Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 10, 2013

Leelanau students travel the south, history of civil rights

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Olivia Kinker found herself a long way from Northport this summer, standing in a kitchen where nearly 60 years ago one of the most influential figures in American history found the strength to press on.

Kinker, a senior at Northport Public School, and about 35 other high school students from Leelanau County and Detroit toured Martin Luther King Jr.'s home in Montgomery, Ala., the same home bombed in 1956 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott while King's wife and daughter were inside.

"We went into the kitchen and we're all standing in this room, and our guide was telling us about how (King) sat at that table and built up the courage to continue even though it was dangerous for him and his family," Kinker said. "That brought out a few tears."

Kinker and five other Leelanau County students boarded a bus in June along with about 30 high school students from Detroit as part of the Michigan Coalition of Human Rights' “2013 Freedom Tour.”

The tour honored civil rights activists who traversed the south in the 1960s to challenge social injustice and inequality. Kinker and her Leelanau classmates will share stories about the experience and what they learned during a public event at the Leelanau County Government Center on Wednesday.

Local attorney Dean Robb, 90, coordinated the trip's Leelanau County contingent. Robb was in his 30s when he helped organize civil rights lawyers, mostly from Detroit, who battled inequality in the south in the 1960s.

Robb heard about the Freedom Tour last winter and wanted to integrate the trip by including white students from Leelanau County with the mostly black and Hispanic students from Detroit.

The tour visited numerous historically significant locations from Atlanta's King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, to Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, where an infamous 1963 bombing killed four black girls, to a desolate wooded area outside Philadelphia, Miss. where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964.

The most memorable stop on the trip for Alex Bennett, a senior at Glen Lake Community Schools, was a house in Montgomery where for two weeks a woman hid the original freedom rider activists who rode interstate buses into the south and challenged segregation policies.

“She is still alive today and we sat in her house and listened to stories about what went on while that was happening," Bennett said. "It was really tangible how important of a place we were in. She was so open and willing to share with us, and I think that’s the one that stands out most to me.”

Bennett also enjoyed forming friendships with the downstate students, many with whom he stays in touch through text messages and social media.

"It wasn't immediately apparent that we would all become friends," he said. "Their daily lives are so different than ours in Leelanau County that we didn't know if we’d have anything in common or get along. But spending so much time in such close proximity, we really embraced each other."

Kinker said the trip opened her mind to being more accepting of others and thinking bout diversity in her everyday life.

"I was a minority on the bus, which is different than I'm used to," she said.

Robb said the face of the old south has changed in many positive ways: the 'colored only' and 'white only' signs that used to adorn restaurants and bus station are gone.

"But racism, that's still with us," he said.

He hopes what the students learned on the Freedom Tour helps them create a more just and fair society.

"The importance of history comes with a hope that we won't repeat the worst of it," he said.

Bennett said he knows discrimination remains a problem today. Some may be tempted to use violence to fix that, but Bennett learned that's not the answer during his two-week trip through the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Society is changing and I think we have to look at what happened in the past to have an effective social movement," he said. "Things can change peacefully and hopefully they will.”