A chill hung in the morning air as 40 UTSA students boarded a bus that would carry them back in time.
Their route would take them to cities where crowds of invisible faces once marched against injustice, where levees had burst, where the voices of four
little girls were abruptly silenced and where the nation's most prominent leader of non-violent protest was slain.
From Jan. 10–14, the group traveled on a civil rights exploration tour, called The Movement: An Exploration of Civil Rights. The journey included stops at the
Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. It ended in San Antonio with
the 25th Anniversary Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative March on Jan. 16.
As they began their journey, the travelers slid into their seats in their temporary home on wheels and buzzed about the days ahead.
Kyle Lemere was excited yet nervous as he anticipated visiting places he'd only read about. To process his thoughts, he wrote in his journal; others tapped updates on Twitter and Facebook.
The steady roll of the bus lulled some riders to sleep, but Malcolm Ramey was too amped to rest.
"I didn't sleep a lot on the bus," he said. "There was a spark of energy from the back to the front."
The 19-year-old was familiar with the history they would be encountering. He knew about the 1960s Freedom Riders who challenged Jim Crow laws that mandated the segregation of African Americans in the South. He wondered if he could have faced the angry mobs that attacked demonstrators demanding equal rights.
But because others had stood up long ago, he wouldn't have to.
Yvonne Peña, director of Student Leadership Development, and Marlon Anderson, then-director of the Inclusion and Community Engagement Center, created the tour, the first of its kind at UTSA.
Over the course of a year, Peña and Anderson planned a curriculum that promoted awareness of social justice issues. The students, who had to qualify for the program, realized they were lucky to be selected for a trip that could change their lives, Peña said.
"Now they're invested with a purpose. This kind of experience will make them global leaders," she said. "We planted the seed and it'll continue to grow. No matter what, they'll be agents of change."
The application process started in September. The students wrote essays about issues important to them. Their topics included education, health care, women's issues and gay and lesbian issues.
In October, organizers notified the students that had been accepted. The entire trip cost $18,000, but each student paid only $150. The remainder was covered by the Student Affairs Transformation Fund and the UTSA Family Fund, as well as by the centers.
Anderson and Peña gathered a group that reflected UTSA's diversity.
"This is not just about African Americans, but [about] educating everyone about the civil rights experience," Anderson said. "As people living today, we can't always carry the cross of our predecessors. It's not a cross we expect anyone to carry. We should be saying it's an important lesson to know and [make sure] that it's not repeated."
Almost every moment of the trip contained a lesson. Even while driving, tour participants watched documentaries with themes relevant to the cities they visited.
En route to New Orleans they watched Signpost to Freedom: The 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott and If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise: Part One by Spike Lee. Before the bus rolled into Birmingham, they viewed Lee's 4 Little Girls and the PBS film, Freedom Riders. On the road to Memphis, they saw Prom Night in Mississippi and learned freedom songs and spirituals from Soundtrack for a Revolution.
At night, they would gather at their hotels to discuss the day's events and hear presentations by guest speakers.
The tour planners added a New Orleans stop because the Crescent City represented an example of people fighting for their rights in neighborhoods swept away by Hurricane Katrina.
In that deluged city, the students stood next to new levees and met residents whose lives were forever altered by the sweep of swift water. They listened to Ward "Mack" McClendon as he spoke about opening the community center called the Lower Ninth Ward Village, where residents could learn to depend on themselves.
As the bus passed through swamplands spiked with moss-draped trees en route to Birmingham, the travelers learned about the tragedy of four little girls who lost their lives while at church at the hands of a bomber.
Then they entered that same church, the 16th Street Baptist Church, where Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins were killed when a bomb exploded on Sept. 15, 1963.
Student Iliana Sanchez and her fellow riders sat in crimson-colored pews where civil rights leaders and activists once assembled. The faces of the four girls beamed from two banners high above the pulpit.
"There is no doubt this trip will change us all," Sanchez later wrote about the experience on a Facebook page dedicated to the Movement 2012 tour. "It's what we do after we return to our homes that will define our lives."
Lemere struggled to make sense of how someone's rage could end with the killing of children.
"It was mind boggling," he said. "I couldn't think of why it happened."
At the nearby Kelly Ingram Park, trip participants walked where firemen had blasted demonstrators with high-pressure water hoses and police unleashed dogs on protesters. They stood in the shadow of statues of jailed children. They inched their way between snarling dogs of steel that lunged from facing walls.
But it was Memphis that the students found the most moving. Inside the National Civil Rights Museum, many of them were speechless. The 12,800-square-foot museum encompasses the Lorraine Motel, where an assassin's bullet felled Martin Luther King Jr. 44 years ago.
The students looked through a plate glass window into Room 306, where King spent his last night. They looked from the bathroom of a rooming house facing the motel where the crosshairs of a rifle were set on the civil rights leader, who had come to the city to protest the working conditions and pay of striking sanitation workers.
"Standing in the actual spot of Dr. King's hotel room brought tears to my eyes," Dezranique Stansberry wrote on Facebook. Darnell Thomas said the tour opened his "eyes, ears and heart more than a book, documentary or television special could have."
Back in San Antonio, on the final leg of their emotional journey, the students joined a crowd of more than 100,000 at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative March.
They wore T-shirts with "The Movement" emblazoned across the front and sang freedom songs as they wound their way along the East Side on Martin Luther King Drive. To a certain degree, it was the closest thing to feeling what people on the movement's front line must have felt as they marched for equality down main streets and country roads, Anderson said.
The experience made La Kendria Ellis recognize her potential. "To see young people fight for what they felt made me a better person and gave me wisdom," she said. "It made me realize how many excuses our generation makes."
Marcheta Evans, associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development, said the journey was an experience she will never forget.
"The most rewarding part is knowing that the future is in great hands," she wrote on Facebook. "And as students, you will never forget on whose shoulders you are standing."
Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks are some of the most recognizable figures of the Civil Rights Movement. But there are so many more heroes that were invisible for most students until the tour, Peña said. And that bothered them.
"They said, 'If we don't know about this person in our education, then the next generation won't know," Peña added.
So the participants made a promise to trip organizers and to themselves. They signed a contract that lays out how they plan to use the lessons learned and support another person on the road to discovery.
As Justina Williams posted on Facebook: "This journey may have ended, but I feel like the true movement has just begun. No longer can I accept the status quo and let fear stop me from making a change. The Movement was like the strike of (a) match and I vow to never let this flame burn out."
–Vincent T. Davis
Interactive Map: Click on the Green Icons on the Map Earlier this year, 40 UTSA students traveled back in time to relive the civil rights movement in the Deep South. Over the course of a week, the group traveled hundreds of miles on the bus tour, called The Movement: An Exploration of Civil Rights. The journey included stops at the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, La.; the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.; and the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. It ended in San Antonio with the 25th anniversary Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative March.
Two student participants, Porcsha Presley and Jerome Scott, narrate a series of photos taken on the trip. Photos by Mark McClendon, Sombrilla staff photographer. Produced by Dave Deering, writer/producer for UTSA University Marketing.