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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Where did all the passion go?

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

This morning I paused for a brief moment in preparation for what I was going to experience in today’s journey.

Before coming, I anticipated my visits to both the Pettus Bridge and the 16th Street Baptist church to be the most emotional. So far, I was right about the former. It evoked so much emotion and response that I’m frightened for tomorrow’s trip to the church. Remembering the story from the several references over the years was one thing, but I was going to hear it told from the mouth of someone who was there and I was going to be in that very place.

Ms. Joanne Bland was to take us through the tour. One thing she said that resonated with me was, “Often, people say ‘they gave their lives.’ But they didn’t give anything. They were murdered.” It’s true.

I’ve oftentimes said that people gave their life for me to vote. But their lives were taken from them. In a way, by not using the word “murdered,” it diminishes what happened to them. After crossing the bridge, they saw the police in front of them, but the police had also closed in from behind. Bland’s sisters and brothers in struggle were beaten and trampled, and tear gas was thrown into the crowd. Police used bullwhips, clubs and cattle prods to move the “herd” as if they were animals. She would never forget the sound of screams and of a woman’s head hitting the concrete as officers on horseback mowed her over. Often, we attribute “Bloody Sunday” as simply the violence that happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  But the terror ran rampant throughout the streets until dawn.

I imagine a scene something like a war movie, where army men attack a small, unsuspecting village. Bland was separated from her father until the following morning. What fear an 11-year-old must have felt watching buildings in her neighborhood being shot into and a woman falling down the stairs seemingly to her death. The callous disregard for human life is painful to think of. Women. Children. Elderly. Everyone was attacked.

As we crossed that bridge together today, I was very emotional. Tears formed as I realized I walked the very road where men, women and children knowingly walked toward the possibility of violence for me to be where I am today. The blood they shed, the fear they felt and the courage they had to get up and do it all over again two days later is a personal gift to me.

On the flip side, in listening to the Harris sisters, you find such a startling dichotomy of the child’s experience in the Civil Rights. They talked about growing up with Dr. King’s kids, the planning meetings held on the third floor of their home and the experience of having the Freedom Riders secretly housed in their home for four days. The most shocking phrase she said, “we never felt fear.” After homes and churches were being bombed, she still felt no fear. This, to her, was the norm.

Nowadays, as Ms. Joanne said, “we wear these rights so arrogantly.” We haven’t had to work to receive them. They were just given to us. And less than 50 years later, we’ve forgotten the sacrifice our grandparents made at an age often younger than we are now. Ray asked, “Where did all the anger go?” He said bills don’t just get signed and everyone is happy and moves on. The anger had to find another outlet.

But my response is, “Where did all the passion go?” The ’60s and ’70s were filled with people who had a grand sense of purpose. They had a fiery desperation for humanity and a craving for equality. We’ve forgotten. But I continue writing these entries so maybe someone else will read and be inspired. Then maybe we can find our passion and remember together.

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