My Journey in Alabama: A Look Back at the Civil Rights Movement

Keenan Courtland As a representative of USC, I travel to BSW programs across the country. On a recent trip to Alabama, I was constantly reminded this state is home to the most powerful civil rights actions of the ’50s and ’60s. As a child, I felt connected to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because we share a birthday (January 15). This drew me to learn more about him; sparked my interest in becoming a social worker and significantly impacted my outlook on human rights, the dignity of a person and social change. His bold advocacy opened the door for social change on a national platform.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, archives many triumphs for civil rights leaders who decided that a society that is separate-but-equal is inherently flawed. Charged with energy from those leaders of the past, I drove the 54 miles of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, which commemorates King’s determined advocacy for all persons who were not given equal rights under the law. This is the same path where King led thousands of protesters to draw attention to unfair voting rights laws. I was overwhelmed with emotions as I passed by each campsite between the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and Montgomery.

The first Selma-to-Montgomery march on March 7, 1965, or “Bloody Sunday,” which King organized to protest the shooting death of activist Jimmy Lee Jackson, was a major turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. Nearly 600 participants were beaten, gassed and charged by mounted officers as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In response, King led a second march with 2,500 activists, but turned back at the end of the bridge, earning the day the nickname “Turnaround Tuesday.” Though no persons were harmed during the well-attended event, a white Boston pastor named James Reeb was beaten as he and others were leaving. Reeb was refused treatment in Selma and died that Thursday at University Hospital in Birmingham.

Two weeks after the initial effort, King and 25,000 followers made a third and successful attempt, braving freezing rain and long stretches of state highway, to finally arrive at the steps of the State Building in Montgomery. There, King delivered his famous “How Long, Not Long” speech, wherein he exclaims, “I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.” This powerful message was delivered at a time of great social inequality after weeks of adversity and violence, a time when a man was judged more by the color of his skin than the content and complexities of his humanity.

King was right; it did not take long for action to lift disenfranchised minorities to a higher state. After the violent outcomes of King’s first two attempted actions, President Johnson and Governor Wallace drafted what would become the Voting Rights Act, a law that would promote voting rights for all persons regardless of their race. Today, the Civil Rights Movement has taken on a global message of humanity. To be truly successful advocates for any at-risk population, we must learn from the examples of King and his peers and not let this great struggle fade quietly into history. Social workers must use their voices to speak out against inequities and promote the rights of those who are not offered their full rights under the law.

Remember that the actions of a few can change the lives of many and that your work today and in the future will influence great causes.

This article was written by MSW@USC Operations Coordinator, Keenan Courtland. Keenan received his BA in Social Work from Hood College and graduated with his MSW from the University of Maryland School of Social Work with concentrations in management, community organization and clinical social work. He has worked in various social work settings, including special education, substance abuse and mental health in Ireland. His areas of interest in social work include aging, health care policy and research.