Civil Rights Pilgrimage South

During Spring Break 2011, students, faculty and staff are taking an eight-day bus ride to the American South’s civil rights landmarks. Political Science Professor Dennis Simon leads the pilgrimage with SMU’s Chaplain’s Office.

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Moments of truth

Casondra at the Southern Poverty Law CenterAn update from Casondra, a graduate student in the Master of Liberal Studies program:

Today started off dreary, overcast and slightly chilly from the rain the night before. It did not look like the weather would hold out for us at the beginning of our day. When we arrived at the Southern Poverty Law Center and Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama, I did not know what would be in store for me.

As we walked into the building the Center guide stopped all of us and asked one of the pilgrims to read a statement under a melted and battered clock. It was asking us to be patient with the security of the SPLC because it is a target of hate groups and the center had been bombed repeatedly. Threats have increased since President Obama has taken office, and due to the work the SPLC does. As we handed our purses over to the x-ray machine and we walked through the metal detectors, we became immersed in the Civil Rights Memorial Center.

As I waited for the rest of the group to get through security I was struck by a photograph on the wall. It was a picture of the KKK, but they were women. Once again, the history books have never told me about women being in the Klan and I have never asked until it was presented to me. I decided there to change my paper topic for the class. I thought this was my revelation for the day (within the first 10 minutes), but I was completely wrong. It was only my first. Even through the museum I was getting hit with injustice after injustice and common-sense thoughts.

CRMC wall artWe watched a movie in the CR Memorial Center and I began to cry upon hearing the story of Emmett Till. By day four of the pilgrimage all of us have heard this story several times but the more times I hear of his story and others it’s becoming more resounding for me. Emmett was 14 and visiting family in Mississippi, and he had a speech impediment. A white woman thought he was whistling at her (she was mistaken), and a few nights later her husband and his half-brother found Emmitt and beat him and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. Emmitt’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral so everyone could see how badly these men had mutilated her child.

As I am writing this, it pains me. But I feel that we have to be honest with history – the good, bad and ugly. Even though Emmitt should not have died, nor in the brutal way his life was ended, it did bring light to the racial violence of the South, and it helped to start the civil rights movement.

CRMC wall artAt this moment I would like to make something clear. We have been conditioned to think of black history one month a year, and MLK day as a Monday off that gives us a three-day weekend. Black history is not “black history.” It is American history. It is something every child should be learning the details about, just like the construction of U.S. democracy after winning our freedom from Britain. We should give our students a better understanding of where they come from, and not just three pages in a history textbook. Anyway…back to the trip.

After the CR Center we walked down the block to the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. This is where Dr. King was the senior pastor of the church and where many meetings where held. There is a beautiful memorial down in the basement, which I suggest at some point in your life to go see.

MLK's chairBut the true treasure was in the sanctuary. I was able to see the pulpit where Dr. King gave his sermons and where he talked to the masses of the community during the Montgomery bus boycotts. I was able to see the chair in which he sat before he took the podium. I took the moment to think back to everything that I have learned about this church, room, Dr. King and his oratory, and it was more than I could handle. I started to break down and cry. I have a lot of reasons – but just the sheer amount of history, the honest good people working for humanity that have been in that room, and their lives taken too quickly…how couldn’t you?

A Dexter Parsonage historical plaqueAfter lunch at Alabama State University we went to Dexter Parsonage, where Dr. King lived when he was senior pastor at Dexter Avenue Church. The parsonage has been kept to the way in which the King family lived. Many of the pieces are authentic and some are period. Miss Cherry, who led us through the home, was so passionate and a phenomenal human being. Her story in the King kitchen was riveting. If you are looking for something that will connect you to the human spirit, ask for Miss Cherry at the parsonage. You will not be disappointed.

Stephen BlackAnd we had another surprise guest speaker today: Stephen Black! (We’re in the photo at the left.) He is head of Ethics and Social Responsibility at Alabama State University (and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s grandson). When he spoke to us about what WE can do, it really resonated to me. I really needed him today. His speech about how to do good and changing the structure is what I needed. I have been very conflicted about how to go about this – and not that I have been given divine answers, but it was great to see somebody that was doing good because he took the responsibility upon himself to change things. He was an honest man speaking to us from the goodness of his soul, and you could see that plain as day.

You would think that this day would have ended by now. But no, we still had dinner with Reverend Robert Graetz, his wife Jeannie, and Mrs. Harris and her daughter who lived next door to Dr. King when he was at Dexter. The personal accounts they gave us are so invaluable. Reverend Graetz gave us some great advice about creating a better society. Take it one step at a time. Treat people with kindness and do small day-to-day things. When you see injustice, stand up. To think of what the Graetz family went though, bombing of their home and frightening calls from the KKK just because they were white and helping with the boycott – the determination and commitment to their beliefs is astounding. Society today (and I’ll include myself too) give up too early when things become difficult. When I look back it’s amazing to see what ordinary people stood against and how they have come out of their struggles stronger and helped to create a better society.

Overall, today was a hard day. Not a bad day, just a day full of honest truths, from the past and within myself.

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