Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2010

During Spring Break 2010, students, faculty and staff are taking an eight-day bus ride to the American South’s civil rights landmarks, with stops in Little Rock, Arkansas; Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama; Jackson and Oxford, Mississippi; and Memphis, Tennessee. They will be led by Ray Jordan of the Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life; Dennis Simon, associate professor of political science in Dedman College; and junior Linwood Fields, a political science and English major who participated in the 2009 pilgrimage.

More mountains to move

Alexandra.jpg An update from Alexandra, a first-year English major, with minors in history and human rights:

The last museum of the trip was Soulsville, USA - The Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The museum was a refreshing breath after a week of soaking myself in the blood-stained history of America’s civil rights struggle.

One of the exhibits in the museum described the Stax artists as powerfully raw musicians, which is why the term “Soul music” made so much sense. The museum also told me that Soul music was deeply influenced by the gospel songs of the black churches. Now that was something I understood completely … Music seems to unwrap the heart in a way that spoken word can’t.

One of my favorite songs is “My Soul Cries” by Misty Edwards (a worship leader at the International House of Prayer in Kansas City), and it speaks of exposing the deepest desires of the heart. The Civil Rights Movement is so powerful because it was so genuine. It came from the deep desire of the heart for justice … for hope. To understand the depth of the Movement, I had to stare it in the face. I couldn’t read it in a textbook, I had to hear it. I had to hear the stories, I had to hear the songs, and I had to stand on the sacred ground where everyday heroes walked.

So far, every time I have told someone about my trip, I have told them that it changed my life. I can tell they don’t really understand what I mean even though I try to explain it … because it’s hard to explain. How do you tell someone that you developed a deeper hunger for life? That you were ground farther into your resolve for making a difference in the world? That within the course of one week, humanity’s deep longing for freedom finally made sense to you? That the passion in the souls of the foot soldiers grabbed ahold of your heart? That your faith was strengthened because you saw what it could actually do? The faith of Dr. King … the faith of Rev. Graetz … that same faith lives in me. That faith moved a mountain of injustice, and there are still more mountains to move.

I believe wholeheartedly that my spring break was spent in the best way possible … in a true journey of the soul.

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My ‘aha’ moment

Chrysta%20Brown.jpg An update from Chrysta, a senior dance performance major, with a human rights minor:

You know what has always irked me until this day? The song “Ooh Child.” Does it bother anyone else that the song is so happy? The words to the song, the time in which it was written, have always seemed to contradict its rather catchy and optimistic beat. But today it all became clear. Call it an “aha moment” if you want.

C1.JPG Today one of the guys on the trip, Ron, pulled some strings and got us free donuts from a shop called Donutso. Let it be known, I’m a bit of a donut snob. I don’t eat just anyone’s donuts, and I will drive miles to get good ones. It was so much fun. All of us were sitting together in the tiny donut shop eating AMAZING donuts and cheering for SMU. It’s a small matter to make us so happy, but if you think about it, this couldn’t have happened fifty years ago.

“Ooh Child,” was playing when we got back on the bus and it felt so authentic. I think it may have been written after a moment like this.

c2.JPG Further into the day we went to the Stax Museum, which is the Soul Music Museum. Isaac Hayes’ mess of a vehicle is in there. It has custom-made wheels, gold design, a white furry interior, a refrigerator, and a mini television. It was a mess, but I’m not mad at him. The Stax was really cool for a number of reasons. All of these people are artists, and I was able to see how they used their craft to catalyze social change during the Movement. It was really encouraging and inspiring to see that, even if I’m coming at change from a different artistic avenue.

Secondly, all throughout this trip, I’ve been saying how proud I am of my Black predecessors and all of the people who fought for Civil Rights. Today, it clicked: I’m one of them. So is everyone on the trip. So, in addition to being proud of the people who came before us, I’m proud of us. By coming on this trip we did a really beautiful thing, and I have no doubt that we will leave the road behind us glittering with beautiful and meaningful moments.

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Walking the path of change

Emerald.JPG An update from Emerald, a senior studio art major:

“You cannot know where you are going, until you know where you have been.”

