Students face realities of racism on Civil Rights Immersion

Students face realities of racism on Civil Rights Immersion

More than 2,000 miles from The Bluff, the group walked into a room in Birmingham, Alabama. They heard shouts of racial slurs, including the N-word, through overhead speakers. They saw an illuminated Klu Klux Klan robe in the corner. 

Further along, a display showed two water fountains. One fountain, labeled “white,” stood tall, clean and properly functioning, while the other, labeled “colored,” was rust-stained. 

These were the sights and sounds of exhibits in the Civil Rights Institute that a group of University of Portland students visited while on the Civil Rights Immersion, sponsored by UP’s Moreau Center for Service and Justice.  

Last May, these twelve students and two chaperones on the Civil Rights Immersion traveled through the American South to learn about historical events of the Civil Rights Movement and the evolution of racism from past to present in the United States.

Another Klu Klux Klan robe hangs inside an exhibit in the Civil Rights Institute. Beacon Photo

Months later, these experiences still deeply impact the group. The blunt force of racism came alive throughout the two weeks. Officially, the civil rights movement took place in the 1950s and 60s, though, as these students learned, many Americans still suffer the effects of racism every day.

“I’ve taken away so much from the Immersion,” said Lauren Urbina, a junior political science major. “And I’m still unpacking.” 

Many African-Americans continue to face discrimination throughout the country. Activists point to institutional racism in the criminal justice system and even some environmental regulations, as well as other blatant mistreatment. 

Today, racially and ethnically-based hate crimes are on the rise. According to an analysis of FBI hate crime statistics by California State University, hate crimes spiked the day after President Trump won the election. Some argue that the increase in hate crimes is related to Trump’s policies and language relating to people of color.

The group studied the events and issues by engaging with locals to learn from their perspective. They also visited historical monuments and museums, like The Legacy Museum, The Emmett Till Interpretive Center and Little Rock Central High School, throughout Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas.  

The immersion programs have the intention of showing students a common humanity, according to Tshombe Brown, program manager for community partnerships in the Moreau Center and one of the chaperones on the immersion.  

“To be really supportive where we are both learning, there has to be a mutuality.” Brown said. “We are approaching each other as equals and recognizing the assets that already exist.”

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, is the site of a white supremacist terrorist attack that took the lives of four young girls in September 1963. Photo Submission by Kelley McCaffery

Lessons From the South

“It was an extremely transformative experience,” Kelley McCaffery, a senior English major, said. “It is so different to learn about it (civil rights issues) in a classroom than to be learning it where it happens and from the people who have experienced it.”

Those lessons students do learn about in a classroom are often not even showing us the complete picture.

“I don’t think we are accurately taught the history of the civil rights movement,” Urbina said. “There were countless individuals and countless stories that I never knew happened… You have to ask yourself, who am I reading about and who am I not reading about?”

The racism and poverty in Mississippi was the hardest of the three states to face, Urbina said.  Mississippi has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation. The state suffers from problems with infrastructure and food insecurity. These issues disproportionality affect African-Americans, as seen in the poorly funded and discriminatory education system

This was one of the many harsh realities that the Immersion group faced.  

In the 1920s-1950s, people drank from separate drinking fountains. One was marked "white" and the other "colored." Beacon Photo

The group’s visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama was another powerful experience for them. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) founded and opened this memorial in April of this year. It’s informally known as the National Lynching Memorial and is dedicated to victims of lynching and other acts of racial terrorism.  

At the memorial, the students walked through an exhibit of over 800 hanging pillars. The pillars resemble coffins and represent victims of lynching. The name of each victim and the county where the lynching took place are engraved on each pillar.

UP has a special relationship with EJI and its museums. In partnership with EJI, UP students on a previous Civil Rights Immersion in 2016 collected soil from a lynching site in Eastern Alabama. EJI displayed the soil in its Legacy Museum in an exhibit reflecting on the history of lynching.

UP’s connection to this memorial continues today. Taylor Stewart, who graduated in May 2018, went on the Immersion this summer, and it inspired him to pursue civil rights advocacy professionally. While visiting the Legacy Museum, Stewart filled out an interest form to be involved in EJI’s Community Remembrance Project.  

Taylor Stewart is pictured at Dexter Avenue Church at the podium that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “Our God is Marching On (How Long, Not Long)” speech from on March 25, 1965 outside the Alabama State Capital Building. Photo Submission by Taylor Stewart

This project aims to recognize victims of lynching throughout the United States. It involves collecting and displaying soil from lynching sites, erecting historical markers to share stories of victims and having counties claim duplicates of the pillars from the Lynching Memorial to be displayed in the locations where the lynching took place in memory of the victim.

Currently, Stewart is working on creating a historical marker in Coos County, Oregon, home to Oregon’s only recorded case of lynching.  

While the marker will be located in Coos County, Stewart is also working to involve other Oregon communities in recognizing the history of racial violence throughout Oregon. 

“Portland, and Oregon, have a grizzly Civil Rights history that isn’t talked about because we see ourselves as being ‘so past that,’” Stewart said. “We still have a multitude of present day race problems, but we will never be able to address our present day racism if we never remember and correct our racist problems of the past.”

The Civil Rights Immersion group also saw many confederate statues while traveling through the South. Some of the statues stood directly next to statues of Martin Luther King Jr. 

At least 110 confederate monuments and symbols have been removed by state and local governments in the last three years the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reports. The white supremacist massacre at a church in Charleston, SC. in 2015 and the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. in 2017 prompted many of the removals.  

Students on the Immersion also learned that along with confronting these issues should come dialogue. Urbina said the Immersion taught her more of the importance of listening to people who hold different views. Everyone can work to understand the cultures behind these different views and beliefs if they are open minded, she said. 

Both Urbina and McCaffery said the experience was difficult at times. 

“To face the violence, the brutalities and the little idiosyncrasies of the whole civil rights movement, completely head on, was very emotionally draining,” Urbina said.

The group attended workshops throughout the 2017-18 school year to help them learn and understand what they would see. Even with this preparation, the experiences were not easy. They reflected at the end of each day to help deal with the emotional turbulence and process what they learned.

“It was really cool that a group of students can come together and be willing to be extremely vulnerable together,” McCaffery said. “We were all grounded together while we were going through these roller coasters of emotions.”

From Birmingham to The Bluff

During their reflection times, the group discussed how their experiences related back to UP. 

Urbina and McCaffery said one of the most prominent takeaways from their experience is the importance of voting. They noticed that many students take voting for granted. Urbina said she feels it would be disingenuous of her not to vote after meeting people who were a part of the Civil Rights Movement and who sacrificed their safety and livelihood fighting for the right to vote.

This feeling is compounded by the fact that in some parts of the country, some African Americans and other people of color report facing disproportionate voter suppression, primarily through discriminatory voter ID laws.

McCaffery said it’s important for people to use their voices to advocate for others when they vote, and to realize that it is not only about you when you vote. It also became clear to them how disenchanted people are with voting right now. 

McCaffery and Urbina plan on advocating for more voter registration and participation on campus through their roles in campus clubs.

The group also discussed the idea of privilege and advocating for others. Urbina encourages the UP community to use its privilege and power to ensure that everyone on campus has the opportunity to step off The Bluff and engage with the community.

“Every student should know the context of where we are going to school and should know our neighbors’ history,” Brown said.

Applications for next summer's Civil Rights Immersion are live and are due October 7th, 2018.  For more information, students can contact the Immersion coordinators at

Autumn Fluetsch is a reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at