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.

‘You, too, can make a change’

Sylvia.jpg An update from Sylvia, a senior biological sciences major with a minor in education:

We shall overcome.

We shall overcome.

We SHALL overcome some day.

As we sang linked together in a circle, right arm over left, I begin to think about the journey thus far. Words began to flood my mind and tears came to my eyes as we sang this song in unison.

History.
Pain.
Courage.
Motivation.
Determination.
Forgotten.
Patience.
Patience.
Patience.

I could not get the word patience out of my head. The amount of patience each soldier involved in the movement exercised is immeasurable. It is also difficult to put into words how this experience has touched and changed my life; I certainly feel like it cannot be quantified.

Over the course of these past 5 days, we have met those who were involved, in varying capacities, during the civil rights movement. It has been such an honor that I could have never imagined. No one was bitter or angry, but more so encouraging and comforting. The love and enthusiasm that radiated out of each person we have met on this journey has been powerful. They want us, the 2010 pilgrims, to remember to do OUR BEST in all we do, NEVER give up, and fight for what we believe in.

Our tour guide while in Selma, JoAnne Bland, said, “You, too, can make a change, you just have to say something.” I have written down this statement, along with countless others, to hold me with me for the rest of my years.

Hopefully soon I will be able to find more words to express my feelings and the power of this journey throughout the Deep South. Until then …

We. Shall. Overcome.

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The SMU Coalition

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

Today we drove from Montgomery to Philadelphia, Mississippi. The Philadelphia of the South is not the Philadelphia that I grew up in and learned to love, but it’s interesting and by the end of the night earned my appreciation.

Along the way we watched the movie “Murder in Mississippi,” about three Civil Rights workers – two of them white – who were murdered just outside of Philadelphia. We stopped in front of Mount Zion United Methodist Church, which is at the top of a long dirt road in the middle of the woods.

I’ll admit, that drive is not an experience that I would be eager to repeat, regardless of the glory that was waiting at the other end. I cannot even begin to imagine making that trek alone at night like they did in the movie. One of the first things you see is a memorial to the three workers, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, who was only 20 when he was murdered.

The first person we heard speak once inside the church was Mayor James Young. He is Philadelphia’s first Black mayor. It was absolutely inspiring to hear him speak. He was so down-to-earth and really candid.

He said that one thing we forget about the heroes of the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s was that they had a tremendous amount of patience. They accepted the fact that the freedom they were seeking wasn’t going to come in a short amount of time, but they were willing to put in the required amount of work and wait for the results.

One of the problems with our generation is that we live in an instant society. “You microwave everything,” he said. “You don’t have time to be patient because you’re busy doing …” Personally, I know I am typically stressing out over how much I have to do. (Yes, I realize it’s counterproductive. It’s a problem that needs my attention.)

He went on to say that our generation deals with identity. We have to find out who we are to determine what to fight for.

Next we heard from two members of the Philadelphia Coalition, a group of citizens who organized as a response to the murder of the civil rights workers with the goal of demanding justice. They told us about where they were the night of the murders and how the murders affected them.

They were really young when the murders happened. One of them told us that she was supposed to get married a few months after the murders took place. She was afraid that the KKK would come and burn her house, so she ran and hid her clothes in a box in the chicken house across the yard from their house.

I don’t think I ever comprehended how intensely that type of racial hatred affected people’s lives. It extends far past the lunch counters and buses. Honestly, some days I don’t use either, and segregation sounds like more of an inconvenience, but the more I learn on the trip, the more I see how awful and flat-out wrong it truly was. I cannot even begin to imagine the strength of the people who were forced to endure it.

We closed the night with reflection over the last three days. We talked about what we were committed to or what we would change regarding the movement, which is still a work in progress.

After many of us spoke, Ray said that what he noticed was that we all needed to self-heal. The movement brought with it a great burden, and a lot of pain. One of the members of the Philadelphia Coalition dubbed us the SMU Coalition. “You’re making a change and you don’t even realize it,” he says.

