A group of 54 people is heading to the South on a Civil Rights pilgrimage. They come from Utah State University, Washington University and Bellevue College and call themselves 54 Strong.
It was during a road trip to the South that Jason Gilmore personally experienced the impact of the Civil Rights Movement. He’s an assistant professor of global communications at USU and is passionate about this era of U.S. history. His experience 3 years ago was so impactful that he wanted to share it with as many people as he could. One of Gilmore's colleagues, David Domke from the University of Washington created the pilgrimage. And Gilmore has been involved in the project since the beginning. Twice a year he gathers a group of eager learners and heads to places like Montgomery, Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee.
"One of the big points of the group we take down there is that it is multi-generational – so we have college students and we have community adults," said Gilmore. "It’s multi-racial. It’s multi-sexual. It’s multi-national. People of varied economic backgrounds. What we try to do is put together the most diverse group as possible.”
Gilmore said one purpose of the pilgrimage is to have difficult conversations with his students, about race relations and racial inequality.
“We’re not only in very intense situations in the South," he said, "but at the same time ... we also realize the triumphant spaces. Where people came, even at risk of death, of losing their jobs, of losing their livelihoods, to come together and march for their rights. So there’s also these incredibly triumphant spaces.”
He makes sure they visit locations where true social change took place. They travel to places like Selma, Alabama where a major civil rights demonstration for the right to vote in the 60s resulting in severe injuries from tear gas and nightsticks.
“Last year was really intense because it was the 50th anniversary of the Selma March," said Gilmore. "We were in Selma when President Barrack Obama gave his speech. So we were at the speech.”
“The Americans who crossed this bridge, they were not physically imposing. But they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation. They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence, countless daily indignities –- but they didn’t seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them almost a century before.”
“The funny thing is, this will be my 4th time that I’ve been on a trip like this and I come back a different person every single time," said Gilmore. "It’s interesting because to celebrate the 50th is a very important thing, but it almost seems to celebrate the 51st is more important. It’s the idea that this doesn’t just end at anniversaries.”
Last year’s trip focused on the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. This year, 54 Strong will focus on the women of Civil Rights.
“We want to focus on music and the role that women played in bringing music into the Civil Rights Movement," said Gilmore. "A second story we will focus on [is] the Equal Rights Initiative which is in Montgomery, Alabama. This is a place that works with incarcerated individuals who may have been falsely incarcerated or unnecessarily on death row.”
Other stories include girl marches of the Civil Rights Movement and one woman who set up safe houses to protect those in dangers. These stories were specifically chosen to have a mix of historical and contemporary themes.