Stetson Law student examines legal structure and history in Rome

Story by Valeria Obi

Every spring semester, the International Programs Office at Stetson University College of Law hosts a study abroad course that provides students with the opportunity to learn about the legal structure of a different country and then actually visit it in person.

This spring, the course was Rome-Select Topics/International Law, the country of interest was Italy, and I had a personal opportunity to participate. The topics covered in this course were the development of Republicanism, law and advocacy, the legal profession in ancient Rome, and its effect on modern civil law systems.

Stetson Law student Valeria Obi during a spring visit to Rome.

Stetson Law student Valeria Obi during a spring visit to Rome.

This course was spearheaded by Stetson Law professors Marco Jimenez and Candace Zierdt. Both professors are extremely knowledgeable about the ancient legal structure of Rome and served as great resources for learning about the area.

The first half of the course was spent in the classroom at Stetson Law in Gulfport, Fla., where I learned about the development of law and advocacy from ancient Rome through modern society.

The class was heavily focused on classroom discussion. This provided an opportunity for everyone to share their opinions on course topics. Students facilitated the majority of classroom discussions.

Through these discussions, I learned all about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the evolution of religion in Rome, the first legal code (The Twelve Tables), Roman architecture and influential leaders of Rome.

During spring break, March 17-24, I actually had the chance to visit Rome in person and visit the places I studied about in class.

One of the sites I visited while in Rome was the ancient Roman Forum, which is surrounded by the ruins of other ancient government buildings. These buildings were used for centuries and were the center of Roman life. The Forum served as the venue for elections, public speeches, criminal trials and other major events that took place. My visit to the Forum was enhanced by insights from the class discussions.

Along with the Forum, I also toured the Supreme Palace of Justice, which houses the Roman Supreme Court. This building is enormous and beautifully decorated with ancient paintings. While there, I also had an opportunity to attend a hearing to see how Roman legal proceedings differ from those in the U.S.

Stetson students spent Spring Break in Rome learning about the Roman legal system.

Stetson students spent Spring Break in Rome learning about the Roman legal system.

Another interesting site that I visited was the Catacombs, which served as the underground burial place for Christians in ancient Rome. The Catacombs extend for nearly 12 miles and are currently still being excavated. I got the opportunity to walk through the chilled tunnels and even saw remains in some of the plots.

I also visited Vatican City, which is the smallest independent state in the world. The Vatican is actually located in Rome where its territory consists of a walled enclave. Inside the Vatican are several museums that improved my understanding of ancient Roman art as well as the different Popes of Rome.

The Vatican is also where the Sistine Chapel is located. The Sistine Chapel served as the official residence of the Pope. I was absolutely amazed by the Renaissance architecture and paintings by very famous artists including Michelangelo.

My favorite places among those we visited were Pompeii and Herculaneum, both partially buried cities that are also still being excavated. These cities are the result of a volcanic eruption from Mount Vesuvius. What’s really fascinating about these cities is the fact that part of them is still buried under the ash and debris from the volcanic eruption. We were able to walk through these ancient cities and visualize what life used to be like for the inhabitants.

Overall, my experience in Rome was absolutely captivating and breathtaking. While I did see much of Rome, there is still so much more to see. I appreciate everything I’ve learned from the course because this once unfamiliar culture has inspired me to learn even more about it. Although next year the country selected for Stetson’s spring break abroad will be different, I would absolutely recommend this course to anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to travel internationally.

For more information about this course or any other study abroad programs, students should contact the Office of International Programs at


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Friday: Atlanta

On the last day of our trip, we drove to Atlanta and visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. Museum.  Everybody was thoroughly sick of everybody by now.  We have been through so much, and have seen such things, and we sang Freedom songs all day–except we didn’t know all the words, so it was usually the same verse over and over.

One of the things that first struck me about the Museum was the statue of Ghandi.  We’ve always mentioned Ghandi in our discussions of non-violence, but it was odd to see his monument in front of the Museum, and not Dr. King’s.

I spent a lot of time reading the anti-mysgenation laws exhibit.  How deep the fear of “mongerelizing” the white race must lie, if states had laws against black barbers cutting white women and children’s hair!  Not that I had a lot of faith in local governments before, but it was helpful to see the sheer amount of stupidity and legalized hate on an 8-foot-tall display.

Also, I thought the legislatures had an unhealthy obsession with Mongolians–surprising, considering the fact that the citizens of Louisiana have probably never seen a Mongolian in the late 1880s, or were even aware that Mongolia existed.  Prof. Arsenault explained that apparently, that was the term for all non-Indian Asians back in the day, which I found somewhat amusing.

