ROMEOVILLE – Earlier this month, Lewis University students became part of history by returning to a spot where history was made.
From March 2 through 9, Lewis students William Riley, Gianna Capperino, Alexis Pullins and Lexi Austring accompanied history professor Dennis Cremin on a trip to various sites important in the civil rights movement.
One place was Selma, Alabama, for the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches for equal voting rights.
In March 1965, a series of protests and marches attended by thousands – including Martin Luther King Jr. – galvanized the country and led to President Lyndon Johnson signing the voting rights act four months later, guaranteeing equal voting rights for all.
“The marches were progressive and peaceful, but they were met with such violent resistance by people trying to suppress the rights of minorities,” Cremin said, “and when footage of that resistance aired on TV across the country, it helped to build public support for minority rights and pushed the president to sign the act into law in a remarkably short amount of time afterwards.
“It was historic in the events that took place, the people who were involved and in the fact that it demonstrated the power of peaceful civil protests for civil rights.”
This first trip was part of a pilot program for Lewis University students. Along with Selma, the students also visited Memphis, Birmingham and Montgomery, all key cities where important moments in the civil rights movement occurred.
Cremin said they used museum exhibits and museum sites – reminders of difficult times and acts committed against people trying to do the right thing – during the day to provide context to students. In the evenings, they reflected upon their experiences.
From a content perspective, Cremin said it was a tough and potentially exhausting course.
“But as we got to Selma, and saw so many people there, and to see the president there, it was reinvigorating and inspiring,” Cremin said.
The students were selected from a group of applicants based upon their achievements and interest in the program. In addition to visiting various historical backdrops, they attended many of the 50th anniversary events scheduled at various venues.
This included joining more than 100,000 people during an appearance by President Barack Obama on March 7 in Selma, Cremin said.
For William Riley, 18, of Chicago, attending a civil rights event that included Obama was nothing short of amazing.
“It was incredible to see him and listen to him, the first African-American president,” Riley said, “and realize that his presidency was in many ways a culmination of what took place 50 years prior, when African-Americans and other minorities were given equal voting rights.”
Riley said it made him appreciate how far the nation has come. He’s still trying to process it.
“It’s left me feeling the need to encourage others to continue the fight for civil rights among those people who are still fighting those battles,” Riley said. “I look at where we’re at and see all the progress made, but also see that there’s still a ways to go.”
Lexi Austring, 19, of Chicago, a sophomore at Lewis, called the experience incredible, unforgettable and empowering.
“I would recommend it to anyone to go to visit these historical places and remember that all of us as individuals can make a difference,” Austring said.
Riley and Austring believe the students returned with a sense that they, too, are part of history and that their actions can help shape the future.
“It’s definitely left a positive impression on me to keep going and have a positive impact in my life, to follow my calling of what God is wanting me to do,” Austring said. “Seeing what Martin Luther King Jr. did through peaceful protest is inspiring, and it makes me want to do the same.”
The article has been updated to correct the name of Dennis Cremin. The Herald-News regrets the error.