Sins of the past: Young people learn civil rights lessons in Memphis
JANESVILLE -- Seventh-grader Diego Gonzalez-Moloney vividly recalls a painting showing the souls of Africans rising with their chains broken after they died aboard a savage slave ship.
High school sophomore Kenneth Forbeck winces when he talks about learning how slave children warmed the beds of their owners before being forced to the freezing floors of their shacks.
College freshman Ethan Dieckhoff expresses admiration for the Southern abolitionist who risked his life by harboring escaped Africans in his modest home.
The young people at Janesville's First Congregational United Church of Christ embrace powerful memories of a civil rights trip to Memphis.
In July, eight members of the church's youth group visited the National Civil Rights Museum, a stop on the Underground Railroad and other historical sites known for their connections to civil rights and social justice.
“They have seen the sins of our human history,” said Pastor Tanya Sadagopan of the church. “My hope is that they are leading the church in conversations about race and civil rights.”
At a time when the Southern Poverty Law Center confirms more than 900 hate groups in the United States, the young people are determined to be models of love and inclusion.
Jamie Dieckhoff, who coordinates child and youth ministries at the church, explained how the color-brave journey began.
The youth group goes on a mission trip every two years to perform community-service projects. This year, Jamie discovered that the First Congregational Church of Memphis offers a civil rights tour.
“We are all passionate about civil rights and social justice,” she said. “It was an immersion journey.”
By learning how others have made positive change in the past, Jamie hopes students will have a springboard to make positive change in the future.
The church held fundraisers, and members donated toward the trip so cost would not be an obstacle for any young person.
Jamie; her husband, Tony; and Shannon Moloney volunteered as adult mentors and companions. They are also parents of some of the children.
In addition to discovering history, the group learned an African dance, enjoyed soul food at a favorite restaurant of Martin Luther King and met people who are culturally different, including some who are homeless.
They volunteered at a community meal, took part in a discussion about the importance of working peacefully for change and learned about the Lynching Sites Project, which identifies and acknowledges the names of lynching victims in Shelby County, Tennessee.
Everywhere the young people went, people commented on their enthusiasm, interest and determination to make change.
“They don't know the potential, yet, that others see in them,” Shannon said.
Sophomore Carter Dieckhoff said walking in the footsteps of history impacted him deeply.
“When I'm doing history in school, I'm not thinking too much about how it affected people,” he said.
But when he interacted with the descendants of slaves and freedom fighters, “I absorb more, and I care more,” he said.
Before the trip, sophomore Nicholas Forbeck had never thought about the incredible risk taken by people who helped runaway slaves.
“It did not occur to me they had put so much on the line,” he said, “because it was the right thing to do.”
His sister, Helen Forbeck, also a sophomore, learned about negative stereotypes attributed to African Americans and was disheartened.
She and other youth group members agree the trip gave them a heightened sensitivity to the wrongs of the past.
Seventh-grader Megan Condon and the others want to be ambassadors for hope and peace in the future.
“I was depressed about our past,” Megan said. “But I am sadder that some of this is still going on today.”
The young people plan to share their trip with the public during an upcoming presentation in Beloit and possibly through social media. They also will not be reluctant to befriend people who are different from themselves.
“It doesn't matter to me what race a person is,” Diego said. “It's just as simple as that.”
In addition, the students are committed to breaking the silence.
People often let it go when someone makes a racial comment in public, Kenneth said.
“Instead, we need to speak up and say this is wrong,” he explained. “I don't want being quiet to be the social norm.”
The young people are determined.
“As long as we keep our passions strong, we will reach our goals,” Ethan said. “We have to keep fighting for freedom. We have to keep fighting for civil rights for all people.”
He paused, then added: “No one person is better than any other.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email email@example.com.