Students taking part in the UW-Eau Claire Civil Rights Pilgrimage cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in January 2020. (Photo courtesy of Jodi Thesing-Ritter)
Students taking part in the UW-Eau Claire Civil Rights Pilgrimage cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in January 2020. (Photo courtesy of Jodi Thesing-Ritter)

UW-Eau Claire civil rights program seeks to change views through education, experiences.

As Jodi Thesing-Ritter watched in stunned silence while a mob breached security and stormed the US Capitol last week, she was struck at how history was repeating itself. 

Since helping start a twice-annual civil rights pilgrimage involving UW-Eau Claire students and adults 13 years ago, Thesing-Ritter, the university’s executive director for equity, diversity and inclusion, has studied the oftentimes ugly race relations in this country that blew up during the 1950s and 60s. 

School desegregation. Bus boycotts. Freedom riders. Church firebombings. Marches. At such events and many more, TV broadcasts and newspaper photos, many of them in black-and-white images common at the time, depict white faces contorted in anger, pictured screaming obscenities at Black people taking actions in the name of equal rights.

Those images from the past sprang to life in Thesing-Ritter’s mind as she watched supporters of President Donald Trump converge on the Capitol on Jan. 6 as Congress met to certify the Nov. 3 election results, confirming Joe Biden as the next president. Hundreds overran the Capitol police force and entered the building that is the seat of the nation’s government, looting, with some carrying Confederate flags.

“There were the same angry expressions,” Thesing-Ritter said of images of the incident on TV and phone screens and those posted later on social media. “It had so many parallels to what we saw in the 50s and 60s. The backdrop of where we are today as a society, this is not new ground.”

The takeover of the Capitol building is one of many during Trump’s presidential tenure involving mass expressions of racist attitudes by whites toward Blacks and other people of color. Such displays of open hostility by whites toward Blacks have become more commonplace in recent years and included gatherings by pro-Trump crowds, some carrying weapons, at Black Lives Matter marches this summer and on other occasions. 

Social media posts denigrating policies advocating for equal rights for people of color are frequent. Posts by various individuals and groups have espoused racist messages, and many people continue to back Trump even after he incited the group that took over the Capitol in a speech shortly before it occurred. 

Those efforts continue even in the wake of the convergence at the Capitol, in which five people died and dozens have been arrested. An internal Federal Bureau of Investigation bulletin obtained by ABC News Monday shows armed protestors made plans to show up at every state Capitol across the US from Jan. 16 to Jan. 20, the day  Biden replaces Trump. 

Such developments are a sign of the ongoing need to improve race relations that appear to have frayed in recent years, said Joanne Bland, a renowned participant in the civil rights movement who was jailed 13 times by age 11 for participating in protests of policies toward Black people. 

Bland is one of the keynote speakers in this year’s UW-Eau Claire Civil Rights Pilgrimage. During a Tuesday night virtual presentation, she described the struggles she and her colleagues faced during the civil rights movement. 

Just when she finds herself thinking this country has made significant progress addressing racial issues since then, Bland said, “I feel like I wake up and it’s the 1960s again. That’s not the world you want for the people you love.”

History Repeats

While many Americans were aghast at Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol, Stacey Jackson said she was chagrined but not surprised. A Black woman who grew up in Canada and attended college in South Carolina, she said her experiences with “blatant racism” have been commonplace. 

“My eyes were opened to the realities of the institutional racism that exists,” said Jackson, an assistant professor of psychology and a counselor at UW-Eau Claire who has helped plan the past two civil rights pilgrimage at the university. 

Outward, public expressions of racism have increased under President Trump, who has often condoned such behaviors and attitudes. The Capitol takeover and other racists actions represent the swinging pendulum of history, Jackson said. 

“It’s never surprising to me when racist incidents happen,” she said. “It’s history repeating itself.”

FranChesca Riley, a junior at UW-Eau Claire who is one of the student coordinators of this year’s civil rights pilgrimage, said education efforts such as the university’s civil rights program are key to future improved race relations. Hearing directly from people who fought for civil rights decades ago as well as current activists provides not only historical context but inspiration to make change going forward. 

In addition to speakers, the program’s virtual museum tours, films, books and other resources about the civil rights movement provide students with “life-changing experience,” she said. As a freshman, she traveled to the southern US on a bus with other program participants, a 10-day trip that helped her learn civil rights history and prompted her decision to become a mentor and therapist for children of color when she graduates. 

Her experience enabled her to grow “comfortable in my skin as a Black woman and gain the courage as well as the information to speak out against injustice,” Riley said.

Olivea Boyer first participated in the pilgrimage during her freshman year at UW-Eau Claire and called it “the most transformative experience of my life.” This year the senior, along with Riley, is one of four students who designed this year’s tour. 

The pilgrimage not only exposed her to new perspectives regarding race but prompted her to question her previous thoughts related to civil rights and social justice, she said. 

