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.

Teaching tolerance

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

Today one of our stops was the Southern Poverty Law Center. It was a special visit for me because I have grown up hearing from my mother about how critical the center was in fighting hate, teaching tolerance and seeking justice for past wrongs.

As a dedicated activist for many causes, I always wondered why she was so devoted to this particular organization. I began to understand as I walked through the doors. A moving tribute to those who have fought and died for equal rights, it remains evident that we have more to do. Ironically, as hate and intolerance continue to rise, the need for educational facilities like these are more necessary than ever.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
– The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Rainy day, sunny people

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

It’s a sappy title for a blog, but it just seems to fit.

Our trip’s leaders asked us to notice and ponder the contrast between Selma and Montgomery, only 54 miles apart. Beyond size (Selma is about 20,000 and Montgomery, 200,000), Selma visibly struggles while Montgomery fairly shines. It’s the state capital, but other factors play into the picture. Although today has been gloomy in terms of weather, the people we have met, colleagues of Dr. King and leaders in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, have been testaments of grace (divine and human) and courage.

Last night we met Mrs. Harris and her daughter Dr. Valda Montgomery. Mrs. Harris’ husband, a pharmacist, owned and operated Dean’s Drugstore, the command center of the Bus Boycott in 1955. The Graetzes – Rev. Robert and Jean – were the white clergy family for an African-American Lutheran congregation. Their house was firebombed during those violent days, but they stood alongside Dr. King and the others. We heard, naturally, a good deal about Rosa Parks today, and we went to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the one congregation Dr. King pastored before going full-time as leader of the movement.

I was most taken with their descriptions of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, although they also talked about housing the Freedom Riders in 1961. The Boycott took place in 1955 and is considered one of the absolutely central events in the formation of the modern Civil Rights movement. The story is well-known. Rosa Parks would not give up her seat to a white man and got arrested for her action. She was removed from the bus and taken to jail. The boycott ensued.

Almost 50,000 black people lived in Montgomery at the time and, through the network of churches and pastors in the city, they agreed no longer to ride the buses. Imagine the risk of losing one’s job for committing to such a daring move. The people organized themselves. Those with cars volunteered to chauffeur people to and from work. Many people simply walked to and from work. The people gathered and collected funds to help with gasoline costs. They even raised enough money to buy some station wagons to serve as taxis. With the command center at Dean’s Drugstore, the boycott leaders created a network of transportation support, and for over a year, the people stayed off those buses. It worked in dramatic fashion.

An amazing feat pulled off by some amazing people, and not without some seriously fearful moments. We heard of hateful phone calls in the middle of the night, of threats and firebombings. The people we talked to shared how, in spite of feeling understandable fear in the worst times, they also felt the strengthening, providing presence of God. And each other.

One nostaligic side note for me: I’m a preacher’s kid who grew up in parsonages. When we stepped into the home that had been the Kings’ parsonage for Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, I felt as if I had stepped into some place I had once lived. A small frame home tastefully furnished with ’50s-era pieces, most of which had literally been in the house when the Kings had inhabited it. I laughed to myself at the Melmac table settings on the kitchen table.

It was a most enjoyable trip down memory lane. But what sticks with me the most at the end of this day is the courage and grace of the boycotters.

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Meeting Joanne

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

Probably the key feature of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage is to put human faces on “issues.” Joanne Bland is one such face. She led our tour of Selma with drill sergeant-esque precision (she actually had a career in the military). She was gruff and blunt and intimidating … and then she would smile a kind of wry smile and give us a kind of sideways look. One of the women in our group had lots of questions on the walking tour. Joanne started saying, “Where’s that nosy woman?” and then take her off for a brief sidebar explanation.

It would be easy to wonder at first why Joanne still seems angry. After all, she fully acknowledges how much better things are for black people, even though she knows there’s much more to do. But then, it doesn’t take long to understand why.

The Voting Rights Museum showed, among numerous other things, the African Americans who served in the U.S. Congress after the Civil War and before states began concocting legislation to prevent black people from sharing in the political process. (Dennis Simon told me that roughly 20 such persons had served in Congress between 1876 and 1900.) Real progress and then horrendous setbacks that lasted two generations. Numerous other such moments happened during the day.

