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A taste of civil rights history over spring break

June 03, 2007|Regina L. Burns | Associated Press

JACKSON, MISS. — The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated just one day before Sharon Matlock turned 10.

Her birthday brought gifts and her mother's tears, and ever since she has tried to understand the hatred and violence of those times.

Now 49 and a college staff member, Matlock recently joined professors and students on a five-state trip to civil rights landmarks to find answers.

More and more colleges are leading trips through the South -- to cities such as Memphis, Tenn., where King was shot in 1968; Little Rock, Ark.; Atlanta; Selma, Ala.; and Jackson -- to help students understand the long, bitter struggle for equality.

The trips bring events of that period to life and provide students with insights they could not get in a classroom, say officials of Southern Methodist University, sponsor of the tour Matlock joined.

"Seeing Medgar Evers' house was sobering because we saw how that family had to live back in that time," said Matlock, describing the home where the Mississippi NAACP field secretary was fatally shot. It is in Jackson, the tour's first stop. "The house was designed with no front door. They had to live on the floor. They were prisoners in their home."

In 2005, SMU created its Civil Rights Pilgrimage Travel Seminar, which takes students during spring break to historical sites. Matlock, who works in the university's human resources department, traveled with 40 others, including four from another Dallas school, historically black Paul Quinn College. Their chartered bus stopped in eight cities over eight days.

Clotie Graves led the tour at Evers' house. Graves, who has a business that works with the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau, noted, "Civil rights tours are very popular among colleges, senior citizens' groups, historical groups and high schools."

Evers' house was restored by Castle Rock Entertainment, which used it for scenes in the 1996 movie "Ghosts of Mississippi," Graves said while leading another tour on a recent day.

Another stop was Peaches Cafe, which owner Roderick Ephram said had been frequented by Freedom Riders in the 1960s.

Matlock took the trip as an independent study for the liberal studies master's degree she's pursuing. The trip cost $275.

SMU's chaplain's office and the William P. Clements Jr. Department of History oversee the trips, which are supported by grants. Students who want three hours of academic credit must read material, watch videos, keep a journal and write a paper about the trip, said William M. Finnin Jr., SMU's chaplain.

The trip focuses on the years 1955 to 1968, said SMU history professor Glenn Linden, who serves as trip historian.

"For a while, some of the white students feel anxious," said Linden. "Some of the black students begin to understand why their parents were trying to protect them and what could happen to them in a fairly racist society."

Still, he said the trip was not about guilt. "You're not blamed if you're white. When the trip is over, we meet and say, 'How can we make SMU a better place?' " Linden said.

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