As I read those words on the poster, I began to reflect on my experience on this trip. It’s hard to put into words just how amazing and life-altering this trip has been for me. Having the opportunity to hear the many untold stories from people who lived in a time of unjust laws and harsh treatment was a good experience as well as a sad one.

Being able to witness the stories of those who proudly fought for equality saddens me only because many of their stories go untold. Many in my generation do not know the other civil rights leaders and groups like the foot soldiers in Alabama or Medgar Evers or the three men who lost their lives in Philadelphia, Mississippi, trying to help blacks have the same rights to vote.

I have been to eight cities this week and have learned so much history. The greatest words I heard came from our many guest speakers. When our speakers were asked why they fought for equality and justice for all, without hesitation they said, “I did it for you.” They fought for the generations that would come after them so that we could live without limitations.

The other day, the group’s reflection conversation led to the discussion of how committed the people who lived in the civil rights movement were to ensure that life would get better for all if they continued to fight for rights. The group was later asked, what are we willing to commit to in today’s society to continue the fight for complete equality?

I did not say anything that day, because I was not sure. However, today I feel that the biggest committment I could make is telling everyone what I witnessed on this trip. Telling the stories of the people I have met and showing their faces from the photos I have with them. This experience has changed me and I am ready to walk on the path of change, and maybe, just maybe, I can make a difference, like those before me.

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Thank you!

Gavanne.JPG An update from Gavanne, a junior chemistry major, with minors in sociology and business:

I am finally able to put a face to so many names I’ve learned since when I was a little kid. Growing up, I was only able to scratch the surface of great African-American leaders, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Since then, I have had this huge void in my storyline as far as who I am and where I came from. This trip has not only filled that hole, but it is now overflowing.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to meet so many freedom fighters who fought physically and mentally for me to have a peaceful life. I was able to finally tell someone “Thank You!” Thank you for thinking of me while fighting for justice and equality for all people.

As the trip begins to wind down, we took a break to hang out on Beale Street. We found an exciting place that had karaoke and live music! As we began to dance and sing with the other people inside the hang-out spot, I looked around at all of the faces. I saw blacks, whites, Hispanics and everything in between. It was so beautiful I began to tear up. It was then that I realized, “This is what they died for. This is the life they dreamed for all of us to enjoy!”

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Where the world lost Dr. King

Chrysta%20Brown.jpg An update from Chrysta, a senior dance performance major, with a human rights minor:

c3.JPG Today we visited the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the location where Dr. King was shot. The hotel has been turned into the national Civil Rights Museum. This was an amazing experience; however, as one of my fellow pilgrims pointed out, the title is wrong. The museum limits its history to only Black Americans, beginning in 1619, with the first shipment of slaves into America, and focuses primarily on the Southern involvement.

By some stroke of divine blessing, Ray Jordan found a man in the museum who was one of the founding members of SNCC. His name was Aaron Johnson. He took the time and spoke to us. He said that the Civil Rights movement was not just a movement for Black people. He said that it was so an integrated group like ours could go on a trip like this. He told us to remember how fragile justice and equality are, and as hard as his generation fought to earn it, we had to fight just as hard to keep it.

He had just published a book and stayed behind to sign them. I told him I was a dance major and he wrote in mine, “As a young student, you are majoring in dance. Dancing speaks movement and joy. I pray that you will move the world forward. It is in you.” I felt completely validated as a dancer and a person when I read that. He was such a lovely man.

I walked through the museum, and I was surprised and happy at how many of the names I knew, many of them only because of this class and this trip. I followed the path to the room where Martin Luther King Jr. was staying his last night alive. I walked slowly, mentally asking so many questions. What would have happened if Martin had exercised his legal right to stay in the hotel across town in the white neighborhood? He had earned it. Why didn’t he fight it when they told him to leave? Why didn’t he get a different room at the Lorraine? Why did he take the time to drink a cup of coffee, and could he have escaped death if he would have taken his coffee black instead of polluting it with cream and sugar? What would have happened if they had told Mahalia Jackson to sing “Precious Lord” the night before?

I created a scenario in which he went inside to get a jacket, spilled coffee on his shirt and had to change, by the time he was ready to re-emerge, the assassin had gotten bored and lazy and walked out on his opportunity. There was something inside of me that tried desperately to find a way to prevent his death. But in the end it was only wishful thinking about a past that could not be changed. Hate ruins lives.

