Selma Brought to Life Sojourn to the Past Takes Students to Civil Rights Locales

By Graig Graziosi

The movie “Selma” drew audiences from across the nation, but the real life location will soon be drawing students from local high schools for a trip through the civil rights movement.

Students from Youngstown Early College and Chaney High School will join with the California-based organization Sojourn to the Past for a weeklong tour of the civil rights movement’s most notable locations, including Atlanta, Georgia; Montgomery, Alabama; Birmingham, Alabama; Meridian, Michigan; Hattiesburg, Michigan; and Selma, Alabama.

The trip is meant as an opportunity for students to add a layer of context to their understanding of the civil rights movement. Penny Wells, retired Youngstown City Schools teacher and a member of Sojourn to the Past’s board of directors, said she believes the trip inspires participants to become more engaged in their local governments and societies upon their return.

“They meet leaders of the civil rights movement, for example Congressman John Lewis flies to Atlanta every year to meet them, he was one of the leaders on the Bloody Sunday march, he had his skull fractured that day … they meet leaders of the movement, lessons of the movement and they come up with an action plan to implement when they come home, the first of which is voter registration,” Wells said.

High schools from the Mahoning Valley, especially Youngstown, are generally the only schools outside of California to send students with the Sojourn program. Wells’ inspiration for the Mahoning Valley chapter of Sojourn to the Past came following a meeting with Jeff Steinberg, the group’s founder, at a teacher’s conference.
The students who attend the trip receive a credit in history and are motivated to get involved in civic campaigns in their hometowns. According to Mark Ellis, Youngstown Early College academic coordinator, the students who take the trip are notably changed by the experience.

“It has a huge effect … when the students come back, they’re changed. … It’s a lot of work on the students; they’re writing papers and doing research before each of the stops. … Penny [Wells] is working with the students for up to a year before the trip,” Ellis said.

Following their Sojourn to the Past experience, students worked together to have the first week of October designated as “Non-Violence Week” in the state of Ohio.

“They also started Non-Violence Week; they petitioned the YSU trustees, the school boards, the [Youngstown] city council, the county commissioners, asking them to make the first week in October Non-Violence Week. They all did,” Wells said. “In October 2013, they asked Joe Schiavoni to introduce a Non-Violence Week law into the general assembly and they were with Governor Kasich in 2013 when he signed that bill into law so Non-Violence Week is a law across the state of Ohio. They started the nonviolence parade, which is sponsored by Sojourn to the Past, YSU, the city of Youngstown and a number of other organizations. This October will be the 5th annual Non-Violence Parade.”

Shannon Sharp, now a student at Youngstown State University, participated in the trip in 2012 and said the experience helped shape her current view on civics.

“The trip definitely gave me a different perspective on life. It taught me not to be a silent witness when I see someone being bullied verbally or in any other way,” Sharp said. “This [Sojourn to the Past] is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I personally applied to go on the trip in 2011, but ended up not going, so in 2012 when I was asked to go I didn’t hesitate in saying yes. The trip teaches you many things that aren’t in our history books and if it wasn’t for this trip I would have never learned about all the people who were a part of the movement or those who died during it.”

The popularity of the recently released film “Selma,” based on the historical Civil Rights march from Selma, Alabama to Birmingham, Alabama, may help popularize Sojourn to the Past’s trips, and Wells hopes any who are interested in the film will not only familiarize themselves with the historical event depicted in the films, but also participate in a small scale reenactment of the Bloody Sunday march on March 1.

“In downtown Youngstown we’re having a Selma commemorative march in honor of the 50th anniversary of Selma,” Wells said. “We’re going to have a small program about the Selma campaign, about what actually happened, then we’re going to leave there and march two by two, quietly, just like they did on Bloody Sunday, across what people call the Peanut Bridge that crosses the Mahoning River. So anyone that wants to participate, from YSU or anywhere, should come join.”

For more information on Sojourn to the Past or the Selma Memorial March, visit the organization’s website at