SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2013

During spring break 2013, 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 the SMU Chaplain’s Office.

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Awakening

An update from Erin, a senior majoring in history and human rights:

Well, we’ve done it. We’ve said our last goodbyes to Alabama.

Part of me is sad to leave because the most incredible memories of the trip, for me, took place in Alabama.

Erin at the Civil Rights Memorial Museum in downtown Montgomery, Alabama

The other part of me, though, is beginning to get anxious about returning home. I’ve seen so much on this trip, learned so much on this trip, and have been flooded by so many emotions on this trip that I feel I just need some time alone in my apartment with a mug of hot tea, in my favorite old sweater, my personal journal, and several hours of quiet to truly process everything that has occurred these past several days.

I know we keep a journal during the trip, but unfortunately, the nature of the pilgrimage means that often there isn’t much time to do anything more than jot down a few bullet points of quotes or thoughts that I don’t want to forget and hope that I can find the time to really meditate on them before the craziness of life at SMU commences once more.

One observation, however, struck me so deeply and so profoundly that I knew I had to make time to flush it out fully or its true richness would be lost. It was not an “Aha!” light bulb sort of moment, or one brought on by a specific experience or interaction with any one person. It came gradually, like the transition of the haze of the dream world to the alertness of the conscious, as we crossed the Alabama countryside.

Watching the Alabama landscape roll by, I was struck by its natural beauty. Fields clothed themselves in lush, thick drapes of sunny wildflowers, and large tracks of green pastures were sprinkled with colorful cattle. Unnaturally straight lines of trees neatly divide one field from the other. An avid lover of creation and the natural world, I was entranced by the countryside that sped past me. I was particularly drawn to the trees, though it took a while for me to realize why. Though many of them were evergreens, still lush and fresh-looking even in the dead of winter, the overwhelming majority of them were deciduous trees, stripped of their foliage and barren looking.

The longer I contemplated the nature of the Alabama trees, the more I reflected on everything we had seen thus far on the trip, from the school where the Little Rock Nine were beaten, harassed and humiliated for desiring an equal education, to the home where Mississippi activist, Medgar Evers, was brutally murdered in cold blood.

Now we were headed to Selma, central to the Voting Rights Movement and location of the infamous “Bloody Sunday.” The longer I reflected on what we had seen and what was yet ahead of us, the more it seemed my imagination began to take over my conscious thought, and the more those Alabama trees hypnotized me. Slowly it dawned on me just how accurately Alabama’s landscape represents the situation that has so long tormented Alabama’s people. (Some would even argue continues to torment Alabama’s people even to this day.)

In my mind’s eye, Alabama’s trees were transformed into its people. Those lush evergreens became Alabama’s dominant white society that has prospered for so long off the backs of the black community. It appeared that their lives, indeed, their “way of life,” would be forever alive and green. On the other hand, the bare deciduous trees became Alabama’s oppressed black masses. They could not benefit from the pale winter sunlight the way the evergreens could, and thus, like the African-American community, they had to simply dig their roots deep and wait for spring to bring forth beauty and life to their branches once more.

It was the branches themselves that haunted me most. Their pale nakedness mirrored the despairing fingers of African-Americans across the years as they lifted their hands to the sky in a desperate struggle to claw their way to equality. I could almost hear their baleful cry of “why?!” Why was something as arbitrary as the color of one’s skin allowed to define whether a man lived or died and whether he could enjoy a life worth living? Why were whites the only ones who were allowed to live out the full humanity supposedly guaranteed by the United States Constitution, or even more, by a shared Creator?

The eerie echo of their weeping reverberated across the years to settle deep into my heart. I could not answer the many questions that I knew plagued them. We drove further, and a field unlike all the others caught my attention. Instead of a delicate headdress of golden blossoms, this one was full of trees that had been torn from their roots and carelessly thrown to the ground. It was the perfect image of abstract destruction, and the callous scene of the trees’ broken bodies served as an achingly suitable memorial to the hundreds whose lives were similarly broken and tossed aside in the black community’s continuous struggle for things no person should be denied. Freedom.  Justice. Equality. Hope.

The pain and injustice of their suffering combined with the shame I felt at being a descendant of the group that perpetrated that pain, that injustice…that evil. Maybe it was just the shadow of the grey, rainy sky, but, in any case, a gloom settled over my spirit the longer I watched those bare, clawing trees speed past my window until hot tears pricked my eyes. The history of blacks’ oppression is the history of my privilege, however unconscious or unwilling.

Would I give up all my privileges, past, present and future, if doing so could undo all the years of suffering on the part of the African-Americans? I pray to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, that I would do so, but it really makes no difference, does it? No earthly power can undo the past. As much as the trees humbled me, even led along a path of despair, they were also my guides to hope concerning the future as well.

The sight of new buds on the branches of a few deciduous trees harkened the arrival of spring, the time of rebirth, growth and revival. The chance to put aside the harsh realities of winter…never forgotten, but no longer an impediment to the fresh start promised by those tender green buds. Looking at them, I realized that is what the present is for me. A chance to put aside the horrors of the history that created the world in which I live, so that they do not become a paralyzing obstacle to any work I do, to ensure a future that more closely fulfills the cries of the African-American community across the years.

Freedom. Justice. Equality. Hope.

I don’t know yet what my role is to be in bringing about that future, nor what sort of tasks will be laid before me, nor what sacrifices will be required of me to shape that future. I do know that every time I think of trees now, I will be drawn back to Alabama and their silent order to ensure that their lesson will never be forgotten.

“We who are living possess the past. Tomorrow is for our martyrs.” ― James Farmer, co-founder of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), member of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), and initiator/organizer of the 1961 Freedom Ride

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