If I’ve learned nothing else from this trip I walk away with that. I looked out of the window to the spot on the balcony where he fell. There’s a stain on the ground. I don’t know if it was blood, rust, debris from construction, or maybe an image that my mind created, but that was it for me. It had started to rain. I put my fingertips on the window, and God and I cried together.

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“The Times They Are a-Changin’ “

RonCivilRightsPilgrimage.jpg An update from Master of Liberal Studies student Ron:

We are on our way to Oxford, Mississippi, and the University of Mississippi.

I was 12 years old when James Meredith was admitted to Ole Miss, and for some reason it was one of the events I remember the most from the 1960s. Maybe because I can remember watching it on TV with my mom and remember her saying over and over, “This is so wrong.”

On October 1, 1962, Meredith became the first black student at the University of Mississippi after being barred from entering in the fall of 1961. His enrollment, firmly opposed by segregationist Governor Ross Barnett, sparked riots on the Oxford campus and required enforcement by U.S. Marshals and later by U.S. Army military police, the Mississippi Army National Guard and the U.S. Border Patrol. (In photo: In the fall of 1961 Meredith was blocked by the Governor of Mississippi from entering this Ole Miss building.)

photo-15.jpg Today, Ole Miss has over 12,000 undergraduates, with an African-American population of over 15 percent. It is home to the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. The Institute’s mission is to “foster reconciliation and civic renewal wherever people suffer as a result of racial discrimination or alienation, and promote scholarly research, study and teaching on race and the impact of race and racism.”

We hear about the institute’s wonderful work from Executive Director Susan Glisson and visiting professor Rita Bender, who is Michael Schwerner’s widow. Mrs. Bender is there with her husband to teach a class on the true horrors and suffering African-Americans endured under segregation.

So have things really changed at Ole Miss? It looked and sounded like it. And a lot of the credit from Ms. Glisson went to SMU’s own Dr. R. Gerald Turner, who was Chancellor of Ole Miss from 1984 to 1995.

One example, their mascot. Ole Miss’ sports teams are known as the Ole Miss Rebels. Their mascot was Colonel Reb, who was officially retired from the university in 2003 because of negative connotations with the Old South. The school in 1997 ended the waving of Confederate flags at sporting events. Several possible mascots have been suggested and are currently being voted on by Ole Miss students.

The No. 1 vote getter?

Admiral Ackbar, whose credentials as a rebel include being leader of the Rebel Alliance in the fictional “Star Wars” universe.

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Catching the spirit

Alexandra.jpg An update from Alexandra, a first-year English major, with minors in history and human rights:

The highlight of this trip has been getting the chance to meet some of the most amazing people I’ve ever known. Don’t get me wrong, the museums and tours have been wonderful, but they don’t seem to compare to the look in these people’s eyes and the strength that radiates from them.

I am truly in awe of the rich heritage we’ve gotten a chance to be a part of … the passion of a few individuals that challenges the very foundations of my thoughts. These foot soldiers and eyewitnesses really believed in something … they fought for something. Each one has both a story and a message for us.

The best part about history coming alive in a trip like this is the empowerment that it brings to your heart. Hearing the stories doesn’t just cement events in your mind or put a face to the words that you’ve been reading … history becomes contagious.

Listening to Rita Bender and her husband tonight (Rita is the widow of one of the three civil rights activists who were murdered in 1964 in Philadelphia, Mississippi) made me realize that the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t just an event that people participated in … it wasn’t a meeting to attend or a boycott to follow or a leader to listen to … it was a way of life.

People had a resolve in their hearts that they weren’t going to tolerate the injustice anymore. They made up their minds that they were going to change something – and keep on changing somethings for as long as they could. Those civil rights activists are STILL civil rights activists … they are parceling out that energy to anyone who will pick up the mantle. They keep looking me in the eye and telling me not to be silent – to change something. They insist that it’s my time now, and what am I going to do about that?