We all stood in a circle and linked arms, right over left, the way they did at the strategy meetings back in the day, and in the church that held within its walls so much history, we sang the theme song of the Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome.”

I lack a vocabulary vast enough to describe the feeling in the room. People always talk about the power of numbers. From a strategic point of view, I get it. Your chances of success are greater if your size is larger, but tonight, I realize there is more to it than that.

The symbol of the Black Power movement is the raised fist. I read somewhere that it represented many individual fingers coming together to create something strong. That was the power I felt tonight. All of us coming from different backgrounds, different histories, different cultures and linking together creating something strong and something beautiful – this is the way things should be.

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Six words

Connie.jpg An update from Master of Liberal Studies student Connie:

In Montgomery, Alabama, there was a wonderful circular walkway behind the Parsonage where Martin Luther King, Jr. lived while he was the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

There were “words” in the cement in front of six benches. They were as follows: Unity. Understanding. Hope. Peace. Equality. Forgiveness.

(Photos below represent the words – except for “Forgiveness,” as this concept is an ongoing goal.)

c-Unity.jpg

UNITY

c-Understanding%20.jpg

UNDERSTANDING

c-Hope.jpg

HOPE (“Until justice rolls down like water, the struggle must continue.”)

c-Peace-2.jpg

PEACE

EQUALITY

Equality-1.jpg

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Replace lessons of hate with lessons of love

Jasmine.jpg An update from Jasmine, a sophomore majoring in psychology and Spanish:

Today is day five on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage. We visited the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy State University in Montgomery, Alabama. Once again the list of the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights movement is drastically widened.

Hearing the tales of the bus boycott, we learned the names of four females who were also monumental in the desegregation of public buses. Mary Louise Smith, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Aurelia S. Browder were each one of many African-Americans who refused to give up their seats as others boarded the bus months before Rosa Parks did the same.

While Rosa Parks served as the face of the movement, Browder vs. Gayle was the ruling that overturned the dehumanizing system of segregated seating. However, this case is not written in the textbooks, nor are the names of these women enshrined on any monuments as homage.

Then, there is the case of Medgar Evers, Jimmie Lee Jackson and other martyrs in the Civil Rights movement known as foot soldiers. All of these brave souls gave their lives for the revolution – and sparked key dates and events that helped make the Civil Rights Act possible. However, their stories are not in the textbooks.

In a day and age when violence plagues the public schools and African-American students struggle with ideals about their self-image (desperately trying to look more and more like the Anglo-American features that are accepted as beauty), why is this history hidden from them?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. changed the world and was a remarkable leader; Rosa Parks stood up for her rights and sparked a system of change. Their stories are well known in many schools. However, until the stories of the average men, women, teens and children of all shades and creeds who came together to stand up against hate are encompassed in the curriculum, the well-known leaders like Dr. King and Mrs. Parks shall continue to be “the Lone Ranger” pillars in the minds of students.

This, in turn, breeds the thought path that the Dixie monster of racism and segregation was defeated by a select handful of individuals, when in actuality it was overcome by the blood, tears and efforts of thousands of everyday individuals.

History reminds us that the dark, bloodthirsty hatred that stained the history of the Southern past was systematically taught; it did not occur overnight. Thus, the importance of a continual lesson of love and nonviolence – which many foot soldiers desperately fought for into their graves – should also be continually taught in order to reach the society of equality and tolerance in which we believe.

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Between fear and peace

Bethany.jpg An update from Bethany, a sophomore political science major:

No words can explain the past couple of days with my new 30-some odd friends. For once in my life, I am left full of emotions, but I remain incapable of identifying what I’m feeling.

Since our departure we have ventured through Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi, discovering the dark gloomy past of some of these frozen-in-time towns. As we traveled through unchartered lands, I was thrust back into the unknowing that plagued the ’50s and ’60s. Nothing was unchanged. The forest that lined the streets was crying out to me with the voices of those who disappeared while seeking refuge from evil. Chills and uncertainty have become commonplace, but peace is never too far off.

