Nyja White was still soaking in the memories Thursday, a day after she took part in a civil rights tour sponsored by the NBA Retired Players Association.
The 13-year-old White recalled touching the bars on the jail cell that once held the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
She talked about sitting in the pews of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls, all close to her age, had been killed by a bomb 51 years ago.
“It was definitely a learning experience,” White said.
White was one of over 200 children from the New Orleans area who made the one-day trip to Birmingham, Alabama, on Wednesday.
“We saw the importance of taking the New Orleans youth to a new community to learn and see first-hand,” said Arnie Fielkow, president and CEO of the NBA Retired Players Association. “The things they learn on this trip really applies to inner city youth all over America. They need those opportunities.”
Fielkow had sponsored a similar trip for New Orleans kids during his time as a city councilman. But after starting his new job, the trip went on a three-year hiatus.
“Every time I would return to New Orleans, I would have parents come up to me and ask about doing it again. So I just made the decision to bring it back and the NBA Retired Players Association was on board.”
The students boarded four buses early Wednesday morning and spent a busy day in Birmingham.
Sampson Skip Alexander, a civil rights advocate from New Orleans who once marched alongside King, accompanied the youth on the trip. So did Keith Plessy, a descendant of Homer Plessy, the key figure in the monumental Plessy vs. Ferguson case.
Alexander and Plessy shared their stories on the bus ride.
The first stop was a visit to a minor league baseball game at Rickwood Field, the oldest baseball park in the country. The Birmingham Barons and the Mississippi Braves played in the 19th annual Rickwood Classic, a throwback game this year that celebrated the 1920s.
That was followed by a trip to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
“I learned a lot of new stuff and met a lot of new people,” said Isaac Bowens, 11.
But this trip was about more than just learning about civil rights, said Marvin Roberts, a former NBA player who serves as treasurer of the NBA Retired Players Association.
“I wanted to share my experience and talk to them about the importance of education,” Roberts said. “Kids need a college degree, at a minimum. Chances are, none of these kids will play professional sports. But they all can get As and Bs in schools, and they can help their parents by doing well in school and getting a scholarship.”
The trip ended with a trip to the University of Alabama, where the students heard a brief talk by Wendel Hudson, the first African-American scholarship athlete for the Crimson Tide. Students also got a chance to take a tour of the university’s luxurious football practice facilities that rival that of some NFL teams .
“That was my favorite part,” said 10-year old Ja’Marian Peterson. “I liked seeing the players and all the equipment.”
It even impressed White, who isn’t a huge football fan.
“It was nice to see how football players really live,” she said.
But for White, there were plenty more highlights, which is why she was busy jotting down names of people she met or heard about during the tour.
“I know some of these people I won’t ever get a chance to meet again,” she said. “I love to read anyway, so I wrote the names down so I can look them up and read about them.”
White was one of the last to leave the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on Wednesday, trying to soak up every bit she could.
She wants to become an actress or model one day and missed a day of the acting camp she attends to make the NBA sponsored trip.
“I never miss camp, but I knew I had to make it,” she said. “It was either go or miss a great experience.”