We also learned that Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965) didn’t stop once the marchers were beaten back across the bridge. Joanne told us that the beatings lasted all night long. People huddled and hid in the two churches (Brown Chapel and First Baptist) where the organizing had been done. If I remember correctly, Joanne said that she was 11 years old at the time and she was one of the marchers on the bridge.

In 1963, two years and more before the Voting Rights Act was passed, people in Selma made regular trips to the courthouse to register to vote, only to be turned away and often arrested (there were city ordinances about the number of black people that could congregate publicly at one time).

I had been forewarned about Joanne. She brooks no fools, and she’s clearly in charge of the tour. Sometimes she rubs people the wrong way (she knows it and doesn’t much care). But she also said more than once, “I’m not where I was, but I’m also not where I need to be.”

In free moments yesterday, I found my mind returning to the same set of questions. I’m white, but a “northerner.” I grew up with parents who taught us not to be prejudiced – all people are created in God’s image. By the time I went to college, I had very little experience in racially mixed settings (except those 6 years in Texas as a boy). I didn’t want to be prejudiced, and wasn’t, in a sense, but still had some of the goofy stereotypes.

All that to say, as I listened to Joanne, something inside me wanted to insist, “This problem was not my problem. Bad white people did this, but not all white people did it.” I felt myself wanting to distance myself from the problem. Which is part of the problem. And a typical one for white people.

Montgomery is quite different from Selma. More to come.

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“Trail of tears”

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

This morning we toured the National Voting Rights Museum at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge heading out of Selma to Montgomery. This is probably where many of the Alabama troopers parked their cars and horse trailers preparing to block the marchers to Montgomery on Bloody Sunday.

Dr. Simon and Ray Jordan say there is always an “ah hah” moment for you on this trip. Don’t know whether this was my “ah hah” day, but it had to be pretty close.

Growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s near Kansas City, Missouri, most of my white community friends thought segregation was morally wrong and would walk away when someone told a racist joke or story and shake their head. But what they never understood was the “Black Pride” African-Americans spoke about. After my tour at the museum yesterday, it finally made sense to me.

photo-9.jpg At the museum there are hundreds of photos depicting many of the marches and confrontations the Civil Rights foot soldiers and leaders endured. The photos seem to glare back at you as you see people pushed and shoved, beaten and attacked by police dogs … many with blood running down their faces, some lifting the caskets of dead comrades. (In photo: Viola Liuzzo was a white civil rights activist from Michigan and mother of five, who was murdered by Ku Klux Klan members after the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March on Highway 80.)

It is pretty simple, really, to understand once you think about it. Just as the majority of Americans believe we should always honor members of the Armed Services for protecting our freedom, African-Americans feel the same need to thank their brothers and sisters who fought for their rights and freedom from the pain and suffering of segregation. And they want to make sure their children and their children’s children never forget, as well.

As we left for Montgomery and took the same route Dr. King and the marchers took, Dr. Simon read the following by Amanda Barbour, an MLS student and participant in the 2009 SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage:

Driving or riding – as the case may be
Down the road from Selma to Montgomery
Is something of a trail of tears experience for me

I look at the two lane highway with its grassy median
And try to image the rich soil beneath
The Black Belt soil
And the sharecroppers who once picked cotton here day in and day out

I stare down the road
Imagining thousands of marchers
Making their way on a wide dirt road

I see tent cities and determination
Conjure visions of the outstretched masses
Gaining to some 20,000 by the time they reached Montgomery
They are singing freedom songs

In these individuals bound together
Is the richness of the Black Belt soil
The kind of foundation, firmament
From which good things grow

It was nearly silent on our trip to Montgomery.

photo-8.jpg That evening we got to meet with people Ray Jordan called “true royalty of the Civil Rights movement”: the Rev. Robert Graetz and his wife, and Vera Harris and her mother (in photo). The Rev. Graetz in 1955 was sent to Montgomery by the American Lutheran Church to serve an all-black congregation. Dr. Graetz was a leader in the Montgromery Bus Boycott. Vera Harris’ father secretly housed all of the Freedom Riders passing through Montgomery on their way to Jackson.

