and reform the justice system. Special guest Nelson Malden shared his first-hand accounts of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who often sat in his barber’s chair and told stories that inspired the community toward activism. Students also attended a Montgomery youth forum on advancing black communities, followed by a screening of the film Just Mercy.

During visits to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the group learned about Bryan Stevenson, a public interest attorney and founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. Both men have lectured on the University’s Queens, NY, campus.

Students spent evenings reflecting on the University’s Vincentian heritage, asking how the Catholic Church and our world at large is called to achieve racial justice. Reflections went late into the evening, with conversation focused on experience, context, and discernment on how best to effect change in a world marked by strife and division.

“Our nightly reflections allowed us to give voice to our fears, our outrage, our admiration of those who sacrificed themselves for the greater good, and sometimes to our despair,” Prof. Marshall recalled.

“The trip was an extraordinary opportunity that allowed me to see up-close, unfiltered black history by being in the direct location of where the Civil Rights Movement first began,” said Finance major Jason Virasami. “There I learned about Claudette Colvin, an influential activist who is not as well-known as some of her peers in the movement.”

Sarah Ní Mháirtín, who is studying for her master’s degree in School Counseling, noted that she had only a superficial knowledge of the Civil Rights struggle, but this journey opened her eyes. “Traveling with such a wonderfully supportive group of people made me feel like I was not just one voice in the dark,” she recalled.

“As I walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and read the testimonies of wrongly convicted individuals at the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum, the tears poured down my face.” As a counselor in training, Sarah strives to be mindful of everyone’s journey, and of inherited and vicarious pain. “With my eyes wide open, I will continue the journey we started in Alabama and use this knowledge to empower the students with whom I work and continue to fight for justice every day.”

“The March continues in Alabama, in New York, and everywhere in between, because until all of us are free, none of us truly are,” observed Brianna Campbell, who is also studying for her master’s degree in School Counseling. “As I reflect on our shared journey in the context of this global pandemic, I am also reminded that our march is not just in Selma, it is also here in New York as we all rally around essential workers and speak truth to power about those currently being marginalized in hospitals within communities of color across the state and across the country.”

“To accompany students, a few who were just learning about the civil rights legacy, was a great honor and pleasure,” Prof. Marshall stressed. I was there to support them in what, at times,  was a traumatic awakening to the violence and injustices that have plagued our nation. I was encouraged by the students’ growing commitment to social justice as we learned the stories of courageous leaders and ordinary people who took action to create change.”