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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The church and civil rights

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

“I woke up this morning with my mind, stayed on Jesus”

After worshipping at its sister church, we visited Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. This is the church depicted in the movie Mississippi Burning that was burned down in 1964 in an effort to locate three Civil Rights workers who were later kidnapped and murdered.

From what I overheard, a lot of people said they had never been to a church service like that. I’ve attended a Methodist church all my life, and although this morning’s church service was not different to me, it did reignite a new admiration for the part that church played in the Civil Rights Era.

Church in that time, much like it was in slavery, was the central part of life. At that time, people could gather in a trusting environment and share struggles and triumphs and give encouragement and understanding to each other while worshipping God. Church was at the center of both their politics and their social life.

It reminds me of an off-Broadway play my mother performed in called Crowns. That show discusses the many reasons and meanings behind wearing a hat in an African-American church. One line in the play says it’s rooted in the African custom of presenting yourself in excellence before God. These churchwomen wore hats at funerals, weddings, celebrations and worship services.

With that thought, my mind’s eye scans to the famous pictures of women in the ’60s attending church. I picture Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers and Mamie Till attending the funeral services with such poise, dignity and class. And that hat.

That hat, like the churches in the black communities, was a tradition that symbolized more than just a fashion accessory. In my opinion, it was a symbol of status that demanded the respect that was too often denied these women in the outside world.

As for the churches, it was the members’ own personal piece of peace. Church was a world where, even in its imperfections, the offer of equality and common humanity was the sustenance needed to make it through the rest of the week in a society that deemed its members less than human.

I listened as Ms. Jewel McDonald described her mother, brother and an elderly couple being beaten as they left a church meeting at Mt. Zion that June night. Almost 50 years later, and she still cried as she told the story. The church was burned down.

I can only imagine the courage and dedication it took to rebuild that church, not once, but twice.

On our way out of town, headed to Selma, I found it fitting that we were behind a truck with the word “hope” on the rear of the truck’s bed. On a bus of wonderfully diverse people, we are following hope. We are chasing the hope that things are better. The hope that this newfound knowledge and experiences will forever change something in our minds and thus affect some tiny sliver of the future. We are chasing the hope that these lives and words will not be forgotten. The hope that, not only will they be remembered, but also admired and revered.

At least, that’s my hope.

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