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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‘Ella’s Song’ and Medgar Evers’ home

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

We watched “Ghosts of Mississippi” on the way to Jackson today. Incredible. It was definitely the best acting that Whoopi Goldberg has ever done, and that’s including “Ghost.” I even loved Alec Baldwin in the film; it’s the only thing I’ve ever seen him in that I liked. Its depiction of the long, bitter struggle for justice concerning the cold-blooded murder of Jackson civil rights activist Medgar Evers by Byron De La Beckwith, the epitome of white supremacists, was masterful.

The entire time we were watching it, indeed, the entire day, I’ve had the well-known protest song “Ella’s Song” stuck in my head: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes. Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons.”

I couldn’t figure out why this song has been entrenched so deeply in my mind ever since I woke up this morning. It was only that one lyric, and honestly, it was more the two-line chorus than anything else.

Little RockWhen we visited Little Rock Central High today, the pull of the song was even stronger in my mind, but I actually left feeling a little disappointed in myself. Seeing the school where nine young children displayed more courage, dignity, and grace than thousands of adults, black and white, as they endured a living hell day after day for the benefit of future generations, was so exciting. My disappointment, however, stemmed from the failure of that excitement to mature into a deeper, more meaningful realization of what those nine students had to suffer, or what they achieved because of it.

I felt like a tourist when I was supposed to be a pilgrim. A pilgrimage is “a long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.” I’m not saying that I wasn’t having a good time. I loved getting to know my classmates better, talking and laughing with them, and generally just enjoying a beautiful day of Spring Break with my friends. What I am saying is that when we pulled out of Little Rock, my purpose didn’t feel so exalted, and I was definitely having a hard time grasping the “moral significance” of what we had seen.

“Ella’s Song” stilled echoed in my mind.

As we drove on to Jackson, I kept telling myself that it was only the first day, that it was all right if I hadn’t had a deeply transformative experience yet, that I should be careful about putting so much weight on my friends’ testimonies of life-changing revelations on the trip because “it was possible that even *this* trip could have been overly hyped up.” Yet the nagging anxiety that I was somehow missing the entire point of the trip continued to plague me.

I finally gave up and did the only thing I know to do when I have worries that just will not be silenced: I prayed. My Christian faith is the bedrock of my life that allows me to make sense of a world that too often just does not make sense. I wish I could say that it was a long passionate plea that transformed me into a truly pious pilgrim, but I have the unfortunate habit of getting extremely carsick whenever I try to read (or, apparently, write) in a vehicle, so even just a short “Lord, help my heart and mind to be open to your presence on this trip. I know I will be wondering, ‘God, where were you when this happened?’ and, ‘God, how am I supposed to respond to this tragedy?’ and many other things, so please help me to be aware and attentive to your Spirit moving. I don’t want to waste this trip,” required an hourlong nap for me to recover. When I awoke, “Ghosts of Mississippi” was just beginning and “Ella’s Song” resumed its haunting chorus in my mind.

The film definitely touched me; I’ll admit that I even teared up several times, but I cry every time I watch Belle say “I love you” to the Beast just before his transformation, so I didn’t think of my tears as significant.

It wasn’t until the bus came to an unexpected stop, and I looked out the window to see a house and a blood-stained carport, made recently familiar to me, that God began to separate the chaff of my tourist attitude from the precious kernel of the pilgrim within. As we piled off the bus to gather around the very house where Medgar Evers was gunned down, I began to take pictures.

Photography has been a hobby of mine for several years, and I particularly love it for my travels because it provides a cheap but extremely personal manner of obtaining souvenirs. I have taken many photos on this trip already, trying to capture forever the little details and thoughts that come to my attention during our trip, so there was nothing new about me breaking out my camera.

What was new was the irrational level of frustration I experienced when my camera decided not to cooperate. The darkness essentially overcame my camera’s ability to find something to focus on in the darkness, without which it.would.not.take.the.picture. It didn’t matter what I did. Flash, no flash, nothing was working. I was about to give up and just stand there, pouting, in the darkness when Professor Simon called our attention to something on the ground. It was the bloodstains, now 50 years old, the testimony of one man’s courage and another man’s cowardice.

Our coordinator, Ray Jordan, subsequently began to tell us more about Evers’ death, things the film hadn’t gone into. He spoke of how half of Evers’ chest had been blown away by the exit of the bullet from the 30.06. (My family hunts regularly; I have seen up close just what that caliber rifle can do to a deer from a hundred yards away. To imagine what it would have done to a man from less than thirty yards away ices my stomach and makes my blood race like fire!)

Ray went on to describe how Evers was still alive and conscious of his wounds (in a limited way) as he and his family waited…and waited…and waited. First, for the ambulance to take its own sweet time in arriving at the scene; second, for the doctors at the nearest hospital — a “whites only” hospital — to come up with every excuse they could think of to not treat Medgar Evers in “their” hospital; third, for one white doctor, who agreed to take all liability on himself in order to treat Evers, to get prepped for all the necessary operations. Ultimately, the Evers family, the Klu Klux Klan, and the white hospital community all waited for the same thing: for Medgar Evers to die.

I listened and stared at the bloodstained concrete and felt a rush of hot shame wash over me until it bordered on physical pain.

Here, a man had been assassinated in one of the most cowardly manners possible, a shot in the back, in the dark, from in hiding.

Here, a man had been slain for standing up for his dignity and the dignity of millions more.

Medgar Evers had fought to bring equality, justice, freedom, hope, in essence, a future to the African-American community.

And I was upset because I couldn’t take a picture of the scene of the crime?

Justice had been delayed for more than 40 years while a heartless, cruel man guilty of murder walked in the free air and bragged about it.

And I was angry that I couldn’t get a snapshot for my scrapbook or whatever?!

I hadn’t thought my tears significant earlier, but I knew better as I felt them gush down my cheeks in the darkness of the bus ride to the hotel. That was the moment that this trip became something more to me, something real, beyond simply educational or motivational or inspirational. It was transformed in ways that, unfortunately, I have no words to describe. Talk about, “Be careful what you pray for!”

I asked God to teach me during this trip, and with just a malfunctioning camera and a few drops of blood, He managed to call into question my motives concerning the trip, my ability to see through the present and into the past, AND my ability to empathize with the pain and despair of people whose struggles are not my own, and I’m a History and Human Rights major for crying out loud!!

I wanted so badly to ask Medgar Evers for his forgiveness at that point, but, obviously, that luxury was not an option for me. Ironically, my camera did end up taking a few pictures, though they were all far below what I would have considered my normal standards. However, I have come to see that imperfection as a gift.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and the one shaky, dark image that I have is worth far more than that. It reminds me to pursue God’s justice, not artistic beauty or technical perfection. In my one image is my safeguard against forgetting once more about the importance of humanity’s struggles and doing what I can to alleviate them, spiritually, physically, emotionally, materially, or intellectually. So thanks, Lord, for a faulty camera and a good, solid thump on the head for a wake-up call.

Evers' Home

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