Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2014

2014 marks the 10th Anniversary of the SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage. The eight-day bus journey takes students, faculty and staff to visit the American South’s civil rights landmarks and leaders in the movement. The group’s stops include Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas; the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama; Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King served as pastor; the campus of Ole Miss in Oxford; and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. King was assassinated.

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Why this does not grow old

An update from Dennis Simon, associate professor of political science:

This is my seventh year of serving as the faculty leader of the SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage. As we departed campus on Friday afternoon, I found myself thinking about why traveling for eight days over a welcomed spring break does not grow old. Why have I not become tired of this enterprise? After some travel and discussion time “on the road,” it becomes easy to answer the question.

First, I get to renew my partnership with Ray Jordan, whose title of trip coordinator drastically understates his role, contribution, and value to the pilgrimage. His many talents, including perspective and insight, never fail to impress the Pilgrims and make this journey far more than a tour of historical venues.

Second, I continue to learn. Each venue and the “stories” associated with those places are layered. Each visit takes me deeper into history to discover additional complexity and nuance. For example, there were over 200 black students who initially applied to attend Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The “powers that be” found this number to be far too large for their tastes. To pare down the list, they imposed the requirement that no black student would be permitted to participate in any extracurricular activities – be it sports, band, drama, music, or clubs. What a perversely ingenious method to limit the number of black students.

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Congresswoman Terri Sewell and Professor Dennis Simon in Selma, Ala., at a ceremony dedicating the Edmund Pettus Bridge as a National Historical Landmark.

Third, there is the family analogy. Our pilgrimage is different from a “tour” because of the people who meet with and speak to our group. Among those are Ms. Joanne Bland in Selma, Mr. Jake Jones along with the Graetz and Harris families in Montgomery, Mrs. Jewell McDonald in Philadelphia, Curtis Wilkie in Oxford, and Ms. Elaine Turner in Memphis. During our ride to Little Rock on Friday, Ray Jordan and I discovered we shared a perception – our journey is similar to a family vacation to visit beloved relatives. The people with whom we meet are part of an extended Pilgrim family and there is great anticipation in getting to experience, once again, their wisdom and insight.

Fourth are the students. I see the “impact” of the pilgrimage first-hand. I get to observe and interact with 36 individuals – different in so many ways –who, over the course of eight days, share a common experience and become a distinctive group – SMU Pilgrims. That experience will never grow old.

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