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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Preparing to be challenged

22936D_038.jpg An update from University Chaplain Stephen Rankin, who also is writing on his blog:

I’m in Montgomery, Alabama, at the beginning of the Spring Break Civil Rights Pilgrimage. The bus left Friday afternoon, but I could not leave until Saturday evening. Flew into Montgomery last night.

As I prayed with the group Friday afternoon, I spoke about how this trip will challenge us in particular ways. I had shared with the class earlier that, because I was a boy of 13 when Dr. King was murdered, I grew up watching the Civil Rights movement on television. I lived in rural, racially homogenous Kansas. Actually, not true. Part of that time I lived in Texas, and it was not racially homogenous.

Pete Chapa (Mexican) was one of my boyhood baseball teammates and friends. Paul and Manuel (Mexican) were friends to me during a very lonely 5th-grade year in a new town. Later, in junior high, it was Oscar Guerra the star running back and Leonard White (African American) the star on our basketball team. Still, the Civil Rights movement was something psychologically remote for me.

It was not until years later, as a man with children of my own, that I read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King wrote it in response to clergy in Alabama who wanted him not to engage in direct – even if peaceful – action. His reply, written on anything that could be used (toilet paper, margins of newspapers), is nothing short of agonizingly eloquent.

He asked his clergy colleagues to consider how it felt to be the man who had to tell his young daughter that she could not go to the local amusement park because it was not open to black children; how it felt to watch the dark clouds of racial prejudice hang over his kids and to witness how it was shaping their young mental worlds. That letter put a human face on the Civil Rights movement for me.

Over the years, of course, partly because of interest and partly because of my work, I’ve studied, at least in superficial ways, parts of the story. This trip will be rough in some ways. The church was on both sides of things (as it often is) back in the ’50s and ’60s. Some of the story is just plain ugly. But some of it is glorious.

I have a feeling I’ll learn a lot on this trip.

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