Students and Faculty From Touro College’s New York School of Career and Applied Studies Participate in Civil Rights Tour in Alabama

Date: May 07, 2009
Touro College students join Charles Mason (second row, far left), site director of the New York School of Career and Applied Studies (NYSCAS) midtown main campus; Professors Jose E. Dunker (second row, third from left); and Clarence Yearwood (second row, sixth from left) on the steps of the State Capital building in Alabama.
Touro College students join Charles Mason (second row, far left), site director of the New York School of Career and Applied Studies (NYSCAS) midtown main campus; Professors Jose E. Dunker (second row, third from left); and Clarence Yearwood (second row, sixth from left) on the steps of the State Capital building in Alabama.
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New York, N.Y. - Thirty-one students from New York School of Career and Applied Studies (NYSCAS), a division of Touro College in Manhattan, visited three Alabama cities—Montgomery, Selma and Tuskegee--as part of a Civil Rights Tour from Tuesday April 21, through Wednesday, April 23. The tour, called “Change Started with the Civil Rights Movement,” coincided with Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom HaShoah) on April 21 and was designed to illustrate how African-Americans and Jews have worked together with civil rights issues in recent history and how those issues have united them in the fight against prejudice and bigotry.

“This trip was hopefully the first of many that will bring together students to illustrate that prejudice and bigotry have no place in American society,” said Dr. Karen Sutton, assistant professor of history at Touro College and one of the organizers of the tour along with Jose E. Dunker, political science instructor, and Charles Mason, site director of the NYSCAS’ midtown main campus.

Dr. Sutton pointed out that many in the Jewish community were ardent supporters of the Civil Rights Movement and many Jewish students worked in concert with African-Americans as full-time organizers and volunteers during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. In 1964, Jewish leaders were arrested alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Florida after challenging racial segregation in public accommodations. “Historically, both Jews and blacks were persecuted in similar ways,” she said.

As a Jew and a Holocaust scholar, Dr. Sutton said that viewing the injustice, terror and intimidation that African-Americans experienced in the United States helped her to better understand the oneness that victims of bigotry share.

In addition to Montgomery, the students visited Selma, the site of the Civil Rights March in 1964, and Tuskegee. The itinerary included:

  • Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church: a national historic landmark--and the first and only pastorate of the legendary Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—which was also a center point of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott.
  • Dexter Parsonage Museum: built in the 1920s, this historic house was home to Dr. King and his family from 1954 to 1960. The structure survived the bombing of its front porch while Dr. King’s family was inside.
  • Civil Rights Memorial and Center: designed by renowned sculptor Mya Lin, the memorial lists 40 people killed during the Civil Rights struggle.
  • Rosa Parks Library & Museum: visitors heard the story of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and experienced the courageous spirit of Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old seamstress who sparked the modern Civil Rights Movement by refusing to move to a seat in the back of the bus.
  • National Voting Rights Museum in Selma: located at the foot of the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was the scene of the “Bloody Sunday” when voting rights marchers were violently confronted by law enforcement personnel on March 7, 1965.

Dunker, who teaches a class on the Civil Rights Movement, said the idea for the tour grew out of a desire to educate his students about the struggle African-Americans have gone through in the 1950s and ‘60s in America.

“My students take great pride in the fact that Barack Obama is the first Black American to be elected President but many of them are unaware of the history of prejudice in America and the specific events that were turning points for change,” he said.

Mason agreed, adding that both student and faculty members were overcome with emotion during key points. “At the Civil Rights Museum, we had the opportunity to take part in a demonstration that allowed us to relive the passage experience of slaves from Africa to North America,” he said. “Almost everyone had tears in their eyes. We were emotionally drained.”

At Dr. Martin Luther King’s church and parish, students met with congregants who attended the church in the 1950s. The visit to Selma was particularly moving when students got to hear a woman speak about Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Mason said: “She [the woman] was 11 years old at the time and she recalled watching helplessly as the leaders of the voting rights march were being beaten by troopers. It was very powerful stuff,” Gareth Bryant, one of the organizers of the trip and a student at Touro College, said he named the tour “Change Started with the Civil Rights Movement” in reaction to President Obama’s “change” platform during his campaign. “Real change started with civil rights movement,” he said. “It did not start with Obama and will not end with him.”

Bryant, who along with several other students kept a journal of his experiences, said he was in awe of how well-preserved artifacts from the era were kept and with the testimonials of people who lived through the era. “A curator at the Dexter Avenue Museum we spoke with was a young girl at the time whose family owned a dry cleaning store,” he said. “She told of cleaning blood stains off the white robes of Ku Klux Klan members. It’s hard to forget stories like that.”

Lorinda Moore, a junior marketing student who describes herself as being “slightly older” than most of her peers at Touro, said that many young African-Americans are not aware of their own history and tours such as theirs will help students interact more positively with other cultural and ethnic groups.

“A tour such as this one gives young people an education outside of the books,” she said. “It makes the whole learning experience more realistic. It allows them to stand in the shoes of the people who lived through this.” She added that this is a first step in the right direction of uniting people against the common cause of bigotry. “I’m grateful for the opportunity of having experienced it.”