I want that kind of passion and drive in my life. I want to catch the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. I’ve lived my entire life learning how to be passionate about Christ and how to be excited for my future and the people whose lives I want to touch – but why should my only passion be to know Christ more? Why can’t it be to change the world? Maybe putting feet to my faith is a whole lot simpler than I thought it was. Maybe I was born to shake something.

Because I cannot do everything,
I will not neglect to do the something I can do.

- Helen Keller

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The mystery of iniquity

22936D_038.jpg An update from University Chaplain Stephen Rankin, who also is writing on his blog:

Today, on the penultimate day of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, we spent some time in the Archives at the University of Mississippi library. We’re here in Oxford because of the James Meredith story. He was the first African American to attend Ole Miss (1962), and it took a federal court order and military support to make it happen. Since those days, Ole Miss has made significant strides in leading for racial reconciliation.

The director of the archives gave an informative presentation, using lots of primary source documents from the archives. One piece particularly caught my attention. A mimeographed biblical “exposition” from the Klan about why races should be segregated, i.e. “what the Bible says” about race.

The paper listed several scriptures from the Old Testament. As I scanned the verses, I thought about how it is possible for people so badly to misread scripture. The history of the use of the Bible in antebellum arguments is a complex one in itself. Mark Noll, well-known historian of Christianity, has written has written extensively on this point.

Reading these verses today reminds me of how our own current particular contexts strongly help to shape the way we read scripture. It is no secret that even among Christians who take the most traditional view, there can be wide disagreement on particular passages, even when everyone believes fully that the Bible is God’s Word. I am not engaging in a counsel of despair. I’m simply acknowledging that biblical interpretation is not as straightforward as it sometimes seems.

That point acknowledged, I’m still amazed at how segregationist Christians could read the Bible as they did. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:3 about tearing down strongholds and taking every thought captive to Christ. In 2 Thessalonians 2 he refers to the “mystery of lawlessness,” or, as earlier English versions had it, the “mystery of iniquity.” Off and on I ponder these phrases for what light they shed on the brute fact that sincere people can be sincerely wrong and sometimes in truly chilling ways.

The more distance we have between our own feelings and values and whatever topic of discussion we’re engaging, the more “rational” and objective we can appear to be. The more our own feelings and values are caught up in the issue – the more at stake we have – the harder it is to be detached and “rational.” And here the mystery of iniquity enters.

I come to the end of this day of the pilgrimage thinking about the mystery of iniquity that twists otherwise good people into upholding certain ideas and convictions that are truly reprehensible. As I think about what the archivist showed us today, it’s easy for me to put extreme distance between myself and the segregationist Christians who thought the Bible really taught what they thought it taught.

And then I remember that that same mystery works in me as well, not on race, but on some other issue on which I perhaps feel vulnerable and threatened. We must always remember this propensity in the human heart. Lord, have mercy on us.

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41 years later: justice

RonCivilRightsPilgrimage.jpg An update from Master of Liberal Studies student Ron:

Our day started at the Rosa Parks Museum operated by Troy University. Most of the tour guides in Montgomery greet you at the first of their talk and say “Welcome to the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.”

photo-13.jpg With all the wonderful people who did so many significant things in the struggle against segregation, I asked, why do Montgomerians think their home is the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement? Their answer: Rosa Parks. Enough said.

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks, age 42, refused to obey bus driver James Blake’s order that she give up her seat to make room for a white passenger – which at that time was a local city ordinance that blacks would have to give up their seats to let whites sit in the front of the bus. (In photo, the bus stop where Rosa Parks boarded.)

Parks’ act of defiance became an important symbol of the modern Civil Rights Movement, and Parks became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation. It also launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a watershed moment in the struggle to gain equal rights for all Americans.

photo-14.jpg From Montgomery we headed to Philadelphia, Mississippi, in Neshoba County to meet with Jewell McDonald at the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church (photo left). We also got to meet Fenton DeWeese, a member of the Philadelphia Coalition and my daughter’s father-in-law’s first cousin (that small world thing.) If you have seen the movie “Mississippi Burning,” you may know the Hollywood version of the story.

On June 21, 1964, three young civil rights workers were murdered in Neshoba County. The trio had come here to investigate the burning of the Mt. Zion Methodist Church in the Longdale community off of Mississippi 16 east. The night the church was burned, parishioners were beaten, some severely – including Mrs. McDonald’s mother and father.