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The power of “everyday” people

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

We were still in Selma today. We checked out the Voting Rights Museum. I feel a little angry with pretty much every American History teacher I’ve ever had. How have I gone through my entire life, and this semester is the first time I’ve ever heard about John Langston and Joseph Rainey, Black government officials elected in the 1800s? I feel like that’s a very valuable piece of history. It is a piece of information that I might have liked to know. I went to take pictures of them, and the overly excited facial recognition mechanism on my camera recognizes their faces as people. So why, pray tell, doesn’t history?

We had a tour with Miss Joanne Bland. She gave a tour of Selma and has lived there for most of her life and participated in the marches on Bloody Sunday, to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and to Selma. I’m pretty sure she said she was 11 at the time. She is a force. Jasmine, one of the girls on the trip asked Miss Bland, if she felt that things have changed since the ’60s. “Look at everyone on this bus,” Miss Bland said. “Have things changed?”

One of the most memorable moments was when she had us walk to the spot where they met before they began the first march on March 7. She had us each of us pick up a rock. She used those rocks to tell us the stories of the “remembers” of the march, including her own. She told us to take the rock and put it in a place where we could see it. She said whenever we felt insignificant, or that we couldn’t do anything, to remember the power of the “everyday people.”

We toured some more and then took a break for lunch at a soul food restaurant called Essie’s. I was worried that I wouldn’t have anything to eat because I’m a vegetarian. On my dad’s side, pretty much everything, even the vegetables, is made with meat. But there are a whole lot of people who love me and, as the Good Book suggests, I tasted and saw that the food … I mean, Lord, was good. 🙂

Next we drove through Lowndes County, which is considered the birthplace of the Black Panthers. We also drove by a cotton field, which was next to the woods. The whole scene was eerie, even more so because we made that leg of the journey in almost complete silence.

We stopped by Viola Liuzzo’s grave. She was killed by klansmen while driving people from Selma to Montgomery. There is a gate surrounding her grave to protect her from vandalism because they couldn’t protect her from death. I held on the bars of the gate for what seemed like quite a while. The wind was blowing really softly, and it was very peaceful. For reasons I cannot explain I felt a connection to Ms. Liuzzo. I looked up into heaven and sent her a “thank you” before getting on the bus.

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Crossing bridges

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

The T-shirt said, “Rosa sat so that Martin could walk. Martin walked so that Barack could run. Barack ran so that our children can fly.” I’m almost never a fan of T-shirt slogans, but this one really hits home.

We stood in a crowd outside Brown Chapel AME Church waiting for the commemorative walk to begin. This is where it had all started 45 years ago on March 7, 1965. The first march didn’t make it very far. The third march, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., did.

Today, when all the congresspersons and other famous people (Terrence Howard) had made their way to their places, the walk began. We left Brown’s Chapel, headed south a block, turned west to downtown and south on Broad Street. The bridge over the Alabama River loomed in the distance.

It took a while to get there, but we walked across the bridge, remembering how the marchers had eventually made that walk all the way to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights. Life Magazine and the evening news caught the shocking images of people being beaten, even killed. Bloody Sunday. 45 years ago, March 7, 1965. Today, maybe some 10,000 or so walked across the bridge. People from all over the place. College groups like ours.

The day’s activities were part ongoing struggle for justice, part reunion, part state fair carnival. After the walk across the bridge, people enjoyed foods and music at booths set up for the occasion: polish sausage, funnel cakes, chicken on a stick, lots and lots of CDs available for purchase. One man offered a new documentary CD of Selma and the Civil Rights Movement. But what caught my attention were the little clusters of senior citizens or near that age, white and black, talking like old friends. Some of them had marched together in the original event. They were reminiscing and catching up all at the same time.

Months after the march to Montgomery, the Voting Rights Acts did pass. A federal law guaranteed that black people, properly registered, not only would have the theoretical right to vote, but actually could vote and did. Forty five years later, we are into the 15th month of the presidency of the first African-American president. Considering where our country was in 1965, this is a staggering change.

