How do people reckon with their country's troubled history regarding racism? An Indiana University professor wants students from the Bloomington campus to consider that fundamental question when they participate in a civil rights tour with college students from Serbia.
In 2022 and 2023, Professor Alex Lichtenstein, an REEI faculty affiliate in History and American Studies, will lead tours of US civil rights memorials in the South that will involve about a half-dozen IU students and 10 from the University of Novi Sad.
The first tour will take place in late May 2022, starting in Washington, D.C. at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It will include visits to the Emmett Till Memorial in Mississippi, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
While slavery, segregation and racial violence are part of United States history, Lichtenstein said, the civil rights tour offers a similar connection for the Serbian students, whose country has a barely acknowledged past marked by ethnic cleansing during the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s.
"As a historian, I believe a democratic future rests on an honest reckoning with the past,” Lichtenstein said. "Americans are arguing about how best to come terms with racism. We want the Serbians to join us in this journey of reckoning with a troubled past." and how to apply are available on the College of Arts and Sciences' College International webpage.
The US Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, is making this program possible through a $100,000 grant to IU's College of Arts and Sciences. Carolyn Lantz, who serves as Director of International Affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences, explained that the US Embassy wanted to support the creation and nurturing of university partnerships between the US and Serbia. The partnership program between the US and Serbia is part of a larger US foreign policy initiative to help countries develop democratic practices and learn about the US, on the one hand, and to help US students learn about those countries and support a mutual understanding, on the other.
"On an individual level, we want both the Serbian and IU students to spend some time thinking about how we characterize the past and how we acknowledge it," said Lantz, who assisted Lichtenstein in preparing the grant application. "A lot of Serbians still need to work though the fact that maybe they were not in the right in the 1990s and need to acknowledge that and the pain."
To promote good relations among Serbians and Americans, the project is also supported by a $50,000 donation from David and Ann Erne through the Robert F. Byrnes Russian and East European Institute at IU's Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.
“This is an important opportunity to solidify and strengthen IU's partnerships with universities in Serbia through direct ties between faculty and students from both sides,” said Sarah D. Phillips, director of the Russian and East European Institute. “We are very grateful to the Ernes for their continued support of Serbian studies at IU.”
Lichtenstein is partnering with Aleksandra Izgarjan, Professor of English at the University of Novi Sad and President of the Association for American Studies in South East Europe. The University of Novi Sad seeks to build a partnership with IU while improving its American studies curriculum, said Lichtenstein said.
After the trip, Lichtenstein will travel to Novi Sad for consultations with students and professors as well as a workshop that he will convene at Serbia's Centre for Public History to discuss the use of public memorials to prompt honest discussion of painful historical events like ethnic cleansing, lynching and genocide.
On an institutional level, Lantz expects some University of Novi Sad faculty to incorporate some of what they see into their history and American studies classes. The hope, she added, is that the lessons IU and Serbian students learn will have a long-term impact in promoting dialogue about how to commemorate the past.
Lichtenstein said he wanted to seize this opportunity after partnering with South Africa's University of Pretoria in fall 2019 to bring five students on a civil rights and memory tour in the US. He took the South African students and five students from IU's Global Living-Learning Community to sites in Mississippi and Alabama, including the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
"That was the showcase, to bring memories of racial violence to the forefront," Lichtenstein said. "There was a connection to South Africa, obviously, because of their reckoning with the history of apartheid and the connection to the struggle against racism."
Similar trips are a possibility for the future.
"I can imagine us doing this again with other people that are struggling with issues of racial conflicts," Lichtenstein said.