Today as we headed to Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, my body became overwhelmed with discomfort. For we had just finished watching “Murder in Mississippi,” and I knew what horrors had happened on the same road we traveled. I was shaken. I could just imagine how scared the three young men would have been. There was no protection, no safe haven.

As we stepped into the church I was immediately overtaken with peace. The residents and mayor of Philadelphia had such calmness about them that it began to radiate throughout the room.

This has been the case throughout the trip. The people in each town have embraced us with such hospitality. The sense of community, unity and hope has been prevalent. The history that they shared has been life-changing, and I will never be the same again. It was people who were my age and many times younger who changed America forever. It was their drive and persistence for a better future that made them put everything on the line for you and me.

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The risk of change

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

After spending the morning in the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery (a terrific visual display and a wealth of information), we loaded the bus for Philadelphia, Mississippi. On the way we watched a movie, “Murder in Mississippi,” telling the story of three slain civil rights workers in 1964: James Chaney, Micky Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, killed by Klan members. Chaney was an African-American man from Meridian, Mississippi, and the other two were white college students from New York. These men were helping black people register to vote.

One of the key scenes in the movie takes place at Mt. Zion Methodist (now United Methodist) Church, an African-American congregation east of Philadelphia and up a winding country road. James Chaney knew the area well and had been often to the church to encourage members to risk attempting to register and they agreed. They then were targeted by Klan members.

One night, as some church members attended a finance meeting, the Klan set up an ambush and several members were beaten. The mother and brother of Ms. Jewell, whom we met at the church, were beaten severely. Forty plus years later, her eyes still well with tears as she tells the story. Many of ours did, too.

Before Ms. Jewell spoke, we met the Honorable James Young, Mayor of Philadelphia, the city’s first African-American mayor. He had many interesting things to share, but in response to my question about the racial mix of the city (56 percent white and 42 percent African American, with a sizable percentage of Native American [Choctaw] as well), it became clear that he had won the election because he carried two of the three predominantly white-populated election districts. Big change.

Mayor Young made very clear that he intends to be and is everybody’s mayor – white, black, Native American or otherwise. He serves all people. He also made clear, however, the challenges involved. In response to one student’s question about trying to help people of his race, he asked in return (the student is African American), “If you own a company and 75 percent of the employees you hire are African American, are you helping your people?” And the question tagging along, but not spoken: would doing so be right or wrong? That’s a tough question.

Much of the talk at this gathering was about how Philadelphia is changing. To make changes, people have to make prior assessments of current conditions. How much has actually changed? How does one tell? What still needs to be done? What criteria will we use to decide? It requires careful interpretation, which has its own risks.

President Obama as Candidate Obama, for example, had to make strategic decisions about to what degree he would permit race to play a role in his campaign. Not that he would raise the issue (imagine the risk), but he had to know that people would ask him about it, and how he responded would be telling.

God bless the folk in Philadelphia. A citizens group of all races in the county have been working for years to bring the perpetrators of the murders in 1964 to justice. And they have been successful, even though it has taken a long, long time. They fully admit that they still have work to do, but they want us to know about the good will of the majority of the citizenry. We’re listening.

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The keepers of history

simon.jpg An entry from Dennis Simon, faculty leader from the Department of Political Science:

In the course of civil rights class and our journey, we meet numerous “keepers of history.” These are people whose lives and stories give life, in the here and now, to what we read and what we watch in our study of the civil rights movement. The importance of these “keepers” cannot be overstated. They influence how we think about and analyze the American history of the time. They were influential in the death of the “Jim Crow System.”

JoanneGroup.jpg The first photo shows the SMU pilgrims with four of these “keepers.” There is, of course, Joanne Bland. Reverend Rankin has written eloquently about her in his dispatch. Joanne selected the backdrop of this photo. “We just have to take a picture in front of the Plantation,” she said.

To her right is the aunt of our trip coordinator, Ray Jordan. She is known affectionately as “Aunt Stick.” From her we learned that segregation reached into the filing system of doctors. There were separate filing cabinets and medical files for black and white.