Earlier in the day, as I stood in front of the chapel, a man walked by me in bib overalls and a yellow vest. I noticed the name handwritten on the vest: John Rankin (my paternal grandfather’s name, by the way). For the third time in my life, I had encountered an African-American who shared my surname. I couldn’t resist. I spoke to John and asked him if he knew where his name came from.

He had done some checking, he said, and he thinks that his family had come from South Carolina originally (well, not originally). Since Rankin is a Scottish name, I surmise (as I have done before) that some Rankins back in the day were slave owners. This John Rankin had been on the original march to Montgomery. He took off his hat, rubbed the top of his head and said, “And I’ve still got the knot on my head to prove it.”

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Marching on

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

walk.jpg Today we rocked Selma, Alabama. I wore my “No Apologies Necessary” shirt, therefore representing both SMU and the Dance Majors of 2010. “No Apologies Necessary” was the name of our senior dance performance. The title was based on the Thoreau quote “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

Basically, our show was about boldly going into the world with all of our brilliance and forcing the world to recognize it. So I though it was appropriate to wear the shirt when we participated in the 45th anniversary of Bloody Sunday Celebration. Throughout my four years at SMU, I’ve had a handful of moments where I could stand back and think to myself that I was glad I chose SMU as a school. Today, however, I was really proud to be an SMU student.

Forty-five years ago, members of the black community, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, intending to walk to Montgomery to protest the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson and for voting rights. They were stopped by state troopers and given three minutes to turn around, but were mercilessly beaten within one and a half. The beatings continued into the night.

The whole celebration is a big event, but considering how important it was in the struggle for voting rights, I think it should have been bigger. I am having a difficult time reconciling the fact that I had never heard about this event before college. Anyway, I digress.

ground.jpg People who actually marched that day were there and shared their stories, including the guy who will forever be known as “Pants On the Ground” (Larry Platt, in photo), who was, in fact, a freedom fighter back in the day. It was really interesting and amazing to hear the stories from the people who experienced it. They talked about how afraid they were when the beatings started. The amazing thing is that the next day most of them were back for the March to Montgomery a few days later.

I asked one woman why she came back injured, bruised and justifiably scared, especially since she was a teenager and couldn’t vote at the time anyway. She smiled and looked at me and said, “For you.” I didn’t catch her name, and she doesn’t know mine, but she went through that for me – it’s Biblical, beautiful and overwhelming.

Anyway, we gathered behind the SMU banner and began to march across the bridge. Before you actually step onto the bridge you can see the flashing lights of police cars. I will admit, for a split second I wondered if I would actually make it to the other side without injury. I realize the year is 2010, but here is the thing you have to understand – Selma is a really different type of place.

Many times during the day I had to stop and ask myself where I was. Selma seems as though it is still stuck in the 1960s. The buildings, the streets, the houses, it seems like something from a movie. So walking up to that bridge seemed more like a flashback from another life.

Then Jasmine, one of the girls on the trip, asked if I wanted to hold the SMU banner. One of the groups was leading songs – “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom,” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” It was surreal to be a part of it.

One of the things that anyone who made speeches stressed was that the struggle for Civil Rights still continues, and it was an honor to be able to pick up the torch, so to speak, and march where they left off.

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Forty-five years after Bloody Sunday

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

Now this morning, I knew the words to our good morning song … “This Little Light of Mine.” Still didn’t sing, but don’t know how many more days I am going to get away with this.

We left Little Rock at 7 a.m. and headed to Selma, Alabama, for the 45th Annual Commemoration of the 1965 Selma-Montgomery Voting Rights March known as “Bloody Sunday.”

photo-4.jpgThe Jubilee Bloody Sunday Celebration commemorates the 600 men and women who 45 years ago tried to march from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery, for the right to vote. As these unarmed civil rights marchers attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, they were gassed and beaten with billy clubs by state and local police, some on horseback, who had been ordered to break up the demonstration by Governor George Wallace.