The murders of Michael Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Goodman, 20, were part of a plot hatched by the Lauderdale County unit of the Ku Klux Klan and carried out by members of the Neshoba County unit. The civil rights workers were part of a broader national movement that hoped to begin a voter registration drive in the area, part of the Mississippi Summer Project that became known as Freedom Summer.

On June 20, 2004, the Philadelphia Coalition and the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church hosted a 40th anniversary memorial for Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. At the 2 p.m. service at the Neshoba County Coliseum, the Coalition read its resolution calling for justice in the case:

Forty years ago, on June 21, 1964, three young men, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered in Neshoba County by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

The state of Mississippi has never brought criminal indictments against anyone for these murders – an act of omission of historic significance. There is, for good and obvious reasons, no statute of limitations on murder. This principle of law holds that anyone who takes the life of another person for any reason not provided by law is never immune from prosecution, no matter how remote in time.

With firm resolve and strong belief in the rule of law, we call on the Neshoba County District Attorney, the state Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Justice to make every effort to seek justice in this case. We deplore the possibility that history will record that the state of Mississippi, and this community in particular, did not make a good faith effort to do its duty.

We state candidly and with deep regret that some of our own citizens, including local and state law enforcement officers, were involved in the planning and execution of these murders. We are also cognizant of the shameful involvement and interference of state government, including actions of the State Sovereignty Commission, in thwarting justice in this case.

Finally, we wish to say to the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, that we are profoundly sorry for what was done in this community to your loved ones. And we are mindful of our responsibility as citizens to call on the authorities to make an effort to work for justice in this case. Continued failure to do so will only further compound the wrong.

We, the undersigned, call on those in authority to use every available resource and do all things necessary to bring about a just resolution to this case.

In 2005, a Neshoba County jury found Edgar Ray Killen guilty in the brutal deaths of civil rights activists. That trial, and the community organizing that helped prompt it, were important steps toward justice and reconciliation. In 2006, the group successfully lobbied for a bill establishing a law that requires Civil Rights history to be taught in all public schools.

The great work of the Philadelphia Coalition continues today and is helping the local community, the state of Mississippi and maybe even the country begin to heal after decades of segregation and suffering.

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No justification for hatred

Chrysta%20Brown.jpg An update from Chrysta, a senior dance performance major, with a human rights minor:

I have a problem.

Today we visited the archives library at Ole Miss. Because of their history of race-related conflict, Ole Miss has made a severe attempt to gather the tangible history of their conflict-related past. The woman in charge, curator perhaps is the right word, Jennifer Ford, pulled together a few items from their collection, items from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

This series included a few postcards. I tried to imagine receiving one of them. I became angry at the hypothetical friend that I created for such a situation. I had a long and angry speech prepared in the event that this imaginary friend ever materialized beginning with, “Have you lost your ever-loving, God-forsaken mind?!” and ended with, “Walk away.” These postcards portrayed caricatures of African Americans smiling stupidly, stealing watermelon, being lazy. The kicker, the postcard was signed with the word “love.” Tell me, where was love in that?

Further down the table we came to the religious section. I’ll say it again because I don’t think you got it, THE RELIGIOUS SECTION. I placed in my hands pamphlets with titles such as, “The Christian View on Racial Segregation,” and “Racial Segregation and Love,” and “Biblical Justification for Racial Segregation.” Let me tell you what I know about Christianity. I’ll tell you that Jesus says that the greatest commandments are love the God and love your neighbor. I’ll tell you that Jesus said to love your enemies. I’ll tell you that the Bible says, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have life abundantly.” (John 3:16 – emphasis added to make a point that I think God himself made blatantly clear.) So as for this Biblical justification for hatred … to my unknown predecessors I ask, What Bible were you reading?

Before this moment, I never really realized how convenient it was that Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy and many of the participants of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s were Christians. How ironic is it that this battle for Civil Rights was fought between a group of people who claimed to love God, who were commanded to love their neighbors and their enemies?

I realized the flaws in the logic that had governed my life and determined to make the change. We are all just people, all deserving of God’s love, all deserving of each other’s love.

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