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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Being ordinary

An update from Hiba, a junior majoring in biochemistry and human rights with a minor in Arabic:


Hiba on Martin Luther King Jr.'s porch in Montgomery

Hiba on Martin Luther King Jr.’s porch in Montgomery

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about change is that it often comes in the form of a person. Not an extraordinary person. Just an ordinary person.

It is that ordinary person — the one who lives under the same house that you and I consider “home,” who is plagued by the same fears you and I wonder about late at the night, and who unearths strength from the same kind of love that we associate with family, in religion, or in people.

Today was a reminder of that concept.

If you ask a fifth grader in Texas about Montgomery, they will tell you it is the capital of Alabama and expect you to comment on how great they are for knowing that. If you ask a fifth grader in Alabama, you’ll get a different story: It is where Martin Luther King Jr. first served as the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and where you can see his first house, it is the spot where many civil rights advocates met in the March from Selma-to-Montgomery and many were involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and it is the place where you can still meet numerous ordinary people — like Martin Luther King Jr. — alive and willing to tell us their stories.

We went to all those places today: Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr.’s first home, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a relic of the segregated bus system.

As I looked in on the humble structure Dr. King called his home, I realized how ordinary this man was: He was a closet smoker who hid his cigarette buds from his wife, he sat in a normal chair and desk to write his sermons, and he would, like any college student would, go to the kitchen to make coffee when he was stressed. I looked out of the porch that he probably looked out of when contemplating the future of the civil rights movement.

What is it that separates any other person from this individual? A vision, confidence, courage, and, what I’m starting to realize is the most important, a lot of faith in people.

Hiba with Rev. Robert and Jeannie Graetz in Montgomery

Hiba with Rev. Robert and Jeannie Graetz in Montgomery

It is one thing to realize that this might be the case, and another to meet individuals who show these traits. Today, I also had the opportunity to have dinner with two other of those ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary feats in the name of justice: Mr. Robert Graetz, his wife Ms. Jeannie Graetz, and Ms. Vera Harris.

When you first see them, they seem like the typical senior citizens you find owning you at pool or bingo at the senior center. But, they’re tougher than they look. Mr. Graetz, a white pastor who served a black congregation in the 1940s in Montgomery, Alabama, openly worked with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Montgomery Improvement Association to spearhead the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He wrote a book we read in class, A White Preacher’s Memoir — that I got signed! He and his wife are an inspiration. A warm couple that stood up in a time where being a white American didn’t mean accepting differences.

Then, there was Ms. Vera Harris, who is the sweetest lady I have ever met and who was Martin Luther King Jr.’s neighbor. Her humbleness when talking about her participation, and her smile. She and her family worked vigorously in the campaign for civil rights — housing freedom riders, giving first aid and treatment to marchers from the Selma-to-Montgomery-March, and living a life of nonviolent protest.

I guess being ordinary isn’t that bad.

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