April 4, 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the balcony outside Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The Lorraine Motel has since been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum and Room 306 has been preserved as Dr. King and his roommate and closest friend, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left it that night. The railing in front of where Dr. King fell is decorated with a white wreath in his memory. The site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination has been visited by tens of thousands over the years, including world dignitaries and US presidents.
2018 also marks the 10th One America trip since the very first one in January 2009. It has been a privilege to prepare students each fall for the January trip with a theme-based course tied to our destinations. Past One Americas have included “The Lone Star State,” focused on the history of Texas, “The Southwest,” centered on Native American history in Arizona, and most recently “South Florida,” which explored the impact of Cuban Americans in shaping modern Florida. Other themes have included America’s musical heritage and the history of the Old South.
But no theme has intersected with One America more than the modern African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Past trips have visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta, the 16th St. Baptist Church (site of a 1963 KKK bombing that killed four little girls) and the Edmund Pettus Bridge (“the Bridge to Freedom”) in Selma, Alabama.
No site, however, has been visited more than the Lorraine Motel, which the One America class trips of 2011 and 2015 had the good fortune to visit. On our first visit to the Lorraine, the experience of being just feet away from where Dr. King was martyred, with his favorite hymn, the Mahalia Jackson version of “Take My Hand Precious Lord” playing solemnly, knocked me right out of my professorial detachment, and I needed a few minutes alone to compose myself. I noticed the impact on several of our students was even more dramatic, and for the African American students in our group, the feelings evoked by standing where King’s life ended were deeper than I could know. The only other One America site that hit me as deeply was Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, where two X marks on the still-used road indicate the spots where the assassin’s bullets struck President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
What our students invariably say after being a part of the One America experience is how different it is to learn history at the place where real flesh-and-blood people lived out that history rather than simply learning in a classroom. It’s an experience that, year after year, animates history for our students. When I realized the 10th One America trip fell on the year of the 50th commemoration of Dr. King’s death, I knew we had to make the theme of the 2018 trip (and fall course) “The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.” This trip combines all the civil rights sites visited on previous One America trips: the King Center in Atlanta, the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and, for the third time, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The fact that the One America trip is a decade old and has over a hundred Bay Path alumni is something that really distinguishes Bay Path and highlights the University’s commitment to experiential learning.
This year’s course included such thoughtful and engaged students. During the course, we came to know Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a human being and not just an icon. Dr. King was a complex man who had personal shortcomings like all people, but whose courage, vision for America and commitment to non-violent social change never wavered. People forget that when King was murdered in 1968, he was widely criticized on many fronts. Former allies condemned him for speaking out against the Vietnam War and Black Power militants denounced his tactics of non-violence as past its time. In Dr. King’s last year of life, he had broadened his critique of injustice in America by connecting the issues of war, racism and poverty. He was in Memphis to support poorly paid striking African American sanitation workers when his life was cut short.
How one sees Dr. King’s life and legacy depends on one’s historical vantage point. On the 2010 and 2011 One America trips, students viewed King and the Civil Rights Movement more optimistically, still basking in the bright afterglow of the 2008 election of America’s first African American president, Barack Obama. Many students in the current One America class view the status of King’s Dream more pessimistically, seeing it through the darker lens of today’s deepening racial divisions and a sense that America is moving backwards on racial justice. After our most recent Winterfest, I spoke with Noel Leary, who had met Dr. King as a young student and later volunteered on King’s Poor People’s campaign in 1968. Noel shared with me that he felt some of the tensions in our nation today were reminiscent of the late 1960s and how much America could use a recommitment to King’s vision and values.
Many people work hard to make One America the success it has become. They include former vice president for student affairs Caron Hobin who created the vision and template for One America, as well as other Student Life folks such as Dr. Angela Watson, Michelle Mirti, and Shenita Ray who manage the complex logistics of the trip. In addition, Chair of the Board of Trustees at Bay Path University, Patricia J. Pierce, has always been a generous supporter and strong advocate for women’s empowerment through the transformative impact of travel.
So, our diverse group of 13 fantastic students, me and Student Life representative Shanita Ray set off for Atlanta on January 3, 2018, to begin our journey where Martin Luther King, Jr. began his. We then trekked to Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, Alabama where King and so many other “foot soldiers” of the movement changed America. And seven days later, our trip concluded at the very spot where King’s life came to a close, outside the balcony by Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel. For all of us, it was a journey doubtlessly powerful and transformative.