Sojourn to the Past is more than an extended field trip or 10-day conference. It’s a journey of shared history.
REENA EVERS WAS EIGHT WHEN HER FATHER WAS ASSASSINATED IN THE DRIVEWAY OF THE FAMILY’S JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI, HOME BY A MEMBER OF THE KU KLUX KLAN. Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary and civil rights activist, was killed on June 12, 1963, the same night that former U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivered a nationwide address on civil rights.
That morning, Medgar asked his wife Myrlie to let the three Evers children stay up to watch the president’s address.
“They may not understand it, but it’s important that they see it,” he said.
Medgar kissed his wife and children good-bye as he left for work but came back and said to Myrlie, “I’m so tired, but I can’t stop,” and kissed his wife goodbye once again.
Right before Kennedy’s speech, Medgar called home to tell Myrlie, “I love you. I love you with all my heart. I’ll see you tonight.”
“That was unusual for him to show that kind of emotion in the heat of the times,” Myrlie said.
The family heard Medgar’s car pull into the driveway shortly before midnight, and the kids went running because their daddy was home. And then Myrlie heard the gunshot. The children did as they had been instructed—go to the bathroom and get into the bathtub. When Myrlie opened the front door, all she could see was blood and Medgar pulling himself up the driveway with his car keys still in his hand. He would die less than an hour later.
“It’s as vivid to me today as it can be,” Myrlie said.
Jeff Steinberg is a former history teacher from San Francisco who is the executive director of a civil rights education program for high school students called “Sojourn to the Past.” During the past 12 years, Steinberg has taken more than 6,000 Bay Area students on an unforgettable journey from Georgia to Alabama to Tennessee to visit some of the important places and meet some of the most important people of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
But don’t think of Sojourn to the Past as merely an extended field trip or 10-day conference. It’s so much more than that.
“This journey is our shared history as Americans,” Steinberg said.
Some students who have experienced Sojourn to the Past say the program has helped them make career decisions. Kristy Krsulich attended Sojourn 2004 as a high school junior. She’s now a social worker for leukemia patients at a New York hospital.
“My experience at Sojourn absolutely influenced my choice to become a social worker. In fact, I credit it as being one of the primary reasons that I have chosen a life of public service,” Krsulich said. “Sojourn comes at a very formative time in the lives of the young adults who attend. By the age of 17 or 18, many young adults are ready to start developing goals for their lives. Personally, the values—justice, non-violence and forgiveness—of Sojourn helped me to develop an interest in social justice and ultimately steered me in the direction of social work. It was the first time that I had ever really been taught that one can make a career out of helping others.”
You Can’t Kill an Idea
Each morning of the trip, Steinberg gives a classroom-style lecture to provide historical context and background for what the group experiences. At the Evers’ house, he teaches a lesson from the driveway. He asks the students to write a letter to themselves while sitting on the driveway and answer the question: What does courage and sacrifice mean to you?
“When you go home you’re going to be asked to show some courage, to take some action—and you’re going to feel weak,” he said to students. “You might not be able to do it. What do I want you to do when you feel that moment of weakness? Remember what you write. I hope it’s going to inspire you to do the right thing.”
Steinberg then asks his students to look at the house and imagine what it must have been like to see the family together, to look down the street and see Medgar running with his son Darryl and to look into the backyard and picture the kids playing. Steinberg asks the students to look at the front door and imagine opening it to see your husband or father dying before you.
At that moment, Myrlie emerges from the house to greet the students and talk about the night her husband was killed. Her message to the Sojourn students is that you can’t kill an idea.
The students read a paragraph from a book written by Myrlie: “Reena, the precocious one, always had the same wish on her birthday—please bring my daddy back.” From the back of the crowd emerges a woman who has been on the trip the entire time. The students know her as Denise Everett, but her full name is Reena Denise Evers.
Denise has participated in all 66 Sojourns. She travels with the students without revealing who she is until the group reaches her parents’ house. There she talks about the spirit of her father, the future, Medgar’s legacy and his courage, his determination, the belief that everyone has to get out and vote and not to be silent to injustice.
“It’s important to show the Sojourn students that there’s a human element to what they’re learning,” Denise said. “I tell the students the Civil Rights Movement is not something that happened 100 years ago. I was part of it, and I’m right here in front of you.”
The Problem of Indifference
In Little Rock, Arkansas, the students have the opportunity to meet the most recognizable member of the Little Rock Nine, Elizabeth Eckford. Her arrival at Central High School was frozen in time in a photograph taken by Arkansas Democrat staffer Wilmer Counts. Eckford arrived at the school alone in a neatly pressed white dress, bobby socks, white buck loafers and sunglasses. She was followed by an angry mob of 150 white people shouting racial epithets and shouting profanity. When Eckert tried to find a friendly face in the crowd, she spotted an older woman who spat on her.
