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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Rainy day, sunny people

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

It’s a sappy title for a blog, but it just seems to fit.

Our trip’s leaders asked us to notice and ponder the contrast between Selma and Montgomery, only 54 miles apart. Beyond size (Selma is about 20,000 and Montgomery, 200,000), Selma visibly struggles while Montgomery fairly shines. It’s the state capital, but other factors play into the picture. Although today has been gloomy in terms of weather, the people we have met, colleagues of Dr. King and leaders in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, have been testaments of grace (divine and human) and courage.

Last night we met Mrs. Harris and her daughter Dr. Valda Montgomery. Mrs. Harris’ husband, a pharmacist, owned and operated Dean’s Drugstore, the command center of the Bus Boycott in 1955. The Graetzes – Rev. Robert and Jean – were the white clergy family for an African-American Lutheran congregation. Their house was firebombed during those violent days, but they stood alongside Dr. King and the others. We heard, naturally, a good deal about Rosa Parks today, and we went to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the one congregation Dr. King pastored before going full-time as leader of the movement.

I was most taken with their descriptions of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, although they also talked about housing the Freedom Riders in 1961. The Boycott took place in 1955 and is considered one of the absolutely central events in the formation of the modern Civil Rights movement. The story is well-known. Rosa Parks would not give up her seat to a white man and got arrested for her action. She was removed from the bus and taken to jail. The boycott ensued.

Almost 50,000 black people lived in Montgomery at the time and, through the network of churches and pastors in the city, they agreed no longer to ride the buses. Imagine the risk of losing one’s job for committing to such a daring move. The people organized themselves. Those with cars volunteered to chauffeur people to and from work. Many people simply walked to and from work. The people gathered and collected funds to help with gasoline costs. They even raised enough money to buy some station wagons to serve as taxis. With the command center at Dean’s Drugstore, the boycott leaders created a network of transportation support, and for over a year, the people stayed off those buses. It worked in dramatic fashion.

An amazing feat pulled off by some amazing people, and not without some seriously fearful moments. We heard of hateful phone calls in the middle of the night, of threats and firebombings. The people we talked to shared how, in spite of feeling understandable fear in the worst times, they also felt the strengthening, providing presence of God. And each other.

One nostaligic side note for me: I’m a preacher’s kid who grew up in parsonages. When we stepped into the home that had been the Kings’ parsonage for Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, I felt as if I had stepped into some place I had once lived. A small frame home tastefully furnished with ’50s-era pieces, most of which had literally been in the house when the Kings had inhabited it. I laughed to myself at the Melmac table settings on the kitchen table.

It was a most enjoyable trip down memory lane. But what sticks with me the most at the end of this day is the courage and grace of the boycotters.

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