RESPECT LEADS: Visit to National Civil Rights Museum transformative experience for students

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Civil rights tour recap_large

Studying the past can provide understanding of the present and lessons learned as well as increase cross-cultural awareness to make a positive impact on communities.

A group of 30 Lipscomb University students had an opportunity to study a significant era in the history of the United States during a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis last month. 

Civil rights tour recap_1The History Before the Movement tour of the National Civil Rights Museum was sponsored by Lipscomb Office of Intercultural Development and was designed to provide a transformative learning opportunity for students. It is a Respect Leads initiative.

“The trip to the National Civil Rights Museum was a completely transformative experience for our students. The students learned about the perseverance and resiliency of a people who were discriminated against and terrorized for the color of their skin,” said Keandra Golden, interim coordinator of African American Student Services in the Office of Intercultural Development.

The museum offers 260 artifacts, more than 40 new films, oral histories, interactive media and external listening posts that guide visitors through five centuries of history — from the beginning of the resistance during slavery, through the Civil War and Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, and the seminal events of the late 20th century that inspired people around the world to stand up for equality.

Accompanying the students were Golden, who is also academic programs manager in the College of Professional Studies; Aerial Ellis, instructor of public relations; Michelle Steele, academic director for the Nelson & Sue Andrews Institute for Civic Leadership; Phyllis Hildreth, academic director for the Institute for Conflict Management; Scott McDowell, senior vice president for student life; and Cyrus Eaton, director of Lipscomb’s Joshua Project mentoring program.  On the drive back to Nashville, they lead students in discussions to assist them in reflecting and reviewing the items they observed throughout the museum tour and to provide pastoral care.

Civil rights tour recap_2“While the National Civil Rights Museum has many exhibits that are hard to see and hear, the honesty led to some great discussion on parallels, commonality and how to be the best possible version of ourselves,” said Golden. “After the conclusion of the trip, the conversation and bridge building continues, as the museum taught us that while there has been great progress, there is still great work to do.”

Deion Sims, a senior biology major, said the exhibits provided an authentic look at the Civil Rights Movement.

“My biggest takeaway from this experience was how honest the history of America was told throughout the museum and how I wish our education system taught our history as candidly as the museum did,” said Sims.

He said the exhibit about slavery was particularly impactful.

“Slavery is often glossed over in this country and we have yet to wrestle with the full implications it has on our society today,” he said. “Going through that exhibit was difficult, but eye-opening. It makes a part of history society often tries to make feel distant and irrelevant feel real and important, very important.”

Sims said he encourages everyone to visit the museum.

“You cannot leave without a truer understanding of Americas past and this is necessary to know in order to avoid making the same mistakes,” he said.

Lisa Moser, a junior Spanish and theology major, said the museum is very relevant today.

“We are taught about the Civil Rights Movement as if it is a thing of the past, but it's not. It never ended,” said Moser. “In the museum was a political cartoon from the 1950s about the segregation of schools, but it looked like someone had drawn it about Nashville’s school system today. There was another quote about how racism was more subtle in Selma that said, ‘why burn a cross when you can foreclose a loan?’ Descriptions of police brutality were also eerily similar to today.”

Civil rights tour recap_3“It was disheartening to learn about our country's utterly horrific history and see how little progress we've made in some areas,” she continued. “On the other hand, I was encouraged by seeing the big picture. Slavery went on in our country for 250 years. Most of the events in the museum took place 50-60 years ago. We can't expect 250 years worth of damage to be fixed overnight. The process of healing and reconciliation is a slow one, and although we would like it to move faster, the reality is that wounds that deep will take time to heal. The changes that need to be made in our society and legal system for justice to come will not all happen at once, but if we keep working, change will come slowly but surely. 

Moser said she also encourages everyone to visit the museum to be aware of “to keep from repeating the same mistakes” from the past.

“Also, for people who maybe don't care about race relations and systemic oppression, I think it would be impossible to go through that museum and still not care. We all need to care,” she said.

Freshman Eden Melles is a political science/pre-med. She made her first visit to the museum during this trip.

“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “My biggest takeaway from the experience was that there was a lot of events that took place during the Civil Rights Movement that were completely skipped over in history class. There were so many events and people involved that had a significant impact on the movement that I had never even heard about.”

An exhibit of life-size statutes of slaves shackled on a boat had a profound impact on Melles.

“The exhibit included the sounds of whips and screams being played over the speakers. This was surrounded by a whole lot of disturbing facts about slavery that really put into perspective how dehumanizing the entire experience was,” said Melles. “I was also struck by the exhibit that had personal accounts of racial injustice that people experienced that ranged from seeing someone getting lynched to being personally attacked by white people. It was extremely disheartening and you could hear every single emotion in their voice.”

Civil rights tour recap_4?Melles said the museum is important for everyone to experience.

“I think that there's something important anyone could take away from the experience and there is always something more to learn,” she said. “This is something that we have all learned about briefly in school, but being able to see in-depth how this affected the people who lived through it as well as just being able to see in person what I had learned about puts everything into a whole new perspective.”

The National Civil Rights Museum is a complex of museums and historic buildings, including the Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Its exhibits trace the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States from the 17th century to the present.

The mission of the Office of Intercultural Development is to assist students by serving as their advocate and mentor, to equip students with positive coping skills and to provide a safe-haven of belonging for students. The office is committed to fostering an inclusive environment for students by striving to ensure the participation of Lipscomb's under-represented students in university life.

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