Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2010

During Spring Break 2010, students, faculty and staff are taking an eight-day bus ride to the American South’s civil rights landmarks, with stops in Little Rock, Arkansas; Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama; Jackson and Oxford, Mississippi; and Memphis, Tennessee. They will be led by Ray Jordan of the Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life; Dennis Simon, associate professor of political science in Dedman College; and junior Linwood Fields, a political science and English major who participated in the 2009 pilgrimage.

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Lessons from Little Rock and Jackson

RonCivilRightsPilgrimage.jpg An update from Master of Liberal Studies student Ron:

Uh-oh, there is singing first thing in the morning on the bus. It’s the one thing I am really uncomfortable with … anyone actually hearing me sing. At church, you can see my lips move, but I am really not singing. It was such a shock to my system, I have no idea what the words are, but I promise to get them down tomorrow. To blog about that is, not actually sing.

photo.jpg Our first stop in Little Rock was the Wesley United Methodist Church on the campus of Philander Smith College. Philander Smith College is a small, privately supported, historically black, four-year liberal arts institution. Founded in 1877, Philander Smith College is the result of the first attempt west of the Mississippi River to make education available to freedmen (former African-American slaves). The minister 133 years later is the Rev. Ronnie Miller-Yow, an SMU Perkins alumnus.

photo%282%29.jpg We meet with three members of the church … a 91-year-old Army veteran, an 85-year-old lovely lady who was the first black Girl Scout leader in Arkansas and actually ended up working for the Girl Scouts, and a 60-something-year-old minister whom a church historian described as a bit on the “black power” side of the Civil Rights struggle and was not one who probably would have handled nonviolent lunch counter demonstrations very well. I was surprised to hear the two older church members say they felt most white people treated them politely and fairly except for the police. That to some blacks, the Martin Luther King Jr. was somewhat of a rabble-rouser. (In photo: SMU pilgrims with UMC Wesley members.)

photo%283%29.jpg But the most surprising comment came from the activist/minister. When he said “when they killed Dr. King,” I asked him who “they” were – considering that it was pretty clear one man shot Dr. King. He said “they” were the white segregationists that had built a culture of hate. He truly saw it as a group action.
(In photo from left: A member of UMC Wesley with SMU’s Ray Jordan and Dennis Simon.)

From Wesley UMC we headed to one of the most iconic places in Civil Rights history, Little Rock Central High School, which is now a National Historic Site. The school desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School in 1957 was the first significant test of the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

photo%284%29.jpg What began as an attempt by the Little Rock school board to quietly and gradually integrate the city’s schools ended with having the governor of Arkansas block the “Little Rock Nine” from entering Central High School with the Arkansas National Guard. President Eisenhower had no choice but to back constitutionally granted judicial and executive authority. He was the first president since Reconstruction to use federal troops to enforce civil rights for African Americans by making sure the black students attended Central High School.

On the four-and-half-hour bus ride to Jackson to tour Medgar Evers Home Museum, we watch “Ghosts of Mississippi,” the story about the conviction of Medgar Evers’ murderer nearly 30 years after his assassination. The house was actually used in the movie. We arrive there about 7:30 p.m. Chills run up your spine as you stand in the driveway where he was shot. You turn and try to figure out where Bryon De La Beckwith was hiding when he braced his rifle against a tree in the shadows to shoot Evers in the back from across the street. It’s an experience you won’t forget.

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