SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2012

During spring break 2012, students, faculty and staff are taking a nine-day bus ride through the American South to visit civil rights landmarks and leaders in the movement. Political Science Professor Dennis Simon leads the pilgrimage with SMU’s Chaplain’s Office.

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16th Street Baptist Church

An update from Janelle, who is participating in the pilgrimage with her father, Ed:

It was a beautiful day to remember such an ugly part of Birmingham’s history.

I knew today was going to be a little difficult for me since we were headed to the 16th Street Baptist Church. Before going into the church, we crossed the street to Kelly Ingram Park and I stood at the corner envisioning what it must have looked like that day in 1963 when young students left the church with a demand for racial equality. At that moment, flashes of the infamous pictures of young children being blown over by fire hoses, and dogs being set free to attack, played like an unending slide show in my mind.

These children, most without the permission of their parents, had chosen to walk out of school to the church. From there, they were to walk toward the Capitol Building. They were told in the planning meetings that this would last for three days and they would be arrested. The plan was to fill up the jails.

As they crossed into the park, water from the fire hoses lightly sprayed across the children. When they began to dance and play as if it were a water park, law enforcement turned the water on full force. Children were blown over, their clothes peeled off. One account mentioned the water pressure was so strong that her hair was torn from her scalp.

Then the dogs were released. German shepherds attacked children causing some to be hospitalized and require stitches.

Other children were jailed for close to a week in jails crowded with criminal offenders. Jails were so crowded police that had to empty a barn to use as a makeshift jail.

Even if these children did not foresee the violence, they were well aware of the potential of being jailed. When a child was interviewed and asked what they were going to do that day, she said, “Today, we’re going to get our freedom.” At such a young age, they understood the concept of inequality and the abstract of idea of freedom. But not because they were taught it, because they were forced to live it every day. As adults in current society, we cannot find the courage equal to that of these children.

At the park, I knelt down at the statue of the dog and tried to imagine what this would have looked like from the point of view of a child. As an adult, there was something disquieting in my soul. I could not conceive of the fear they must have felt.

Today, along the walkways of the park, the words “Freedom Walk” are etched in the ground.

Just a few short months after the Children’s Crusade, with wounds still fresh, a bomb erupted near an entrance to the 16th Street Baptist Church. As four precious little girls were getting ready for worship service, the foundation of God’s house was rocked, and panic spread like fire through the congregation.

I walked down those steps descending into the fellowship hall. And, although the church has since been changed and stairs built over where those little girls perished, a grievous feeling still passed through my body. Those girls had been members of my family since I was first taught about this movement. I felt as though I had grown up with them because I had grown up with the memory of their senseless deaths. The vision of an interview of one of the mothers holding a piece of brick that penetrated her daughter’s skull is one that will live with me forever, just like the picture of Mamie Till viewing her son’s body for the last time.

During the blast, one of the windows with Jesus stained in the glass was destroyed. Symbolically, only his face was gone. Blinded by hatred, retaliation and revenge, it is impossible to seek Jesus’ loving and forgiving face.

In my time of study, I had never realized that two other young boys were shot and killed while another was wounded that same day. This is proof that there are so many unnamed victims of the malicious and volatile denial of basic ethics and morality.

I sat outside the building by the marker placed where the door once was and read their names out loud to myself, and silently promised my “sisters” that I would live for them. I would live for that which they died.

We closed out the day speaking with journalist Curtis Wilkie, who was present the night of the violent riots on the University of Mississippi campus in response to the enrollment of James Meredith.

He recounted how he and many other Ole Miss students were at a big game when Meredith was secretly brought on campus. When the students returned, they found marshals had entered the campus to enforce desegregation. Students began to throw rocks and bottles, and in response the marshals sent streams of tear gas into the crowds. The riot would go on all night, leaving several injured and two dead.

I must ask how can we mobilize behind such a victor-less cause while ignoring causes that can affect us all? Unfortunately, that is also a question I’m forced to pose today. We are so quick to judge homosexuality, religion or the lack thereof, abortion, etc., when we have a staggering child homelessness rate and children who don’t get a good meal unless they are in school. What is really important here? What is really the moral issue?

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    One Response to 16th Street Baptist Church

    1. Julius Mwangi says:

      thank you for sharing this.

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