They came, observed -- and learned.
Twenty-three youth activists from the Washington, D.C.-based Operation Understanding DC went back in time during a two-day stop in Meridian earlier this week and learned first-hand about the civil rights struggles from those who were on the front lines.
The activists, which included 12 Jewish and 11 black students, arrived in the Queen City Wednesday evening and broke bread at Western Sizzlin with Roscoe Jones, a former NAACP Youth Organizer and Organizing Director of the Council of Federated Organizations. On Thursday, the group met civil rights attorney Bill Ready Sr. at the Dentzel Carousel in Highland Park. The students listened with rapt attention and took notes as Jones and Ready gave their views of what Meridian was like during the civil rights era. George Ready, Bill Ready's son, talked about what it was like growing up during that time.
"The idea of Operation Understanding DC is for all people to come together to end all forms of racism, anti-Semitism, and discrimination through dialogue," Operation Understanding DC staff member Ricki Horne said. "The students learn about slavery, Israel and the Holocaust. It is a time students can explore history through speakers and get to see historical sites and live and breathe history."
After departing the carousel, the students visited the gravesite of Meridian's James Chaney, one of three civil rights workers killed during Freedom Summer by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia in 1964.
"This program is important to bring people of different backgrounds together to build an understanding and to be a part of the movement," Horne said. "One of the biggest things they've learned on this journey was that the civil rights movement was comprised of so many courageous people and not just the incredible leaders you hear about in school."
Talya Wellisch, 17, said her parents support social justice.
"I think meeting with Roscoe Jones was just fascinating. His experiences in the movement were just inspiring," Wellisch said. "He talked a lot about the importance of getting involved and exercising your right of getting involved. I think it's interesting to hear people's stories. We've established connections to the past that allows us to understand the struggles behind the movement."
Noah Dyson, 16, said he appreciated the frankness of the discussions.
"The speakers we've had are very honest and open. I'm able to connect with them," Dyson said. "I feel like I'm hearing an unbiased narrative and I appreciate the honesty. I was able to see the people we're meeting as people and connect with them on a human level."
Through July 29, the group will retrace the route of the Freedom Riders. States they plan to visit include Maryland, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee. The group arrived in Meridian Wednesday night from Selma, Ala.
Niani Aleem admitted she had some concerns about traveling to the deep South. She said those concerns were unwarranted.
"At first I was kind of nervous coming down here. I had a lot of preconceived notions when I came. I was kind of guarded and had all those biases about the South based on things I've read and things people have told me," Aleem said. "Coming here and talking to Roscoe Jones and these people who are such an impact in the movement and not in the history books was wonderful. Now that I have this personal experience, I see how this town is and not what you see on television. I had to make my own experience."