The most remarkable parts of the Museum, at least to me, were the ones concerning Dr. King’s funeral.  First, there is the room in which the hearse that carried Dr. King’s body is displayed.

The walls are filled with newspapers, magazines, and pictures of his family.  It is an emotional place.  One of my fellow Riders, an undergrad, started sobbing, and my heart ached for her, too.  “He was a leader, but we forget that he was also a husband, a father,” she said in a broken voice.

Dr. and Mrs. King’s graves are marble monuments in the middle of a pool of turquoise water.  I remembered that a speaker at the Southern Poverty Law Center explained that they used water for their monuments, too, because “water is healing.”

We sat down by the pool, and, looking at the Eternal Flame that burns to the left of the monument, sang “This Little Light of Mine.”  I did not feel sad, my hand in the cool water.  All in my room, I’m gonna let it shine–two girls, daughters of Russian and German immigrants, singing an old “Negro” spiritual on Martin Luther King’s grave–let it shine let it shine let it shine.

So, that’s where the Freedom Ride took us.

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Thursday: Selma

It seemed hardly real that we would get to go home the next day, especially after Selma.

Selma, Alabama is a world apart from what most of my fellow students are used to. A sleepy Southern town is one thing, but Selma’s Deep South, and that’s a whole other animal.

There certainly is a lot of loveliness to it: historic homes, for example, or the gorgeous cemetery, where Confederate soldiers’ memorials hide under Spanish moss. Actually, the town is very proud of its Confederate heritage. No joke, I have heard people in the 21st century refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression, or, if they’re feeling politically correct, the War Between the States. My stepfather’s father would really get into it with his friend from Pennsylvania: damyankies this, rise again that.

So, it’s hard to miss all the Confederate flags flying around town. Almost immediately, that creates a threatening environment, what with the KKK adopting Confederate pride. I’ve never seen blatant signs of KKK activity in town, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it existed.

Most white people in Selma just want everyone to forget the violence that occurred in the Civil Rights Movement, because, frankly, it’s embarrassing. Many associate the phrase “Civil Rights” with Black Panthers (the group got started here, during the Selma-to-Montgomery march) and racial divisiveness, rather than Martin Luther King, holding hands, and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

My classmates, especially those who are black, expressed that it was the first place on this trip where they felt unwelcome, like they didn’t belong. We went to lunch at the Downtowner.

(“Why’d you go there?” my stepdad, a Selma native, asked, “That’s the place where the locals eat.”
“Where else would we eat?” I countered.
“Good point,” he replied.)

People were looking at us like we were from another planet. First, we were a large group of young people, which is something I’ve never seen in Selma. Second, our dress was starkly different from that of the local residents (some girls had pierced noses! How scandalous!). Third, we had a very racially mixed group, while the only local black person in the restaurant was the elderly gentleman who cleaned our table (I don’t have the heart to call him a “busboy”).

A table of locals actually asked what a white student what we were doing there, and she told them about the Civil Rights Bus Tour. A man leaned over and said, “They’re brainwashing you.”

An older lady wanted to make sure that we knew she didn’t have anything to do with “that mess on the bridge.” She means Bloody Sunday, when the Selma police teargassed and trampled Civil Rights activists on the Edmond Pettus Bridge.

The PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize presents that event beautifully: no music, no commentary, just an old black-and-white video. Marchers come up to a line of policemen in gas masks. There is a pause–dead quiet. Then the line breaks and the screams start.

We walked across the Bridge ourselves in complete silence, two-by-two. I kind of ruined the moment for myself by stopping to pick up discarded plastic bottles and other trash, because keeping the place sacrosanct was more important than preserving the solemnity of the moment.

At this point in the trip, I was hardly sentient. The heat, the fatigue, the sheer amount of information that has been crammed into my head–I no longer knew anything about anything but the Civil Rights Movement. I was a living container for the Civil Rights history. Rebekah, my classmate, told me she was totally sure she has seen tears in my eyes when we finished walking the Bridge, but I don’t remember crying.

P.S.  The first three pictures have been taken by Margie Brandwein-Gensler, a family friend and a great photographer, who was not on the trip, but has visited Selma with my mom.

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Wednesday: Montgomery

I spent the night at my parents’ house, and frankly, I hated to leave.  Home was so close, yet so far…  We loaded the bus and moved on to Montgomery.

Most people from Birmingham do not hold Montgomery in very high regard:  the stereotype is that crime there is bad, the city’s ugly, and there’s nothing to do.  Actually, the downtown area had that small-town-capital charm (here’s a link to a pretty picture that does not belong to me), and the courthouse was simply gorgeous.  Unfortunately, no cameras were permitted inside, otherwise I’d love to share the lovely architecture, gilded tiles and all.

