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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In Dr. King’s footsteps

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

Today, I walked in Martin Luther King Jr.’s footsteps.

I went to the church he led and the home in which he and his family lived. I stood in the pulpit. I felt pride as if I were his child, a member of his congregation or friend. I saw the couch at which he played with his kids, the table where he used to plan significant events that would turn the tides of society’s acceptance and tolerance of each other.

Almost fifty years later, there is still an indentation on the porch where a bomb threatened the lives of the King family and thus, the life of the nonviolent movement.

The tour guides described the lives of the people who lived in the neighborhood with Dr. King. The neighbors who, like the Harrises, were affluent members of the black community. They were pastors, teachers, physicians and pharmacists. Those were the people who attended the Dexter Avenue church. Those were the people whose faces often go unseen and voices go unheard when talking about the era.

At the Southern Poverty Law Center, we heard about some of those other martyrs. Those names that are often unspoken and unrecognized were given faces and lives before we recognized their death.

It was said, “We looked in the river for faces. That’s where we always looked for our people when they disappeared.” That was the poignant statement made. I imagine the fear my mother would’ve felt in that time if I were gone longer than expected. When you looked at your family member and told them “goodbye” for the day, it was a large possibility that you were telling them “goodbye” for a lifetime.

The most impactful vice for me has always been the death of Emmett Till. He’s always been someone I described as the sacrificial lamb that caused the nation’s stomach to turn. Not only did they kill someone, they killed a child. Not only did they kill him, they tortured him. And after they beat him and tortured him, they disfigured his body. And with the courage his mother found to display his body, the nation’s eyes were forced to see and acknowledge the real face of hatred.

I think the part of the trip that was the most eye-opening for most, was the wall of faces that told stories of recent victims of civil right violations. As I rounded the corner, I saw another young lady looking at the picture of Billy Jack Gaither, a young man who was killed in 1999 because he was homosexual.  The quotes from the killer describe how he beat Gaither, cut his throat and, when the killer had no more energy, threw his body into a fire. Through my tears, I watched her read this story and others along the wall as a few tears fell from her eyes as well. I silently linked my arm with hers for mutual comfort. Without saying a word, we walked the rest of the names together.

At the outside monument, water washes over the names of people and pivotal events in the movement. Water, with its cleansing effect, can heal the wounds, but cannot erase the scars. I ran my hand over Emmett Till’s name and I thought of Trayvon Martin, killed less than two months ago because he was thought to be “suspicious looking.”

At that moment I realized the monument is unfinished because the movement is incomplete. We are still struggling to fight the same injustice but are too blind to recognize it for what it is.

Today, I walked in the footsteps of Dr. King’s leadership and dedication to a cause. It’s my responsibility to remember that and do the same tomorrow.

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