“The experience forced me to begin to understand the space I occupy in this world as a white person and caused me to explore ways I can use the privilege I have to make my community, and my world, better,” Boyer said. 

Jodi Thesing-Ritter, second from left, instructs participants in UW-Eau Claire’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage. More than 2,200 people have participated in the program, started in 2008. (Photo courtesy of UW-Eau Claire)

Making a Difference

Participating in the civil rights pilgrimage trip isn’t easy. Thesing-Ritter recalled the initial bus trip south in 2008, when she had her nursing infant son and two elementary school-age children along. She and others on the journey spent four of the trip’s 10 nights sleeping on the bus to save money. 

“Oh, that was a hard trip for sure,” she said with a laugh. “We learned that spending nights on the bus wasn’t a good way to go.” 

But the upsides of the voyage far outweighed the difficulties, Thesing-Ritter said. Those on the trip are challenged to confront the long-standing racist actions and policies that mar our national history. They heard firsthand from civil rights icons about the personal cost of securing more rights for Black people. Some were inspired to return to where they live to work for social justice. 

“When you see the positive difference these trips make on the lives of students and others who are part of them, you realize the positive impact this effort has on people’s lives, and it makes me want to keep doing this work,” she said. 

Since that initial trip the pilgrimage has occurred twice each year, in January and March, when students are on winter and spring breaks. More than 2,200 people have participated in 24 previous trips, and the university has forged strong bonds with civil rights leaders through the program.

Those ties were evident during Bland’s presentation Tuesday. At the start of the session she reminisced with Thesing-Ritter about past pilgrimage trips. The duo, who have become good friends through the years, shared more memories at the conclusion of the session.

“I love you guys,” an emotional Bland said. 

Civil rights icon Joanne Bland speaks to participants of the UW-Eau Claire Civil Rights Pilgrimage in January, 2020 near the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. She urged those about to cross the bridge to do their part to continue the social justice movement. “We got you here, now you must take us the rest of the way,” Bland told the group. (Photo courtesy of Jodi Thesing-Ritter)

The pilgrimage hit a speed bump last year. Just days before last spring’s trip was scheduled to begin, it was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. This January’s trip was in peril as the pandemic continues.

Then Thesing-Ritter suggested to student organizers of the trip the possibility of conducting the journey virtually. She didn’t figure they would want to. Doing so would require extra work, and interacting via computer screen wouldn’t be the same as visiting revered civil rights sites and hearing from the movement’s iconic speakers in person. 

But students were adamant the program happen. Introducing more people to not only the history of the civil rights movement but educating them about the ongoing struggle made obvious by such actions as the rallies and marches in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police last year is as timely as ever, they said. 

“When Jodi came to the group with the possibility of doing it virtually, I think I speak for the whole group when I say we were beyond excited,” Riley said, noting conducting the pilgrimage virtually allows for reaching a larger audience than could attend by physically traveling on the trip. 

This year’ session began Monday and goes through Friday, featuring five days of programming from 8 a.m. until late at night. It includes not only headliner speakers like Bland and Charles Person but others exploring a wide variety of civil rights-related topics. 

The virtual program also includes breakout discussion sessions and movies and offers participants access to books and other information to further explore civil rights. The program is accessible here for the rest of the spring semester, which ends in May. Participating in the virtual trip costs $30.   

Among the locations UW-Eau Claire Civil Rights Pilgrimage participants have visited is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, where the names of every person known to have been lynched in each US county are displayed on pillars. (Photo courtesy of Jodi Thesing-Ritter)

‘More Work to do’

Growing public racist behaviors in recent times have exposed long-standing underlying racist schisms in America. Altering those attitudes and behaviors is especially challenging, Jackson said, because such beliefs are deeply rooted and often are passed on among families and are learned from childhood. 

However, change is possible, she said. Education efforts such as the university’s civil rights program expose the school’s mostly white population to a different culture and perspectives and have the power to shift views, she said. 

“The more people become aware, the more they are angry at the injustice,” Jackson said. “More people are doing that, and it allows me to be more optimistic about the future.”

Additional education and civil rights advocacy will be necessary if progress is to be made on racial issues, Bland said. Too many Americans aren’t aware of this country’s history, she said, and therefore don’t understand racial disparities and their impact on society. 

“You can’t sugar coat this history, not even for children,” Bland said. “They need to know how bad it was. You have to tell them the truth.”

Thesing-Ritter believes that too. Each time she works with students to plan another pilgrimage, each time she sees how those trips change their viewpoints, she feels motivated to continue those efforts. Recent public gatherings at which racist viewpoints have been espoused have only furthered that desire for change on the civil rights front, she said.  

“There is always more work to do to make this world a better place,” Thesing-Ritter said.

Civil rights activist Charles Person, one of the 1961 Freedom Ride members, speaks in January 2020 with one of the participants in the UW-Eau Claire Civil Rights Pilgrimage. Person is one of the speakers in this year’s pilgrimage, which is occurring virtually this week because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Jodi Thesing-Ritter)