Success Begins with Courage

kaohlee Kaohlee Vue, UMD staff member: I had the pleasure of learning and living history alongside passionate and intelligent students, staff, and community members this week. Prior to this experience I have never learned so much about nor have I ever been so interested in the Civil Rights Movement.

It was exciting, yet heart-wrenching to be in the places where Civil Rights leaders have been. I stood in Medgar Ever’s bathroom, and saw the bathtub that his children used to hide in to protect themselves from the bullets of racist folks shooting into the home. I stood in the basement of the Slavehaven Underground Railroad, and felt the whispers of the individuals who desperately crawled to their freedom. I sat in the home of a woman whose mother demonstrated that anything is possible when she accepted a clerk’s challenge and recited the entire U.S. constitution. That act granted her the right to register and vote. I stood a few feet away from the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood the moment he took his last breath.

All of the stories of these men and women were moving and empowering, yet overwhelming and emotionally draining. But most of all, they were inspiring.

We learned a lot on this trip about history, leaders, each other, and ourselves. During trips like these I always reflect on myself. I learn of the amazing things other people have done and I wonder what bravery I have, and how much strength I hold. The fearlessness and determination of these leaders inspire me to do better, and be better. No human being is perfect, but we can always improve. What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean “to do the right thing”? I believe it means to help others improve their lives personally, spiritually, financially, or any other way.

The stories of the brave men and women reminded me that success begins with courage. These brave leaders stood up individually and fought for what they believed in. They gave people hope even when there was none.

Discrimination and bigotry are still prevalent today, and it will never vanish entirely, but we all can work together to continue to improve the community little by little. It starts with small things such as encouraging others to do the “impossible”, confronting friends for bullying someone, or just saying “hello” to a stranger. We must have faith and perseverance even when others are doubtful. We must believe that the result will be glorious as long as we are doing our best.

This experience reminds me to be grateful for what I have. It reminds me to continue to stand up for what I believe in. It reminds me to not be afraid of the voices of others. It reminds me that life waits for no one.

As Owen Walker (Vicellous Reon Shannon) says in the movie Freedom Song, “If not me, who? If not now, when?”

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Civil Rights History Tour: The Worst and the Best

chris-smReflections by Chris Davila, UMD staff member.

The Worst: Reflections on the Davis Plantation

One of the first stops on our Civil Rights trip was the Jefferson Davis Plantation museum. Davis was the elected president of the confederacy and had a vacation home on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico in Biloxi, Mississippi. As a matter of fact, prior to arriving I didn’t really know what we were visiting and who Jefferson Davis was.

As we arrived, all of the students filed out of the bus and into the lobby of the museum. I was helping a group member with an email so by the time we got out of the bus the large group had moved on. We walked into the lobby together next to the small gift shop and as we walked by we heard a stern voice from an old white woman in the store say, “Ya’ll come back here!” There was no polite greeting just the order to come.

As we joined the group we walked into the Davis home. The guide was pleasant knew all the interesting facts about the painting of the crown moldings, why the doors were placed directly opposite of each other to cool the house, everything about the Davis’s, but one thing that he could not do was name ANY of the black folks that he mentioned in his talk. I’m sure that it was rare that black people come to visit this museum. Why would they? This is a place that celebrates the leaders of the confederacy. The guide was quick to play up that Davis wasn’t racist and even had an adopted black son. Mary Cameron asked, “are you sure that he was adopted and not his actual son?” The guide was adamant that he was adopted and there was documentation to prove it. I thought any white person during that time, especially one as rich and powerful as Davis could have papers drawn up.

When Davis was arrested and jailed, his family was relocated and his black son was taken elsewhere. There is no history of what happened to him. I find that strange and found everything about this visit unnerving and I was suspicious and cautious of everything I was hearing and seeing.

The guide also pointed out that Davis empowered some of his slaves to manage parts of the plantation such as the lumber yard and farming. The man that built the home was black too and the guide credited his workmanship for the reason the house was only one of a few on the Mississippi coast that were able to withstand hurricane Katrina. He said that the house servants were like family and were even included in some of the photos and paintings. BUT, the one thing the guide couldn’t tell us was the names of any of these people! The reason the home is even standing is because of a black slave and he doesn’t even know his name. But he can tell you about every little luxurious detail in this decadent house.

