Civil Rights Seminar Helps Build a Beloved Community

“The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our dedication to building Zion, or a Beloved Community, in the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences is seen in the Civil Rights Seminar. Each semester, a small group of students is selected to participate in a course and travel study that helps them develop a more complete knowledge of American history and the struggle of different groups to gain freedom. The seminar also aims to provide students with the knowledge, skills, resources, personal connections, and networks they need to participate in conversations and efforts that can improve race relations during their BYU experience and throughout their lives.

In the African-American Civil Rights Seminar, students learn about the civil rights movement through readings and active discussion. The class size is small so students and faculty have the chance to create a safe space to share and learn from the experiences of others. 

>>Apply for the Winter 2022 African-American Civil Rights Seminar by October 4.

The class culminates in a four-day excursion through the American South to visit iconic sites from the civil rights movement. These sites include the 16th St. Baptist Church, which was bombed as an act of racially motivated terrorism, the Rosa Parks Museum, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. home, among many others.

For Jacob Smith (’19) from Draper, Utah, who majored in geography with a global studies emphasis, the seminar was a chance to learn about his disconnected heritage. He was adopted as an infant into a white family and as he grew he wanted to know more about the civil rights movement and what it means to be a member of the Black community. 

Physically going to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s home and Ebenezer Church where King was an assistant reverend to his father gave Smith “the very tangible feeling of the spiritual beings that still live there.” Standing on the grounds, for him, united the worlds he’d learned about with the world he lives in. 

2019 Civil Rights Seminar participants stand on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of “Bloody Sunday.”

Looking back on his experience with the seminar, Smith says, “There is a difference between intellectual and experiential understanding. No matter how well read we are, we will not ever be able to truly understand what those powerful, driven heroes endured during their nonviolent war for rights. However, we can honor their sacrifices by striving to create these sought-after Beloved Communities wherever we can.” 

For Aisha Lehmann, a fine arts senior from Provo, Utah, the Civil Rights Seminar provided a way to connect with her mixed-race and cultural heritage as well as the traction to use her talents to create positive change. She says one of the highlights of the program was the chance to mingle with Church members in Atlanta. She describes an open conversation with ward members about why they chose to stay in the Church, regardless of racial challenges.

“There was so much more unity in that group than I have ever seen and it was really powerful to hear about people’s experiences, as they brought it back to Christ more than anything,” Lehmann says.

During one trip, the students had the opportunity to sit with Reverend Robert Graetz, the white Lutheran pastor who led an all-black congregation and openly supported the Montgomery bus boycott. A faculty member asked a student to sing for the reverend and Anthony Bates, a doctor of education student in the McKay School of Education, remembered this moment saying, “As she sang, ‘I Am a Child of God’ the spirit in the room was palpable.” 

The seminar also provided students and faculty the opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices of those who fought for civil rights. During some years, seminar participants visit the South in conjunction with the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee — a commemoration of Bloody Sunday, the first attempted march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, that ended tragically at the hands of law enforcement officers. During the 2019 trip, the class visited Selma a couple of weeks after the jubilee so they could be alone on the bridge. Bates said that when the group reached the top of the hill, they were “overcome with emotion” knowing that if they had been walking to that point just 54 years earlier they would have seen the lines of deputized citizens with broken bottles, horses, and bats standing next to state troopers with batons and teargas. 

Says Bates, “I was overcome with feelings of sadness and pain for people who were willing to do that to other humans, but also humbled and appreciative of the courageous women and men who were willing to take those steps, just so I could go to a ballot box.” 

Civil Rights Seminars to study Latinx and Native American civil rights are also available. The next African-American Civil Rights Seminar will be offered in Winter 2022 and the application deadline is October 4, 2021. Apply here.

This article includes segments from a Connections 2020 story by Udim Obot.