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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Another kind of ‘war on terror’

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

I struggle to start today’s journal entry because I’m still in awe. Today I encountered two stories I’m very familiar with, but I saw them in a different light.

First, we visited the Little Rock Nine visitor center. I reflected on the book Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals and the movie The Ernest Green Story, two of the nine. Their accounts are horrifying and disheartening.

The school itself is a thing of beauty. Its breathtaking in its grandness. I closed my eyes and imagined Elizabeth Eckford walking down the street toward an angry mob.

Toward it. Not away from. The fear she must have felt and the courage she had to muster are unimaginable. She could have simply chosen to not get off the bus, but she did.

The irony to me is that, although the fight was for equality in its purest form, African-Americans didn’t even have what Jim Crow said they did: Separate but Equal. How can you say a school built for white students costing an estimated $1.5 million is “equal to” a school with the same number of black students that cost $400,000? Or how can you pay teachers with more education and certificates one-third less than their white counterparts without the same education? While I argue “separate but equal” isn’t equal at all, one can also argue these Jim Crow laws didn’t even uphold their main platform.

The second was an unexpected stop at the home of Medgar Evers. It was a little eerie walking up the driveway because I have watched Ghosts of Mississippi several times.  The thought of a man being gunned down in front of his home where his family is waiting is heart-wrenching.

But I learned two things that caused me to think. One, while he was waiting on the completion of his home, he requested that the windows be higher so that it would be more difficult to cause harm. His family also would sleep on the floor. And two, he requested the front door actually be moved to the carport. This way, his family could exit the vehicle via the passenger side under the cover of the car and house.

One thing I realized today, that with all their training, restraint, tactics, precautions, these people were preparing for war. It was not much different from the War on Terrorism.  If being spat on as you walk to school or shot in the back in front of your family isn’t terrorizing, I don’t know what is.

As I walked in the halls of Little Rock Central High School, I envisioned Ms. Beals being pushed down the stairs and her books shoved on the floor. How ironic that the school sought to educate and prepare students for the opportunity to be productive and successful members of society while participating in the systematic destruction of the same. It makes me wonder about society’s current systems.

When my mind returns from its tangent, I notice the Arkansas Gazette’s top story of the newly elected Darrin Williams. He’s the first African-American Speaker of the House in Arkansas. I listen to the current principal of Central High describe how this school with such a tortured moment in history is now considered by some to be one of the most diverse high schools.

We’ve got a ways to go … but how far we have come.

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