An update from Dr. Dennis Simon, who leads the Civil Rights Pilgrimage:
On Saturday night at approximately 9 PM, forty weary Pilgrims got off the chartered bus at the location where they boarded, with great anticipation, eight days earlier. The Pilgrims gathered their luggage, shook hands, hugged and said their temporary goodbyes. Thirty minutes later, all that remained was the quiet of a near empty campus.
What next? I wonder about our extraordinary driver. Did he hear the echoes of the songs as he drove the bus to the depot in Arlington?
“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom …”
“We are soldiers in the army …”
“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us round …”
“Ain’t gonna study war no more …”
“We’ll walk hand in hand someday …”
For the Pilgrims, it will be a time of “processing.” The “sense of place” at the venues and the voices of the people with whom we met do not automatically organize themselves into a tidy and coherent package. “Processing” is intellectual, emotional and, for some, spiritual. It requires that we draw distinctions, compare, contrast, self-examine, construct, de-construct and reconstruct. Pilgrims will recall the massive crowds of Selma on the 50th Anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” along with the silent dignity of the humble country church, Mt. Zion AME, in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Pilgrims will remember the parsonage of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church as they imagine the sense of accomplishment Dr. King and his allies felt on the day that “bus segregation” in Montgomery ended and then contrast this sense of triumph to the horror and tragedy in Jackson when they recall the irremovable blood stains of Medgar Evers on the driveway of his home. Pilgrims will ponder the recent events in Madison, Wisconsin, and Norman, Oklahoma, in light of what was experienced in Selma, Montgomery, Philadelphia, Jackson, Oxford and Memphis.
Intellect will collide with emotion. There will be much thought given to “the special moments” during our journey. These moments are personal but some are collective as well. There was the “sense of energy and joy” created by Ms. Wanda Battle as she spoke and sang to us at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Equally poignant was the spontaneous standing ovation and the tears that flowed as Reverend Robert Graetz walked into our meeting place. Sadness will dominate as we recall the violence in Philadelphia described in the account of Mrs. Jewell McDonald. Both justice and injustice will come to mind when we remember the prize-winning journalist, Jerry Mitchell, regaling us with his stories of Klan members finally held accountable for their crimes. Courage and persistence will come to mind when we think of Dr. Velda (Harris) Montgomery and her family in Montgomery and Mrs. Elaine Turner with her 13 brother and sisters, all activists, in Memphis. We will laugh as we remember the sunny optimism and the detailed stories of Mr. Jake Jones. Thought will be given to the words of Dr. Jennifer Stollman of the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at Ole Miss as she brought the Pilgrims to the “here and now” of race relations in communities and on campuses. There will be a sense of pride and satisfaction when we remember the meeting with Reverend Jack Singleton and the participation of “SMU folks” as foot soldiers in the movement.
Understanding of history and politics will change and deepen. The events and people associated with the bus boycott, the Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer, Bloody Sunday, Ole Miss and Memphis will cease to be merely the answers to multiple choice questions or the subjects of essay questions. The walls of “intellectual segregation” – Black history vs. American history, national vs. southern politics – will crumble with the recognition that the “here and now” in which we live is a complex product of the people and places we encountered in our journey.
Finally, in the coming years, there will be a sense of “kinship” among those who answered the first-thing-in-the-morning “roommate check” in 2015 and those who answered the same call from 2005 to 2014. The Pilgrims of 2015 share a common experience and will discover, as their predecessors did, an essential truth – the processing never ceases.