We were lucky enough to sit in on a voir dire for a trial that is a Very Big Deal in Alabama: the question illegal gambling is before the Court.  Bingo is the only kind of gambling that is–barely–legal in Alabama; in fact, 75% of the state constitution concerns bingo regulation (I made that statistic up, but it’s not too far off).  The presiding judge is Myron H. Thompson, who replaced Frank M. Johnson (one of the judges who de-segregated public transportation in Montgomery in Browder v. Gayle, a.k.a. the Rosa Parks case).

Judge Thompson was gracious enough to take some time out of his very busy day to talk to us.  I was immediately starstruck.  First, the judge’s chambers looked like someone’s dream of a judge chamber.

Second, Judge Thompson has ruled on some impressively historical cases, such as the one in which he ordered Roy Moore, an Alabama Supreme Court Judge, to remove the Ten Commandments from the Courthouse, or the one in which he said University of Alabama could not deny funding to LGBT student organizations.

He is considered a dirty liberal in most of our red-blooded state, which automatically endears him to me, even though I think he’s more of a very reasonable moderate.

Also, Judge Thompson is a charismatic, incredibly intelligent and just plain interesting speaker, who looks freakishly young.  He was appointed to the bench at the age of 33 in 1980, and it looks like he decided to stop aging right then and there, except for acquiring some distinguished facial hair.  It’s amazing.  I went into fangirl mode, as you can see from the picture.

After the courthouse, we went to get lunch at the Alabama Chamber of Commerce’s surprisingly fancy cafeteria.  There, some of my classmates and two undergrads had an absolutely immature, hilarious conversation about historical bathrooms at the courthouse (“Just think of all the famous butts that have touched these toilet seats!”).  We dissolved into hysterical laughter, turning heads around the cafeteria.

As a future professional, I am not proud of our behavior.  However, as a human being, I’m happy we had a moment of unrestrained silliness between seven young people, which was exactly what the doctor ordered.

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Nashville Day 1 – Tour of the city

The day began with a tour led by Ernest “Rip” Patton around the city of Nashville. Mr. Patton was a student at Tennessee State University in 1961 when he became a part of the Nashville movement. As we drove along the city streets, he pointed out the places that were important in the movement, and the places that held his memories of struggle for civil rights in Nashville. This tour around the city would set the stage for the remainder of the day.

A memorable and touching moment for me was driving by an alley in downtown Nashville. Mr. Patton shared with us that the alley was the place where they ate food they were permitted to purchase from a nearby restaurant. They ate in the alley because the restaurant was white only. This alley was the same place they went to urinate because they were unable to use white bathrooms. I felt like I could almost see them there in that alley. I think we all felt emotional driving by the alley. I wish they weren’t treated like that. I wanted to be able to go back in time, march into that restaurant, and demand they change their ways. While obviously unable to change their history, I am not sure I would have been strong enough. I could only hope that if presented with a situation like that, I could have the strength to stand up for what is right. These questions about my inner strength help shape my immense respect for the movement veterans.

As we continued on, Mr. Patton also directed our attention to a Walgreens. He informed us that it was the first integrated store in Nashville. Back in that time, drug stores had lunch counters. It was really amazing to sit in front of that store knowing its important history and to see it still standing. As I watched people come in and out of the store, I thought about their lack of awareness. I doubt they had any knowledge that they were walking in and out of history. I know now, after beginning this experience and studying the Movement, I will never be one of those people again. I will never go back to being complacent. I think we all feel like we have to carry on the legacy of the Movement.

All the students broke off into groups and dined at local restaurants for lunch. I as well as some of my fellow students had the incredible opportunity to eat with Mr. Patton at Subway. We all sat wide-eyed and fully focused on the movement veteran as he told us stories about his participation in Nashville. One student noted the diverse backgrounds that filled our table. She expressed her realization and frustration that during the Movement, we wouldn’t have been able to eat together. That thought had never crossed my mind. I never thought twice about what we were doing. This just goes to show how we take this right for granted. Mr. Patton, as well as the other participants in the movement, fought for this right. Because of them we were in that Subway together.

It is only day one and it has already been such an emotional journey.

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Tuesday: Birmingham

Our one stop off the highway, which was the site of the Anniston bus burning, was an innocuous spot, with fireflies flashing in gardenias.

Oh, how I looked forward to Birmingham.  How excited I was to roll through its darkened streets–to see the sketchy warehouses, the ugly brick vistas of UAB, the glowing Vulcan statue (of Greek, not Star Trek mythology).  The familiarity promised relief.

This was the hardest part of the trip.

