As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, a group of Valparaiso University students say Selma isn't just history -- it's also a blueprint.
Roughly 50 students from the school, located in northwest Indiana an hour outside Chicago, are participating in a trip to Selma this weekend to visit historic sites, meet with activists who took part in the marches and learn how to apply the lessons from half a century ago to the ongoing struggle for equality today.
"A lot of these people [who were directly involved] are still alive, fighting for the same cause they were 50 years ago," 21-year-old VU junior Jacki Fernandez told The Huffington Post on Friday. "The story isn’t dead -- their story is alive."
"Meeting people who marched reminded me these people are still alive and they’re still struggling for these things," said 19-year-old sophomore Micia Dismuke. "The struggle isn’t over. Even people my age who can’t register to vote need to fight for that, to make sure we can continue to do that -- otherwise their struggle will be in vain."
Stephanie Zabala, a 21-year-old junior from Dominican University who joined the group in Alabama, said making the pilgrimage to Selma is important for every person who wants to "interact with their own identity."
"Not all of us are African-American; we come from different backgrounds, but we’re trying to find our identity in this movement," Zabala told HuffPost. "There are things we are fighting for -- integration, LGBT rights -- things that are all so intersected. Those things began here 50 years ago, and we need to understand the systemic issues that still exist."
VU students meet with retired federal Judge U.W. Clemo.
Students said the visit to Selma has galvanized them to make intentional changes in their campus and hometown communities.
"What I want to bring back is that while there were Dr. Kings and Rosa Parks, the majority of the movement was made up of ordinary people, little people," said Domenico Libreri, a 22-year-old senior. "That speaks to our generation of what we can really do: We don’t have to be big names."
"People had bake sales to raise money for funds for gas -- those things aren’t things you find in history books," said Michael Micek, a 22-year-old senior. "Those are only things you find out while you’re down here talking to people."
Fernandez said talking to civil rights activists opened her eyes to the fact that "we all hold a piece of the puzzle that’s bigger than ourselves."
"One of the people we listened to who went to the march talked about missing class and how there was one girl who actually did everyone else’s homework. She didn't march, but if it wasn’t for her, a lot of these other people couldn’t have pushed the movement forward."
The students said hearing stories of activists who made sacrifices to march reminded them that their own present-day struggle will not necessarily be a safe, simple or sanitized experience. Dismuke said the group met with Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who encouraged them to "shed blood, miss class and go to those extremes that people in the '50s did."
"Would I leave work to go march? Would I leave class?" Dismuke said. "These are sacrifices we need to think about making."
"We met a woman who took us to a church where people would meet at before they would march," Dismuke said. "She showed us a concrete slab and said, 'This is all that’s left of the foundation.' She told us to pick up rocks and hold them up high; it was like her passing a baton to us. And she said we either had the choice to put those rocks down or take them with us. And if we took them with us, anytime we got tired [of fighting], she told us to look at those rocks and remember what we’re fighting for."
VU students, in cooperation with Concordia College in Selma, first made the trip to Alabama in 2013 with the former chair of VU's history department, Alan Bloom. Bloom's mentee, Assistant History Professor Heath Carter, took over the trip after Bloom's death, and he is now leading an even larger group for the 50th anniversary. The students left VU last Sunday and went first to Tennessee, before arriving in Selma on Thursday.
The group visited the famed Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma on Thursday. There, they remembered World War II veteran and civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in the driveway of his Mississippi home by a Ku Klux Klan member in 1963.
"Mourners remembered [Evers'] last words were 'sit me up!'" Carter told HuffPost. "If his last word were 'sit me up,' then we can stand up for righteousness in our own time."
Later, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright also addressed the crowd, Carter said. Wright told the audience:
We don’t answer to the drumbeat of a racist government but to the drumbeat of a righteous God that says black lives matter, all lives matter — and that’s all that matters.
Carted added, “And then he dropped the mic.”