Captured by ABC television cameras and broadcast nationwide, the marchers – 17 of whom were hospitalized – gave a wakeup call to the nation to the importance of voting rights and the entire civil rights movement. Within 10 days, President Johnson would send a bill to Congress, the National Voting Rights Act of 1965, that would outlaw the discriminatory Jim Crow-era practices.

photo-5.jpg I have been to Alabama once before, about 15 years ago. Alabama seems to me a place frozen in time. It is overcast, and it doesn’t help my uneasiness that I see mile after mile of abandoned homes and shacks. The only thing that seems new is the catfish farms that occasionally dot the landscape.

We stand outside the historic Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal hoping to catch a glance of the civil rights leaders who are inside attending Sunday service … Jesse Jackson, U.S. Congressman John Lewis and the Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian. Even with actor Terrence Howard and the Honorable Winnie Mandela in town, the “Pants on the Ground” guy (photo left) gets way too much attention.

photo-7.jpg I’m a spectator today. As I cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge and look into the faces of thousands of people who march and sing, I begin to understand why it is so important for the people of Selma to honor those who did so much for them. And I also begin to see why we still have so much to do.

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Preparing to be challenged

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

I’m in Montgomery, Alabama, at the beginning of the Spring Break Civil Rights Pilgrimage. The bus left Friday afternoon, but I could not leave until Saturday evening. Flew into Montgomery last night.

As I prayed with the group Friday afternoon, I spoke about how this trip will challenge us in particular ways. I had shared with the class earlier that, because I was a boy of 13 when Dr. King was murdered, I grew up watching the Civil Rights movement on television. I lived in rural, racially homogenous Kansas. Actually, not true. Part of that time I lived in Texas, and it was not racially homogenous.

Pete Chapa (Mexican) was one of my boyhood baseball teammates and friends. Paul and Manuel (Mexican) were friends to me during a very lonely 5th-grade year in a new town. Later, in junior high, it was Oscar Guerra the star running back and Leonard White (African American) the star on our basketball team. Still, the Civil Rights movement was something psychologically remote for me.

It was not until years later, as a man with children of my own, that I read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dr. King wrote it in response to clergy in Alabama who wanted him not to engage in direct – even if peaceful – action. His reply, written on anything that could be used (toilet paper, margins of newspapers), is nothing short of agonizingly eloquent.

He asked his clergy colleagues to consider how it felt to be the man who had to tell his young daughter that she could not go to the local amusement park because it was not open to black children; how it felt to watch the dark clouds of racial prejudice hang over his kids and to witness how it was shaping their young mental worlds. That letter put a human face on the Civil Rights movement for me.

Over the years, of course, partly because of interest and partly because of my work, I’ve studied, at least in superficial ways, parts of the story. This trip will be rough in some ways. The church was on both sides of things (as it often is) back in the ’50s and ’60s. Some of the story is just plain ugly. But some of it is glorious.

I have a feeling I’ll learn a lot on this trip.

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Faces from the past

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

We started the day in Little Rock, Arkansas. I’ve never been here, and as a girl who calls Philadelphia, PA home, I try to avoid the Southern states, college being the exception. Little Rock was surreal.

I feel, among other things, that I have taken my education for granted. I cannot imagine trying multiple times to get into a school where the students made it perfectly clear they don’t want you there. I can’t imagine being turned away by military officials. I can’t imagine being driven away in police cars because the crowd suggested a lynching. More than all of that, I can’t imagine going back and trying to get in. Graduation wouldn’t even be a consideration.

I’m glad that Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Beals were such strong individuals. History would have turned out quite differently if my name were to have to replace one of theirs.

Central%20High%20School.JPG There was a section of the memorial where you could view interviews with the participants. It was daunting to hear them talk and then look across the street and see where it happened. When we finally walked across the street to the high school and took pictures on the steps, this time there were smiles and laughs. I was glad for that. While completion of the quest for equality has yet to reach fulfillment, I am glad we have at least made it to this point.

Next we drove to the Medgar Evers House in Jackson, MS. Medgar Evers was the NAACP’s first field secretary. He was assassinated the same day Kennedy delivered his Civil Rights speech. You can still see the blood on the ground from when he fell, and it felt slightly disrespectful to pass the spot to go into his home, even though no one has lived there for years. These aren’t distant stories from a history text anymore. They’re people.

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