I grew up privileged. My school system was a diverse bubble in the middle of a Cleveland suburb, my family was part of the middle-class with a recreational lake across the street, I had opportunities that led me to the collegiate life I’m living now.

Throughout those years, my K-12 classmates would flip through pages about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement for a few select days out of the year. Did my education teach me about slavery, race relations in our country, civil rights activists and segregation? Sure. But I always felt we were only scratching the surface of the issue.

This semester, my classmates and I spent eight weeks consuming material about all aspects of the movement from readings, documentaries and lengthy discussions in our weekly three-hour class meetings. Then it was time for the trip over spring break.

We boarded a charter bus to visit historically significant areas specific to the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Ohio. All of our stops had an impact on me, but a few stuck out the most to expanding my education of the Civil Rights Movement.

My privilege slapped me in the face on this trip.

Alabama

Sitting in the chapel of 16th Street Baptist Church, I thought of the four school-aged girls who were killed in a hate-fueled church bombing on Sept. 15, 1963. They were just trying to go to church. 54 years later, a fresh bouquet of pink flowers sits outside the church memorializing their spirits and reminding passersby where our country’s race relations once were — and in some cases still are. 

At the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, we heard the story of Anthony Ray Hinton. Hinton spent 30 unjust years on death row in Alabama for a murder he did not commit. He recalled how many officials during his arrest and trial told him they knew he didn’t do it.

They also told him it didn’t matter and that he was going to jail because of his skin tone. He’s been out for more than a year now.

“My first day out,” Hinton said, “it rained. I hadn’t felt the cool rain on my skin in years.”

On our way out of the Equal Justice Initiative office, it rained. No one tried to run to the bus or cover their hair from the precipitation.

Mississippi

Peeking out of the window of the charter bus, I saw a disheveled schoolhouse next to a half-knocked down building. The bus traveled further down the road. A bright blue playground with children wearing dresses and bows in their hair playing next to newish-looking government offices and freshly built houses. I was staring at self-segregation in the middle of Mississippi.

We stopped at what was once the storefront Emmett Till allegedly whistled at a white woman, prompting her husband and a gang of men to murder the young boy. Vines stretched the side of the building, pulling the gray roof in. If it wasn’t for the historical marker recounting Till’s story, no one would know what location they were standing in. We boarded the bus and silently rode past the river Till’s body was thrown into.

Tennessee

Standing in front of the balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, I felt an emotion that I can’t quite put into words. It was surreal.

The museum centered in on sensory details with sounds of whips in the slavery display, footsteps of those who crossed the bridge in protest for voter rights in Selma, Alabama and the voice of the bus driver telling a statue of Rosa Parks “leave your seat now or I’m calling the police.”

* * *

We need to learn our history — all of it. No matter how hard or ashamed it will make you. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, I know but that’s part of the growing pains that make us better individuals. For a better future.

I am ashamed to say I didn’t realize the full breadth of the Civil Rights Movement.

Don’t just read the textbooks, go beyond them. 

Julia Fair is a reporter for The Post. 

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