All of these experiences left a bad taste in my mouth, but I was glad that we started the trip out here. It was a good reminder of the continued racism and bigotry that exists. I found out later that there was a statue of Davis with his white son and his adopted black son on the grounds somewhere. Again, the guide was proud to point this out. I did some reading and found out that the statue was commissioned by the Sons of the Confederacy and it was believed that it was created to play up that Davis was more of a humanitarian than might have been believed. I think it’s a bunch of bull and a shoddy attempt.

Before we left we stopped in the bookstore where there were confederate flags and buckles and other gifts. A group of our girls, all black girls, waited by the entrance and I watched as six older white people walked in, the men wearing veteran hats. They paused and stood curiously at the group of girls. I can’t say I knew what they were thinking but they didn’t smile and they didn’t greet them.

The Best: National Civil Rights Museum

The beginning and end of the trip marked the worst and best of my experiences. The Davis plantation was a stark reminder and visual representation of the inequality and injustice that existed while the personal experience I had there reminded me of how much more work there still needs to be done.

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee however was the highlight of this trip for me. We were fortunate to be the first group to enter through the new exhibits and renovations and it was absolutely amazing and moving. The museum takes you on a journey as you walk alongside others that have fought for their basic human rights beginning with the slave trade through present day.

One of the first exhibits that you see in the museum shows how people were packed into slave ships and stripped from their families and of their culture, identity and spirit. It was difficult not to come to tears as I saw a bill of sale for a 10 month old baby. The previous day we had been through the Underground Railroad Museum and our guide told us how children were used as heaters to keep their masters warm, by having them sleep in the bed around them. I don’t understand why, but it’s somehow easier to see or know of the injustices that adults go through, but when it comes to children it gives us a completely different perspective. Children were sold to poorer whites because they would have to pay to raise them into workers.

In a conversation I had with Jerry Wiley, a civil rights veteran who attended the get together at Zelpha’s home in Holmes County, we talked about how many of the UMD students on this trip are recent immigrants from Africa or their parents are recent immigrants. He expressed that he would never know where his family came from in Africa. All of those ties were severed by the slave trade. He may only be able to track his ancestry back to the bill of sale during the slave trade just like the one that I saw at the National Civil Rights Museum.

While conditions have improved for many African Americans and Jim Crow laws have been done away with, there are so many more examples of modern day slavery and racial inequality. Minnesota has one of the largest achievement gaps in the country for students of color compared to their white counterparts. Black men are incarcerated at a rate which is alarming higher than any other ethnic group. The examples go on and on and it is by learning about OUR history that we can identify those injustices and work towards rectifying them. You can’t know what you don’t know, so we all have to make a conscious decision to learn what policies, laws and other strategies were used to systematically deny the rights of others, so that way we are able to know whether we are ourselves are part of the problem!

So many students on this trip have expressed that they wish they had learned more about this history in their own schools. This knowledge is powerful and I am looking forward to seeing it work through them and myself as we return to UMD and our communities.

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Flickr Page and Media Attention – COFO too

Follow our Flickr page at

or go to the “follow” part and type in our email

We were on TV in Hattiesburg and Jackson:

COFO put our photos on their FB page

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It Isn’t Enough to Talk of Peace


Cheryl Reitan, UMD staff member: The Dred Scott memorial was the last stop at the end of a journey that changed everyone of us. Last night Tyler led us in a reflection. It was a debriefing kind of thing and many of us, myself included, talked about what’s next — about what we can do to to follow the incredible Civil Rights leaders who have gone before us. The students at Tougaloo College are working to help voters get IDs because a new Mississippi’s voter ID law will go into effect in June 2014. The students at COFO are working on an education ballot initiative. And some of us on this trip are talking about volunteering in schools and with troubled youth. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “It isn’t enough to talk of peace. We must believe it and must work at it.” We’re ready.

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Inspired to Move Forward


Chad Jackson, community member: A Time to Look Back, Learn, Be Thankful & Be Inspired to Move Forward with a Renewed Since of Purpose!