To the right in the first row are Coach Lawrence Huggins and his wife, both teachers in the segregated school system of Selma during the 1960s. “Coach Huggins” was a leader of the teachers’ march for voting rights, and there is a famous photograph of Sheriff Jim Clark, the symbol of Selma’s segregationists, shoving a baton into the abdomen of Mr. Huggins.

The second photo (below) is from our dinner in Montgomery. To the left in the bottom row are Reverend Robert Graetz and his wife, Jeannie Graetz. Reverend Graetz was a Lutheran minister in Montgomery during the bus boycott. He was one of the very first white ministers to participate in the boycott. His activism was not silent but open. As a result, the Graetz home was bombed twice during the months of the boycott.

To the right in the photo is Dr. Velda Montgomery and her mother, Mrs. Vera Harris. The Harris family lived on the same street as Dr. King and his family. Their history is the history of Montgomery. Their father and husband, a pharmacist, coordinated the drivers during the boycott. In 1961, the Harris family gave refuge to the Freedom Riders after they were beaten at the Montgomery bus station. In 1965, Dr. Montgomery joined the march from Selma to Montgomery.

These “keepers of history” give meaning to the accounts of historians. Their stories enrich and deepen our understanding of the times. Most importantly, their character, faith and willingness to share their experiences help us understand the inner strength required to kill Jim Crow.

GroupwithKeepers.jpg

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Another day of sheer beauty

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

Today we went to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The story behind that space is slightly ironic. You could say it started with the help of the Klan, but you see, that’s how rumors get started.

In actuality, the building of the center was catalyzed by the lynching of Michael Donald in 1981. Donald’s mother sued the Klan, and an all-white jury awarded her $8 million, which put the United Klan out of business. As a result they had to turn over their headquarters to Donald’s mother, because although they are rich in hate, they were lacking in funds.

When she realized that people from younger generations were virtually ignorant of the history and the foot soldiers of the movement, she donated the funds to SPLC and the Civil Rights Memorial Center.

Water is the recurring theme for the memorial. They chose water because so many victims of violent crimes of the movement were dumped in the river, and in a lot of cases, their history was erased. But 40 people, from the South specifically, were not. The Southern Poverty Law Center memorializes their names and stories.

The thing that hurts the most is that some of the murder victims were my age or younger – some of them were kids. One of the girls was changing clothes. She was smoothing out her hair when the bomb exploded in her church. A lot of them were doing things that I do everyday when hate ended their lives. I can’t help but think that it seems like they died for absolutely no reason.

We watched a movie that told their stories and provided more background on the memorial and the conditions. All I could think is that this is not the way life is supposed to be. You are not supposed to have to fight to be recognized as a human.

I read a book once that said when Jesus said to turn the other cheek he wasn’t saying to sit there and let people beat you up, but rather he was saying to turn and look them in the eye and force them to recognize in you the same humanity, the same value that they are so proud of. But even that doesn’t seem right. Should recognizing value in other human beings be an instinctual reaction?

The second part of the memorial center is the Wall of Tolerance. Putting your name on the wall is a lifetime commitment to speaking out against injustice. I began to think about my life and my career as a student and as an artist. I’ve spoken out some, but I can do more; I should have done more. I think my life is starting to take a different sort of direction, and it is not what I originally planned, but I am excited about the future.

3hands%20.jpg The final part is the memorial itself. There is a fountain with the name of the 40 Southern histories the water did not drown out. Of all five senses, touch is my favorite. I ran my fingers along the grooves made by the names, and it felt like I was touching the impression they made in history – but then I suppose every time I exhale, every time I hug or shake hands with someone, anyone, I’m touching their impact.

Later that day we went to the parsonage where Dr. King and his family stayed while he was Senior Pastor of Dexter Ave Baptist Church. The house is virtually the same as it was when the Kings stayed there.

One of my favorite moments of the trip was when we were in the King kitchen. Our tour guide, who was a member of the church when Dr. King was there, turned off the lights, and we re-created the scene that King talks about during his epiphany, and we listened to a reproduction of Dr. King giving the speech.

