Today we drove from Montgomery to Philadelphia, Mississippi. The Philadelphia of the South is not the Philadelphia that I grew up in and learned to love, but it’s interesting and by the end of the night earned my appreciation.
Along the way we watched the movie “Murder in Mississippi,” about three Civil Rights workers – two of them white – who were murdered just outside of Philadelphia. We stopped in front of Mount Zion United Methodist Church, which is at the top of a long dirt road in the middle of the woods.
I’ll admit, that drive is not an experience that I would be eager to repeat, regardless of the glory that was waiting at the other end. I cannot even begin to imagine making that trek alone at night like they did in the movie. One of the first things you see is a memorial to the three workers, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, who was only 20 when he was murdered.
The first person we heard speak once inside the church was Mayor James Young. He is Philadelphia’s first Black mayor. It was absolutely inspiring to hear him speak. He was so down-to-earth and really candid.
He said that one thing we forget about the heroes of the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s was that they had a tremendous amount of patience. They accepted the fact that the freedom they were seeking wasn’t going to come in a short amount of time, but they were willing to put in the required amount of work and wait for the results.
One of the problems with our generation is that we live in an instant society. “You microwave everything,” he said. “You don’t have time to be patient because you’re busy doing …” Personally, I know I am typically stressing out over how much I have to do. (Yes, I realize it’s counterproductive. It’s a problem that needs my attention.)
He went on to say that our generation deals with identity. We have to find out who we are to determine what to fight for.
Next we heard from two members of the Philadelphia Coalition, a group of citizens who organized as a response to the murder of the civil rights workers with the goal of demanding justice. They told us about where they were the night of the murders and how the murders affected them.
They were really young when the murders happened. One of them told us that she was supposed to get married a few months after the murders took place. She was afraid that the KKK would come and burn her house, so she ran and hid her clothes in a box in the chicken house across the yard from their house.
I don’t think I ever comprehended how intensely that type of racial hatred affected people’s lives. It extends far past the lunch counters and buses. Honestly, some days I don’t use either, and segregation sounds like more of an inconvenience, but the more I learn on the trip, the more I see how awful and flat-out wrong it truly was. I cannot even begin to imagine the strength of the people who were forced to endure it.
We closed the night with reflection over the last three days. We talked about what we were committed to or what we would change regarding the movement, which is still a work in progress.
After many of us spoke, Ray said that what he noticed was that we all needed to self-heal. The movement brought with it a great burden, and a lot of pain. One of the members of the Philadelphia Coalition dubbed us the SMU Coalition. “You’re making a change and you don’t even realize it,” he says.
We all stood in a circle and linked arms, right over left, the way they did at the strategy meetings back in the day, and in the church that held within its walls so much history, we sang the theme song of the Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome.”
I lack a vocabulary vast enough to describe the feeling in the room. People always talk about the power of numbers. From a strategic point of view, I get it. Your chances of success are greater if your size is larger, but tonight, I realize there is more to it than that.
The symbol of the Black Power movement is the raised fist. I read somewhere that it represented many individual fingers coming together to create something strong. That was the power I felt tonight. All of us coming from different backgrounds, different histories, different cultures and linking together creating something strong and something beautiful – this is the way things should be.