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NEIGHBORHOOD ACADEMY STUDENTS, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in December 2017.

As a criminal defense attorney, Mark Rubenstein too often has found himself defending young people—he decided things needed to change to prevent kids from ever setting foot in a courtroom. In 2005, inspiration struck while biking across Canada when he saw the impact of the trip had on his own son, at the time a teenager. With that in mind, Pittsburgh Youth Leadership was born.

“I was on my third generation of clients committing the same crimes and living the same lifestyle and it was an attempt on a grassroots level to break that cycle,” Rubenstein reflected.

Over the past 12 years the organization has taken low-income, inner-city youth on biking trips across the country. The goal is to challenge the kids physically and emotionally and inspire them to defy the odds. This past December, PYL took a group of Neighborhood Academy students to a place with a great deal of history—Selma, Alabama.

In 1965, despite the Voting Rights Act, for many African Americans having the right to vote was more a theory than a reality. In an effort to change that, and for more equal rights in general, figures like Hosea Williams and now-Congressman John Lewis attempted to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Due to violence they encountered from law enforcement and locals, the event would be remembered as Bloody Sunday—the first march, held March 7, 1965. Many were horrified by the brutality protesters encountered, including the brutal beating of activist Amelia Boynton. However, organizers would not be deterred. Days later there was a second, largely symbolic march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Later, after weeks of tension and court cases, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed an executive order requiring federal troops to escort marchers from Selma to Montgomery, ultimately successful with 25,000 marchers during this, the third march. The Alabama National Guard was ordered to protect the marchers during the multi-day march—about 1,900 troops, in fact.

These events are considered to have played a key role in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 being signed into law.

NEIGHBORHOOD ACADEMY STUDENTS, at Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama, in December 2017.

“We had been to Selma previously…and I found it shocking that I don’t believe one kid on the trip knew history and the significance,” Rubenstein recalled in an exclusive interview with the New Pittsburgh Courier. “I was giving kind of a history lesson while we were there,” but Rubenstein said the students were still somewhat foreign to the problems African Americans encountered there over 50 years ago.

Learning from the experience, Rubenstein, 64, made it a point to try and make sure the students, all of whom had varying Selma knowledge, grasped an understanding of the events that took place in Selma. He tried to accomplish this by assigning reading materials and having the students watch the film, “Selma.”

In the end, for local students Desmond Hargrove, Shawn Johnson, Bryant Jordan, Micah Arnold, and Quinn Meyers, the experience would be entirely different.

“I didn’t have too much knowledge about this before because of where I went to school before,” Meyers, 16, admitted. He said he had attended a majority-White charter school in the Pittsburgh area, “so of course our curriculum was more like, White U.S. history.”

Over the course of a week, the students, along with their chaperones, traveled from Pittsburgh to Alabama, ending their trip by visiting the Brown Chapel AME Church and biking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, both in Selma. The students recalled the moment as profoundly moving.

“I really loved going to the bridge. That was a really heavy, emotional moment for me,” Jordan, a junior, said. “It was really surreal because I was standing where so many civil rights icons had been, I could almost feel an extra sense of gravity in a way. It also pressured me to consider how I act in my daily life.”

In addition to their journey to the past, the students enjoyed many moments of levity as they recalled moments of wrestling matches with each other, and some football.

The respect for the chaperones as well as Rubenstein was echoed; one student mentioned with laughter that he had texted Rubenstein recently.

“He’s never had a reason for having to do this for us other than just wanting to,” Hargrove said of Rubenstein. “He wants to help kids who have bad histories not end up as the kids he has to defend sometimes, because he knows without support it’s easy to go down a bad path.”

It was also emphasized that their relationship with the organization goes deeper than the trips taken throughout the year. They see PYL as resources for personal issues, insight on college, and sometimes just to discuss sports.

Even though the students are in different places with regard to their time at the Neighborhood Academy, what remains clear is, their Selma experience will stay with them for years to come. When thinking of the events of Selma and the current race relations in America, Meyers reflected: “I realized that although we’re in the middle of a struggle right now, we’ve come a long way since (the march on) the bridge.”

 

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