By David Perlmutt
Posted: Monday, Jun. 22, 2009
the Ku Klux Klan bombed 16th Street Baptist
Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four girls.
The teens could feel “this is where history
took place,” leader Mike Thompson said.
COURTESY OF JESSICA WILLIAMS
Sixteen-year-old Jasmine Bates took a seven-day ride
through history last week, and along the way learned
something about herself.
The Myers Park High junior was part of a civil-rights
tour through the South with eight other African American
teenagers from the Stratford Richardson YMCA in Charlotte.
In Memphis, Tenn. they stood at the balcony of the
Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned
down in 1968. It's now home to the National Civil Rights
Museum. In Clarksdale, Miss., they saw guitars of bluesmen
Robert Johnson and B.B. King, and remnants of Muddy
Waters' birthplace at the Delta Blues Museum. In Birmingham,
Ala., they stroked the monuments at Kelly Ingram Park,
where King and others organized boycotts, and where
Bull Connor turned his police dogs against demonstrators
in May 1963.
And in Selma, Ala., with the afternoon heat approaching
100, they walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where in
1965 state troopers and local police clubbed and tear-gassed
“Our guide said he was 11 then, and spent time
in jail. He said he and his friends would skip school
to go march,” Jasmine said. “So we learned
that children were a part of the movement, too. After
taking this tour, I understand better the cause they
“Put in their shoes, I believe I could find the
strength to do what they did.”
Which is why Pfeiffer University history professor
Mike Thompson assembled the trip, designed after a tour
he took last year with civil-rights leader Julian Bond.
Thompson created the itinerary, and Pfeiffer and the
Stratford Richardson Y (named for the late Willie Stratford
and Jim Richardson, two Charlotte African Americans
who fought for equal rights) made it happen.
The group left the Pfeiffer campus in a bus June 14,
and returned to Charlotte Saturday.
“I wanted to make certain that kids are still
engaging in history and acquire an understanding of
the movement that is more complex than just listening
to King's ‘Dream speech,' and the Rosa Parks story,”
Thompson said. “… We could have easily
stayed in Charlotte and watched documentaries and read
the words of King and John Lewis – and they would
have learned a lot.
“But when you place kids in the Kelly Ingram
Park in Birmingham, or walk the Edmund Pettus Bridge
in Selma, they understand that this is hallowed ground,
this is where history took place. It's no longer remote.”
After a few days on the tour, 12-year-old Beau DeVaul
understands “the astounding courage” it
took for his black father and white mother to marry.
And when he's old enough to vote, he won't take his
rights for granted.
“A lot of people before me went through some
bad stuff for us to be able to vote,” Beau said.
“Kids my age need to know that things weren't
always like this. It was a struggle to get the things
Thompson and Jessica Williams, who coordinates the
teen activities at Stratford Richardson, want the tour
to become an annual part of the Y's summer programs.
“It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these
kids to learn their history and how it formed the way
they live today,” Williams said. “When they
get back to the classroom, and their teacher starts
talking about Selma and the Edmund Pettus Bridge –
they'll be able to say ‘I know all about it; I
marched across it.'”
Along the way, Thompson, Williams and the students
blogged their trip.
On the sixth day, after 1,600 miles, Thompson wrote
he expected to witness a “gripe-fest” from
But at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery,
King's first church, the students thanked him for taking
them on the trip.
“It was heartfelt – honest to the core,”