By Serra Sowers | May 22, 2023

My time at the University of Florida is vastly different than my high school experience. As a child growing up in Longwood, a small city near Orlando, my interactions with African Americans were extremely limited. My second grade class – at an elementary school nestled within my mostly white neighborhood – watched President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration together, but I wouldn’t understand why until years later. Not until enrolling in middle and high school in a historically Black neighborhood in nearby Sanford did I come to learn about the struggles that communities of color face every day.

So while I had to adjust to a predominantly white institution for college, I also recognize my white privilege, even as my ethnic dimensions are themselves atypical. My blond hair and blue eyes don’t readily reflect my heritage – my mother immigrated from Turkey, my father is Hispanic. No one knows my multiculturalism unless I’m asked about my first name (it’s Turkish), or I mention my favorite foods or traditions (for example, kezban manti, a type of pasta, and hidirellez, a Middle Eastern folk holiday, respectively). But unlike in high school, where I was one of only four white girls in my international baccalaureate class, at least I “fit in” at UF.

In “Welcome to Alabama,” the first episode of the three-part audio series “UFxFAMU1963: Reporting from the Civil Rights Trail,” meet Olivia White, a pianist and activist from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who remembers the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s.  (Serra Sowers/WUFT News)

All of which made the chance this semester to join an advanced journalism class that would take students along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail so compelling. Learning about the people, events and places central to the Civil Rights Movement, and then spending my spring break in some of those places and with people from that era, it was eye-opening, emotional and inspiring.

Making this pilgrimage even more memorable was being squished for more than 2,800 miles in a 15-passenger van with six classmates and two instructors from UF, and four students and two instructors from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee. I had studied abroad last summer in Mexico and Peru, and so feeling discomforted when away from home wasn’t new to me. However, this trip was different. There were no language barriers or international safety concerns, but I still felt disconnected. I had not considered visiting Alabama or Mississippi before, because of the stigma attached to those states. Yet each time we visited a museum in Montgomery, Selma, Jackson or the Delta, I learned so much more about the struggles of Black Americans – and about our country as a whole – past and present.

As we also traveled through Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia, every community had its own character and culture. Staring out the window presented us with endless unfamiliar landscapes. Some were beautiful, including while driving across the Mississippi River into Arkansas during a sunset. But others were desolate, including communities with homes in much more disrepair than anything I have seen in north central or central Florida. In Mississippi, we went from one small town to another to visit the places where the monumental Emmett Till civil rights case unraveled and is memorialized. It seemed like the middle of nowhere. What we saw in these other states helped me to realize how the definition of poor is quite relative. We saw  generational poverty borne of slavery, continued through segregation and still perpetuating.

As an aspiring journalist who also cares and reports about environmental justice issues, I was also mindful while we stopped in Jackson of the ongoing water crisis there. My roommate and I noticed a sulfuric smell coming from the bathroom sink when we washed our hands in our hotel room. We were only there for a day, but what about those who had been living with such conditions for months? Our trip also took us through the area known as “Tornado Alley,” and we saw the devastation from one that passed through Selma a few weeks earlier. My heart goes out to those communities in that region that were struck by deadly tornadoes the week afterward.

Though our group was always together, plenty of times I felt as if alone. In museums, I stood by myself, absorbing all I could and appreciating my life’s many blessings. At times, I considered the media and government – entities that served vital roles but produced varied outcomes during the movement. How could so many powerful people use their positions to allow injustices to stand for so long? And how is the struggle still not over? The former activists we met confirmed that it isn’t over, and that they still hope for a brighter future for our generation. I place a lot of pressure on myself in my academics and how I carry myself. This reminder from them about “our generation” inspires me to do even more to promote equality.

Anticipation among my UF class grew as we neared meeting the students from FAMU. I  worried how we would perceive each other, but that went away when we introduced ourselves in the van. My impression of historically Black colleges and universities were that they were places of excellence and of people with great poise. I wasn’t wrong. The girls who joined us were intelligent, emotional and sincere. We were a team and never afraid to ask each other for help. We hyped each other at our low points and shared deep moments of reflection. I particularly learned so much from Peryonna Sylvester, who I sat next to every day on the van. She’s a passionate photographer and exudes personality in her storytelling. Collaborating with FAMU will remain a key memory from my overall reporting experience in college.

No question there’s a big difference across generations in understanding and remembering the struggle and the quest for basic civil and human rights. The freedom fighters from the Civil Rights Movement who told us their stories were honest and empowering. I lingered on their every word. As journalists, we are stewards of history and strive to give our audiences a reason to care. It hit me halfway through our trip that we may be among the last young reporters to let these heroes tell their stories directly. I get chills thinking about that.

One of my favorite stops was toward the end of our trip. Stepping into the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was like stepping into a history book. The bombing that killed four little girls in that church one Sunday morning in 1963 was the first Civil Rights Movement event I remember learning about in elementary school. What a privilege it was to stand in the sanctuary and listen to a lifelong church member share her perspective with us.

In “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” the third episode of “UFxFAMU1963: Reporting from the Civil Rights Trail,” meet Danny Steele, who recalls being a teenage foot soldier on Bloody Tuesday, the civil rights that turned violent outside First African Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1964. (Serra Sowers/WUFT News)

Tears flowed earlier that morning when we met with Olivia White, a grandmotherly former activist and youth choir pianist, and Bill Baxley, who as Alabama’s attorney general in the early 1970s prosecuted the Ku Klux Klansman who bombed 16th Street Baptist years after the case had gone cold. Hearing about the hardships that so many people faced just two generations ago helped me remember why I want to be a journalist.

These days, there is a movement to limit how much children should know about Black history in the U.S. After traveling across the South with my peers, who have become my close friends, I realize just how much critical knowledge we all lacked beforehand. I recall a conversation among our class, just five days before we left UF, about how our trip might be perceived. Did any of it apply to us? Was it a risk politically? African American history is vital to understanding why the U.S. is the way it is socially and economically. The latest Black Lives Matter movement is my generation’s push for civil rights in our country. By not acknowledging the civil rights struggles of the past, you devalue the critical progress so many of us yearn for today. One can only wish more people would travel along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. They might better appreciate why this history matters – and why it should always be remembered.

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