Sojourn to the Past
Dozens of young people from around the country file up the stairs of Little Rock Central High School, retracing the steps of the African-American students who braved a crowd of name-calling, sign-waving, spitting protestors as they desegregated this Arkansas school in 1957. The young people have studied photographs, watched film clips, and read accounts of that event. But the courage required for that momentous action doesn’t quite sink in until Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, steps up to the podium in the school’s auditorium to tell her personal story of that painful time and urge participants not to be a “silent witness” to inequality.
That alone could make the journey worthwhile, but it’s just one of dozens of extraordinary encounters that are part of a 10-day, five-state “moving classroom experience” along the path of the Civil Rights movement organized by the nonprofit organization Sojourn to the Past. In Selma, participants walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and hear Rep. John Lewis describe the “Bloody Sunday” in 1965 when Alabama police brutally attacked voting rights marchers there. In Memphis, students stand outside the Lorraine Motel, listening to a recording of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s stirring and foreboding “mountaintop” speech—delivered the day before his assassination at the motel—urging adherence to nonviolence even as threats escalated.
Since Sojourn began in 1999, more than 6,000 students from diverse backgrounds have taken part in this remarkable journey. Most rank it their “most significant experience in high school.” Sojourn’s impact comes not just from its dramatic itinerary, but also from the way instructors incorporate literature, documentaries, music, and museum visits along the route to deepen experiences and engage students, many of whom are surprised to discover they can handle such academic rigor.
The program also challenges participants to keep the lessons of the past alive, committing to ways they will counter injustice and intolerance in their own schools and communities. “We never call what we do a tour or a field trip,” Executive Director Jeffrey Steinberg says emphatically. “The challenge of every lesson is ‘What are you going to do when you go home?’ Young people walk away empowered by that. We call it a journey of the soul.”