Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sojourn to the Past – a sidetrip

The Living Legacy pilgrimage is in Montgomery, but I’m still in Selma. The Rev. Dr. Clark Olsen is a regular speaker for Sojourn to the Past. Sojourn to the Past brings the historical Civil Rights movement to life for 11th and 12th grade students. Jeff Steinberg, executive director of Sojourn and a history teacher from the San Francisco Bay Area, started Sojourn in 1999. Since then, he has conducted more than 40 journeys with more than four thousand students and teachers from across the country.

A Sojourn group arrived in Selma this afternoon and I accepted Clark’s invitation to hang out with him. We’ll rejoin the Living Legacy Tour later this evening. An hour ago I met Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock 9. Now, I’m sitting in a ballroom with over a hundred high school students, many from California, watching them learn about the Movement. Other than being roughly the same age, this is an incredibly diverse group: young men and women, Asian, Anglo, African descent, Latino/Latina.

This is active learning. Jeff Steinberg begins with a lecture and question and answer: “You need your Jim Reeb homework sheet out. You need your Free at Last workbook.” The young people pull sheets out of their thick binders and get ready to answer questions and take notes. “What was the issue in Selma? Give me a time frame – what is the year? What happened on March 7? March 9? What kind of people did Dr. King ask to come to Selma? How many people were killed in Selma? What were their names?” Questions are answered promptly; partial answers are completed by other students.

Answering the question “What kind of ministers were Jim Reeb, Clark Olsen, and Orloff Miller?” takes a bit longer. Lutheran, Catholic, Christian, ministers are all offered as answers before a young woman offers “Unitarian”. Jeff asks “Are there any Unitarians in this group?” Clark and I raise our hands and Jeff reports “We have two in the back.” Yup. Here we are.

Jeff quickly moves into the documentary that Clark’s daughter, Marika Olsen, produced for CNN. “It’s a 12 minute video, so you know this will take me four hours.” Instruction doesn’t stop. Jeff stops the video frequently to highlight issues and ask questions. “When Jim Reeb died, it’s on the front page of every newspaper in America: front page San Francisco Chronicle. Front page New York Times. When Jimmy Lee Jackson died, it was only reported in the black press. How many of you are bothered by that?” “How did Reverend James Reeb’s death play into the hands of racism?” Students stand to answer questions, and “You’re going to see the jury in a minute, but you don’t need to see them to answer this question: what did they look like?” “What bothers you about President Johnson’s comments here?”

Jeff pauses just before the end of the video. “Clark’s going to tell you why he went to Selma. Listen to what he says. I’m going to ask five of you to tell me why Reverend Olsen went to Selma.” The video ends. “Why would Clark Olsen, a white minister who had the right to vote, go to Selma?” Five students are called on in turn. “You went to Selma because it was the right thing to do.” Jeff asks the students “When are you going to do the right thing? When are you going to take the right stand, even when it’s unpopular?”

Clark receives a standing ovation from the students before he has said a word, and again at the end. In summary Jeff asks “How does your story relate to these young people? What is the moral of your story?” Clark “I didn’t talk about Selma for almost twenty eyars. The lesson is when you see something that is an injustice, something that is wrong, say something. In my case, it led to a turning point in American history. I didn’t do it, but I was there. I didn’t know it would be historic. The wonder is when you do something, step up to an injustice, you never know what might happen that’s really good. You never know what effect you might have. It can be wondrous.”

A student tells Clark: “My word for you is friend – you’re a true friend being there every minute, holding his hand. You were strong. Even though you were afraid, you were there.” The mission of Soujourn to the Past is “to develop communication and advocacy skills that better enable [students] to promote awareness of social justice in their community, and create a more civil society where diversity is embraced, injustice is spoken out against, and all people are treated with dignity.” Another says "It was damn right motivational to hear what you did back in the day. It makes me think about what I will do in my own life back at home." A young man "I hear on the news about people doing extremely bad things. It's rare that I get to meet people who have expressed love and who have helped other people change the course of history. To be able to love show what humanity is about...I can't explain it." A young woman rises to say "I view you as a role model to our generation. You're the reason we're here today....You have given us a reason to be here, to help us make changes in our communities." A young man hugs Clark "Any white person who stepped out to help the black community was in danger. You're daring because you were willing to help the community with civil rights and voting rights. I'm glad your passion helped you push past your fear." "These things can give us a dream, a way to go. You give us the stuff to follow your heart." One person after another, young people rise for the give back. It's a Clark Olsen lovefest -- and it should be.

Jeff closes by saying "My work for Clark is the highest compliment I can give: he is a gentle man. Don't take this for weakness. I'm tired of all the machismo I see on tv. When he said [to his attackers] "please don't", that's about as real as it can be."

I’m incredibly grateful to Clark for letting me witness this incredible piece of justice work.


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  2. Thanks for sharing this beautiful connection between Clark and the youth on this sojourn.

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  5. Thank you for your wonderful post. I've rarely seen such an accurate description and example of the program. I'm glad you seemed to have enjoyed yourself. Thank you also for spreading the word about it. I hope one day you can take the entire trip it truely is a wonderful and life changing experience.