Students journey to the civil rights birthplace

Former Bay Area history teacher Jeff Steinberg is celebrating the 10th anniversary of what he calls "Sojourn to the Past." This year he will visit dozens of schools encouraging students to follow him along the civil rights trail.

"I don't call it a black studies program. This is our shared history as Americans," he said.

In his one-of-a-kind program high school students board buses and head to the epicenter of the struggle for social justice and equality. They take a 10-day trip to the south, tracing the places and meeting some of the people who propelled the civil rights movement and ABC7 news went along 10 years ago.

In the past decade, more than 6,000 Bay Area students have taken the journey and for some, touching the living history of the civil rights movement has been life changing.

Lolo Villagomez was one of the kids from three Bay Area high schools who followed the path of pioneers like Elizabeth Eckford, one of the so-called "Little Rock nine." She was their age when she braved an angry mob to integrate Central High School in 1957.

They actually met her and that taught them about forgiveness -- something that's not in the textbooks.

They toured the Memphis hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, they sat in the Birmingham church where a bombing killed four little girls and they shared the pain of one victim's father.

"We came back changed," Villagomez said.

The 26-year-old Villagomez now works with low-income residents in San Francisco's Mission District.

"It was a key moment in my life in helping me know what I wanted to do with my life," he said.

U.S. Congressman John Lewis was a non-violent protester beaten during the 1960s. This summer, he introduced a resolution which passed unanimously honoring sojourn for its powerful impact on young lives.

"They become better human beings and better citizens," he said.

"It's our responsibility to develop young leaders," sojourn board member Myrlie Evers said.

Myrlie's husband Medgar Evers was an icon in the movement. He was assassinated by a Klu Klux Klansman on the doorstep of his Mississippi home.

"I went up and shook him and said 'daddy get up, daddy get up,'" Medgar's daughter Reena Evers said.

For the last few years, Reena has traveled with the students back in time.

"It's important to share, that it's a human element and I'm right here in front of you -- It's not something that happened 100 years ago," she said.

It's not just the well-known names; the kids who make the journey meet ordinary people with extraordinary stories.

"That's what made me realize, even as a teenager you can do great things," Pablo Aguilera said.

Aguilera became a high school history teacher and he now takes his students on the civil rights journey.

"I would like to see this program go on forever and forever," Myrlie Evers said.

But the program is struggling. Sojourn never turns anyone away who can't afford the $2,600 cost.

Now with the down economy the non-profit is losing donations, still the founder is pushing on.

"I have found my life's working doing this and I will keep going. As long as there's a racial divide in this country, there is a need to do the program," Steinberg said.

ABC7 News salutes Jeff Steinberg for his dedication to teaching children about the civil rights movement.

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