I love the fact that he has such an epiphany over a cup of coffee. Martin knew. His voice sounds like music, it’s melodic and visceral, and I promise you this, before my career is up I will have created a dance to it.

Hope-1.jpg Outside of the house there is a reflection garden. There were six stones with the major themes to which Dr. King devoted his life: equality, peace, hope, understanding, unity and forgiveness. I sat on the bench marked with hope because it seemed to be the most appropriate description of how I was feeling. I am so blessed to find myself in this position, with these people, at this time. That is all that I can say, just blessed.

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A commitment to justice

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

Montgomery is 50-some miles and years apart from Selma. Known as the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement, it shows what a historical low employment (3-4 percent just two years ago) can do for a community.

A day is spent touring the significant landmarks and places of the movement … from the spot where Jefferson Davis was declared president of the Confederacy, to where slaves were first gathered and sold, to Dr. King’s home and church.

Our first stop is the one I was really looking forward to … the Southern Poverty Law Center. According to the organization, the SPLC is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry for the most vulnerable members of our society. Using litigation, education and other forms of advocacy, the Center works toward the day “when the ideas of equal justice will be a reality.”

photo-12.jpg The Center also honors the memory of the individuals who died during the Civil Rights Movement. At the center, your tour guide clearly points out that during the Civil Rights Movement, a revolution took place in America. You not only feel it but walk from the center believing it and maybe understanding it a little better. (In photos: The Civil Rights Memorial honors 40 who died and chronicles the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Visitors are encouraged to touch the name of each martyr in the slow-moving water.)

photo-11.jpg Before leaving, the SPLC representative asked us to make a commitment to work in our daily lives for justice, equality and human rights – the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement. A Wall of Tolerance records the names of people who made that commitment … many of us did.

photo-10.jpg After lunch at Alabama State University, which is a historically black university, we visit the Dexter Parsonage Museum and the house where Dr. King and his family lived from 1954 to 1960 in the area known as Centennial Hill. (In photo: Dr. King led this church from 1954 to 1960, the only church he served as the pastor.)

It was a small but beautifully handcrafted home with many of the original pieces of furniture displayed in several rooms of the house. The front porch shows a large crack and small crater where a bomb was thrown and exploded, setting off a hostile response by Dr. King’s neighbors that he was able to calm down and send them peacefully back to their houses. We also got to see the actual kitchen table where one late night he was ready to quit, and after prayer and meditation he continued the struggle.

The world is a much better place because he did.

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The foot soldiers’ stories

Amy.jpg An update from Amy, a senior majoring in political science and Spanish:

It is only day four of the Pilgrimage, and I feel as if I already have a book’s worth of history from the foot soldiers of the movement. We spent the last two days in Montgomery, Alabama, talking with the Rev. Robert and Jeannie Graetz and the Harris family. On the night of the first discussion, everyone was leaning in their chairs to get every word these historymakers had to say.

It was an honor to be introduced to the Harris family and hear how they contributed to Freedom Summer by secretly housing the Freedom Riders in Alabama. We are acquainted with the common faces of the movement, but I soon recognized that the movement was thousands of people.

Hearing the Harris’ history, I thought it very interesting to compare it to the Selma history. Dr. Velda Montgomery’s experience when she was 8 years old, wondering why her parents housed 40 to 50 people for a couple of weeks, in contrast to Joanne’s experience as an 8-year-old, arrested at the steps of the Selma Courthouse, fighting for the right to vote.

Through the Pilgrimage thus far, I have seen several perspectives of foot soldiers who contributed to different aspects of the movement. Each fought for the overarching goal of human equality and the end of discrimination. As Dr. Montgomery said during the discussion, the movement could be described in one word: unity. The movement involved everyone – black, white, child, parent, pastor, pharmacy store owner, etc. – who all came together for a common cause.

I have seen and heard so much already, but there’s even more with the second half of the Pilgrimage. Onward to Philadelphia, Mississippi!

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