Eckford took a public bus on her first day at Central High School. She called the walk from the bus stop to the school the longest block of her life. The National Guard turned Eckford away when she arrived at Central High, so she headed back down the street hoping the angry mob would leave her alone.
She tried to seek safety at a drugstore, but the storeowner locked the door as she approached. Eckford spotted a bench at a bus stop and sat down. The crowd followed her and began shouting, “Drag her over to the tree”—suggesting she should be lynched. Finally, Grace Lorch, a middle-aged white woman, made her way through the crowd and guided Eckford to a nearby bus stop, where Elizabeth got on the bus and headed to her mother’s office.
Eckford meets each Sojourn group in the Central High School auditorium, and during every question-and-answer session, she’s asked if she ever considered suicide. She admits she attempted it several times.
“When I was at Central, it had 1,800 students,” Eckford said. “Do you know how many white kids reached out to me? Two—Ken Reinhardt and Ann Williams. They made me feel human. Do you know how much power you have to help somebody? When you see a student being bullied or terrorized in class and you share your humanity with them, do you know what you might do for that person? You might be someone’s hope someday.
“When you reach out to someone who is being bullied or terrorized, what you do for that person might help someone live one more day,” she continued. “That’s power. You have the power to keep each other alive. You have more power than your parents or your teachers.”
Eckford recalled that she was always made to sit by herself at the back of each class. The few white students she met gave her the “Please don’t let anyone know you know me” look. She was shoved down stairs, kicked, punched, scalded with hot water in the shower, serenaded with humiliating songs during gym class and attacked with snowballs filled with rocks. Eckford jokes that on one occasion she only had broken glass thrown at her during lunch so she considered that a good day.
After meeting with Eckford, the Sojourn students gather in the school’s courtyard with Steinberg who asks them to make a commitment to themselves.
“I have the students stand in the same spot where Elizabeth and the other eight students were denied access to Central High and I ask them, ‘When you get home and you see a student of color being terrorized, bullied or harassed—or a woman, gay, overweight or disabled student—what are you going to do? Are you going to thank God it’s not you who is being terrorized, or are you going to take action? Are you going to be a silent witness or are you going to step forward?’
“No one came to Elizabeth’s aid,” he continued. “It wasn’t those who were the most evil that allowed it to happen; it was the people who did nothing. The problem was indifference.”
A Full-Circle Moment
Sojourn to the Past isn’t without its challenges. While there is no shortage of people who want to provide help and support, Steinberg says the real challenge is keeping the program funded. With the down economy, corporations and foundations are cutting back on grants to programs such as Sojourn, and it’s becoming more difficult to keep the program going.
“When those who were directly involved with the Civil Rights Movement are no longer here, who’s going to continue the legacy if we don’t know the stories?” Steinberg said.
Before that can happen, however, Steinberg spends much of his time raising funds (and that’s in addition to making presentations to more than 25,000 students annually).
So what keeps Steinberg going despite all of the challenges? Perhaps it’s the words Dr. Martin Luther King spoke as he delivered his own eulogy, “If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a well song, if I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.”
The Sojourn concludes at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The motel has been converted into a museum and chronicles the fight for civil rights, from slavery to the March on Washington.
Dr. King’s room has been preserved, as it was the evening of his death. The group’s arrival is another full-circle moment. The buses pull into the hotel’s courtyard lot, and Steinberg gives a lesson where the students read passages from books, they look at photos of what happened the night of the assassination and Steinberg plays the last speech Dr. King ever gave, “The Mountain Top” speech.
He ties the trip together by asking the students, “Remember earlier today when you sat in the courtyard at Central High and you wrote a letter of commitment to yourself? Do you remember what you promised to do when you see a person of color, a gay student or someone with disabilities being terrorized and bullied? Are you going to be silent or are you going to take a stand? The question isn’t what will happen to you if you help out that person. The question is what will happen to the student if you don’t help out?”
Steinberg ends the Sojourn by quoting from the “Book of Genesis”:
They said one to another
Behold cometh the dreamer
Let us slay him
And we shall see what becomes of his dream.
“Well the dreamer’s been dead since 1968,” Steinberg said to the students. “It’s up to you to determine what we do about racism, sexism and homophobia. It’s up to you to decide what we do about violence and hatred. Look at the balcony. They killed the dreamer, but did they kill the dream?” One+
business of meetings,
One+ September 2012,
Sojourn to the Past,