When my Mom asked me to join her & the UMD students on their Civil Rights Bus Tour a few months ago I got excited about this trip and what it would do for me and my family. I can honestly say that, as this trip is close to its conclusion, my thoughts were nothing compared to what I’ve actually experienced.

We’ve seen many places, met many people and have heard/read some amazing stories! I was extremely moved by our visit to Medgar Evers’ house – to stand in the house where this Civil Rights Pioneer lived, where he raised his family and where he was ultimately assassinated was “bone-chilling”!  What is amazing to me about the tragic deaths of leaders like Medgar, MLK, Malcom X, Kennedy and others is how young they were!  I’ve always known that – but to be down here and to actually be walking on the soil, and being in the areas / places where these men and women served brings it all home.  Evers was 37 I believe  — being 38 myself, I sit back and say to myself WOW!

I’ve also been impressed with the “pride” in some of the young people, and really the “Mississippians” as a whole that we have encountered down here. In particular the two youth leaders at the COFO office (Brandon & Precious)!  They both spoke with a knowledge and passion about the movement and their role in the upcoming “Freedom Summer” celebration.

On a personal note, I was able to connect with several family members (some face to face – others via phone) who live down here.  My mother and I stayed with her sister one night and it was on this night before arriving at their home that we went to the “exact” spot to see where my Mother was born (Brandon, MS)…the sun had just set, the air was cool and there we sat in the car – looking down in a ravine of sorts where years back “shacks” sat along a creek.  My Mother, as many blacks in that day, was born in the very house she would live in until she was 4.  At 62, for her to finally see the very place where she was born and to share that with her is something I will hold close to me and never forget.

Slavehaven provided me a deeper understanding of the “Triangular Trade” and the depths that slaves went through to get north to freedom.  Given the laws that were in place and blacks not being permitted to read or write, it was really interesting how strategic and creative they were in how they communicated with one another to relay messages. Using song, patterns on blankets and other methods to help one another in their pursuit of freedom was really ingenious and made me smile of sorts knowing just how calculated they were despite the “law limitations” that had been placed on them.

On a more personal note, I’ve also had “moments of reflection” where I have thought about my own battles and situations that I’ve been in throughout my life.  Now certainly not to the level of those we’ve met and the stories we’ve heard but what my encounters with the various leaders and stories I’ve heard down here have reinforced a renewed passion in me to continue to ask, speak and act on injustice!  There is a certain “pride” in Mississippi that have not seen anywhere else in my travels.  There isn’t shame in what has occurred and what they had to endure to insure that folks like me could have a better way of life is truly encouraging.  I am going home a different man than what I was when I arrived. My since of purpose has been renewed – and as the Father of three young children I have a responsibility, not only as their Dad, but as an African-American to continue to raise them in the spirit of our forefathers, to make sure they “know” about the sacrifices many have made and to walk boldly and confidently as they go about their lives – but to go about that walk with purpose and passion!

Lastly, I would like to say a special thanks to the UMD students on this trip – while I may not have had the chance to sit and chat deeply with each and every one of you, it has been an honor and a privilege to share this experience with you.  I feel confident in knowing that there are leaders on this bus and those “change agents” are heading to Duluth to make a difference!

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The Formation of Freedom Summer

Cal Harris, Duluth community member: I had the honor to play the role of Bob Moses. As a leader, Bob Moses became one of the most influential black leaders of the southern civil rights struggle. Moses developed the idea for the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, which recruited northern college students to join Mississippi blacks  to conduct voter registration drives.  I can’t wait to share the knowledge and wisdom I have gained.
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Living History and the Work at Home




Mary Cameron, UMD staff member: To the UMD students on the trip. We are so proud of you! You took on the role of a Civil Rights leader and did an excellent job portraying that person seriously at each presentation. You were professional and caring when interacting with the students at the various schools we attended. You were gracious and appreciative at Miss Zelpha’s and in the other homestays. You have learned a lot through this experience, and based on the reflections that you shared on the bus, you recognize that we still have work to do, and this work starts at home, in our school, and our community.

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