We started out on Tuesday morning with a tour of the Birmingham ghetto.  Ensley is a terrifying place, even in the daytime.  Abandoned steel factories tear up the landscape like rusty ghosts, and the storms that went through the area last month left some houses collapsed upon themselves.  Working in Affordable Housing Division at Gulfcoast Legal, I’ve been around Section 8 projects, but the ones in Ensley are cordoned off, military-style.  We made jokes about gated communities.  One of the students quietly remarked, “They’re not trying to keep people out, they’re trying to keep them in.”

You have to understand, this is my home.  To only show the worst parts of it–the most shameful–hurt almost physically. It’s not all fire hoses and German shepherds turned on children; it’s not all piles of metal trash heaped in neighborhoods that highways cut to shambles.  It’s not, I swear.  In the spring, the Japanese cherry trees bloom, and azaleas light up the streets in pink.  That old swimming pool where we used to turn ourselves to prunes in high school still remains unreasonably warm in the summer.  Friends, old and new, huddle around the fire at Parkside for my Christmas visits.  In the fall, my kids–who no longer remember their preschool teacher–play in the Red Mountain Park.

Visiting Mountain Brook, the wealthiest Birmingham community, after Ensley would have lit a fire under us.  Students who saw it would never have forgotten the sting of economic disparity.  But the bus driver got lost on the way, and we didn’t have time for neighborhood comparisons.

Instead, we headed to the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, Kelly Ingram Park, and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Listen, I can’t walk around Kelly Ingram.  There are statues of German Shepherds there, and bronze children, life-size, frozen in fear.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the site where a Klansman planted a bomb in women’s bathroom, which killed four children, 14 and 13-year-old girls:Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair–on September 15, 1963.  I was born on the same day 25 years later.

I remember crying the first time I visited the church in college, but I was doing better this time–until a USF student made a sharp remark to me when I inadvertently interrupted her conversation.

Emotions run high with the stress, and I ended up crying for two hours, even after the aforementioned student handed me a tissue in a very nice manner.

And I don’t mean the delicate, “I’m-just-so-sensitive” tearing up that happens during political campaigns or watching Armageddon.  I’m talking about deep, body-wracking sobs, with embarrassing quantities of tears and snot.  It was not pretty.  I wandered around blearily in search of a bathroom, but found some stairs instead, where I was hoping to have a nice, rewarding crying session.  But that was not to be, as other students also became lost in their bathroom-finding quest.  All I wanted was just half an hour alone, please, by the Maker, Buddha, and Tom Cruise, give me just an half an hour, God, those kids died here…

I continued my tearful journey all the way to the other church, where a group of very accomplished gospel singers sang Freedom Songs and “testified” about their experiences in the Children’s March and other aspects of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.  I was in serious danger of becoming dehydrated, when it occurred to me that at this point, I was no longer crying in sadness, but because I was tired, stressed, and cranky.  More pathetically, I wanted someone to notice that I was tired, stressed, and cranky, and feel sorry for me. After two trips to just lock myself in the bathroom for a few minutes and some self-reflection, I decided to quit being a baby and sing the darn songs with everyone else, joining in with “We Shall Overcome.”

We swayed, hands locked, and I was no longer crying.

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Monday: Anniston

Anniston is the site of a Freedom Rider bus burning–a part of history that Annistonites would rather forget. The little town had a KKK Klavern that scared the ones in Birmingham with its extreme violence, and has lost a lot of its population to brain drain.

When we stood in the alley where an 18-year-old Klansman laid down in front of the bus to prevent it from leaving, allowing the rest of the Klansmen to slash its tires. Decades later, fear lays thick in that alley. I leaned on one of the brick walls and stared at the brand-new commemorative mural of the bus on the opposite wall, then walked to the restaurant quickly.

We had dinner with various locals involved in the Civil Rights revival of Anniston. Our dinner partner, Richard Couch, was a lovely man. He is a criminal defense lawyer and the son of a Klansman involved in the Anniston bus burning.

Mr. Couch looked and talked like your typical Southern gentleman, which automatically made me think he was prejudiced. Apparently, I was the prejudiced one, because my assumptions could not be further from the truth. A proponent of organic co-ops and an Alan Watts fan, he spent his life trying to undo his father’s legacy.

I can’t imagine always being interrogated about what a terrible person my father was. Mr. Couch obviously wrestled with the love one is supposed to bear towards one’s relatives and his hate for his father’s deplorable actions. They have been estranged since his parents’ divorce. Our students suggested he write his father a letter to work through his feelings, but I’ve been down this road myself–not to a very successful end. My letter ended up an angry, incoherent rant. I didn’t feel it helped anyone in any way.

And so the deep currents go further underground until they dry up.

Author: Maria

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