Civil Rights Pilgrimage: Student shares experience

UW’s Department of Communication is accepting applications for a week-long pilgrimage to the South, where students will explore the Civil Rights movement and modern parallels. More information about how to apply, deadline April 20. One of our members was along for the last trip. We’ve asked her to share her experiences.

Here’s what Ashley Walls had to say about her journey.
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When I heard that 52 students, adults, staff and faculty would be spending a week on a bus, traveling through six states in eight days in the heart of the American south, I was nothing short of hesitant. How am I going to get to know everyone? Will this just be a bus tour, driving from one historic site to another? How on earth is this going to work? And why does everyone keep calling it a pilgrimage? 

This trip is called a pilgrimage not just because it truly felt like a trip of the caliber, covering 2,400 miles in just seven days on a bus, but because the word “pilgrimage” embodies the idea of a lifetime of work. This pilgrimage is truly the start of the journey of a lifetime of renewed civic awareness and activism. Many believe that because America elected a black president, racism no longer exists. But, as we’ve seen in Ferguson, that belief is tragically naive. The unique environment of a having a group of individuals from different generations, of different genders, of different races and of different backgrounds and life experiences is unlike something I’ve ever experienced. I felt like everyone came away from this trip having learned something – about history, about the world around them, and about themselves.

We had the incredible honor of being able to be in Selma for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, one of the most brutal and historic moments in American civil rights history.  Seeing President Obama speak after waking up at five in the morning and waiting in line and outside for well over six hours was one of the absolute highlights for me on this trip. I vividly remember his 2008 election campaign, and how concerned my parents were that someone would assassinate him if he became president. But, nearly eight years later, he’s a symbol that African Americans have the potential to even reach the highest office in the land. Having him introduced by John Lewis, who nearly lost his life fighting for the rights and equality that eventually led Obama to even be able to be president, was especially powerful. And walking across the Edmund Pettis bridge as a mixed-race African American female with 120,000 other people only 50 years after so many brave individuals were brutally beaten back fighting for my rights – left me speechless.

I can truly say that my family is 52 members stronger. Our trip motto was “52 Strong” and we all wear wristbands bearing this slogan. We couldn’t have made it through the emotional intensity of that trip without every single one of the people with us, and that’s not an exaggeration. We visited scenes of incredible violence and of courage, including the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and Little Rock Central High in Arkansas. The roller coaster of emotions that we felt on this trip would have been absolutely overwhelming without the support of each other.

Honestly, I’m still processing all of my experiences from this trip. It’s transformative, immersive, challenging and I’ve come back feeling a renewed sense of citizenship and culture, and truly want to make a difference in the community. I’ll be going back on the trip in October (they are held twice a year) as a student mentor, and look forward to embracing my role to facilitate this incredible experience for the new group of students that will be embarking on this journey.

We move onward, together, and I know that this trip was just the beginning of something incredibly beautiful. They say that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and I think that being on the pilgrimage was my first step towards something great. I’m thankful – from the bottom of my heart – to be a continual part of this journey. See photos of the trip.

Walls is helping to organize a non-violence workshop as an extension of her work on this trip. More information about the event, planned April 10 and 11.

Photos by Troy Bonnes, UW Department of Communication.

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