It's one thing to read about history in textbooks, but quite another to talk to the individuals who lived it. Bringing students from the Washington D.C. area face to face with survivors of the civil rights movement is among the goals of Operation Understanding D.C.
OUDC is a non-profit that seeks to eradicate racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination by preparing young African American and Jewish students to lead the charge. Meridian is among several stops on the group's summer journey, which also includes visits to Selma, Ala., Jackson, Memphis, and the Mississippi Delta.
Among the civil rights leaders with whom students met in Meridian on Thursday is Roscoe Jones, who was one of the first African-American students to integrate the segregated white school system in Meridian.
Jones told the students about his work with James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, the three civil rights workers who disappeared in Neshoba County in June, 1964. The case of the missing civil rights workers drew international attention and their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam more than a month later.
Jones told the students that the day the trio left Meridian to return to Philadelphia he almost went with them, but Schwerner insisted that Jones keep a previous engagement he had made to speak about the movement to youth at a local church.
"Believe me, young people, I would have been a 17-year-old dead person," Jones said. "Everybody in that car was going to die."
The attorney whom Jones credited with bailing him out of jail during the civil rights movement, Bill Ready, Sr., also told stories of the struggle. Ready said he carried a weapon on him for more than 20 years during the period of time he clashed with the KKK and others.
Ready also reminded the students that racism did not just exist in the South during that period of time. He referred to social segregation in the North, where financial status often left people of color separated from whites. Jews, too, he said, were often left out of certain areas and formed their own communities.
Ready said this generation of students has an even more difficult challenge ahead of them and they should be exposed to what has gone before.
"They had no knowledge of real segregation days," Ready said. "They don't know anything about it . We just kind of tell them in a way that is not frightening, but is also not too lighthearted."
Mayor Percy Bland welcomed the students and encouraged them to continue to learn about the civil rights struggle.
"Each one of us can make history every day of our lives," Bland said. "You probably haven't been exposed to a lot of things where you have any resentment or issues with racism at this point in your lives. That's good because your ideas are going to be fresh and you're going to be open and you're going to be loving to people."
Aaron Jenkins, program director, said the students not only learn about the history of the areas involved in civil rights, but they also see how communities have changed.
"They look at what these places look like today," Jenkins said. "Meridian is so much more than the incident that happened with James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andy Goodman. We are glad now, almost 50 years later, to bring students here and show them that this is what Meridian looks like today."
Mia Hammonds said she wanted to join the program to gain more confidence in public speaking and learning to speak out about issues such as social justice and gay rights.
"I felt I needed the push in order to give me the courage to fight for things that I believe in," Hammonds said. "Speaking with numerous civil rights leaders and very important people in the civil rights movement helps me understand that my voice needs to be heard for the world today to be a better place."
Jacob Honigman said he wanted to get exposed to more people of differing backgrounds.
"Where I live there is not a lot of diversity," Honigman said. "I really only know about my culture as being white and being Jewish. In this I have learned that there are so many connections that you don't realize — cultures are so connected."