Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2015

On this eight-day bus journey, SMU students, faculty and staff visit the American South’s civil rights landmarks and meet people who participated in and witnessed the movement. They will be joining thousands from around the world who are marching across Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. The trip is sponsored by the SMU Chaplain’s Office and led by Dennis Simon, Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor of political science, and Ray Jordan.

50 Years Later… The March Continues

An update from a Civil Rights Pilgrim:

Left and right
What’s wrong was might
Keep marching on
We’re more than pawns
Together by will
Divided we spill

The march goes on,
At patient speed
The march goes on,
For the justice we seek
United by the dignity,
All deserve to preserve.
United by experiences,
We put a peaceful foot forward.
Allied with friends,
To freedom march toward.

Left, right, we breathe a rhythm so true.
Futures belong to those who do good.
Any day we’ve waited was another day too long
Never again can we settle, so we march with our songs.
Keep marching on, Hymns singing our blues.
Freedom’s tapping life from under our shoes.

We have drunk from the gourd
Drunken dry from our tears.
Our heartaches and hopes keep us marching.
The march continues, go forward.

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We marched with Selma

Photo by Aymen/SMU Adventures

Photo by Aymen/SMU Adventures

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A time to process

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.

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The end of my pilgrimage, but not the journey

An update from Laura Lisa, a Master of Liberal Studies student in Organizational Dynamics (culture and business):

As we approached the end of the 2015 SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage, I found myself feeling sad, overwhelmed, transformed, humbled and honored, yearning to do more.

I am a non-traditional student and remember all of these landmark events while I was growing up. Even so, being physically present in Selma and Montgomery, AL, Philadelphia, Jackson and Oxford, MS and finally Memphis, TN, had a profound and chilling effect on me. It was as if I had stepped back in time. Specifically, the Jacob Burkle Estate Museum in Memphis was most chilling and brought tears to my eyes. It was owned by a German immigrant, from the early 19th century, who helped slaves get to the banks of the Mississippi River, by way of tunnels and trapped doors. We actually went down to the basement to examine it, to get a feel of the confined areas. It was dark and cold and the artifacts were quite compelling! My heart was heavy just thinking about the painful challenges they had to endure to capture their freedom.

The National Civil Rights Museum was a display of the culmination of the entire Civil Rights Movement. We recaptured the whole pilgrimage there: Selma March, Montgomery Bus Boycott, Freedom Riders, MLK Assassination and the Sanitation Protests in Memphis. The interactiveness and displays of the museum were surreal! The echoes of the movement were all there.

At the Stax Records and Studio Museum, it revealed that the artistry of soul music derived from the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement and the church groups who came together to fight for freedom. The artists did not explicitly use their music but were able to express their pride by writing soulful anthems. The experience had some of us singing and dancing in the museum, quite uplifting!

Lastly, the impromptu visit at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, echoed the struggle of the “Little Rock 9” who were fighting segregation laws. It was all so captivating!

The journey is not over! As we were heading back to Dallas, it was all in the news about the shooting in Wisconsin, racial slurs by the two OU students and the continuance of the issues with gay rights/marriages and immigration regulations. It was all so overwhelming to hear in light of our pilgrimage. I do know that the Civil Rights Movement is not over and that we have many more oppressed cultures to fight for. The Movement is about social justice for ALL human rights.

I hope all of the Pilgrims on this journey will stay committed and go back to your friends, family, your future children and your religious and educational institutions to spread the words we committed to on that “Wall of Tolerance” because “I pledge to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance. I will work in my daily life for justice, equality and human rights – the ideals for which the Civil Rights martyrs died.” Love and Peace everyone!


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An unfathomable hate

An update from Tate, a sophomore human rights major:

This trip was a lot to take in, but what really hit me was the murder of Medgar Evers at his home. The realness of his murder, and the other murders of Civil Rights Soldiers, just didn’t seem as real to me until I was told the type of gun it was. I grew up in a family of hunters, and I have shot the same type of rifle that killed Evers. I even have a bullet casing in my room that I kept as a souvenir of the first animal I shot with it.

I just still can’t imagine the amount of hatred the man who shot Evers could have had for him to wait for him in his driveway, with his kids less than twenty feet away, and load the gun, take aim, and fire. With every step he could have changed his mind, but he was so fueled with hate he continued. I don’t think I can fathom that type of hatred, and I hope I never have to.

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The music of the movement

An update from Tom, a Master of Liberal Studies student studying human rights:

The Stax Museum in Memphis was amazing and the ideal, uplifting closing activity to leave us with some bounce in our step. If I had come in with any doubts (and I don’t think I had) as to the integral role of music in the Movement, then every single museum and speaker has put those doubts to rest… and the Stax Museum captured the power of the music as it began to spread beyond the churches and the Movement and into mainstream America.

I had met Johnnie Taylor years ago, when his daughter was in my 6th grade homeroom at Greenhill, so it was fun to learn more about him – the megastar – here in the museum’s displays. I realized when I attended his funeral twenty years back that he had been a really big deal in the music world and the black community, and now it all became clear. I had also marveled at his daughter Tasha’s musical gifts – I have loved listening to her sing since she was a little girl in school talent shows – and when (my wife) Sally and I went to see her at the Kessler Theater back in the fall, it really hit me as to the roots and influence of her power as a performer. She traces her roots to her father and his friends at Stax.

Seeing and hearing Johnnie Taylor in his prime was very cool (and I bought a cd to memorialize the experience). And the 1960s “bling” – from high-heeled shoes to wide-lapeled suits to souped-up Cadillacs – was a sight to behold! Finding a Jackson Five concert poster advertising their show at Memorial Auditorium in Dallas in 1972 was my indulgent splurge of the trip!

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The Dream is real at BB Kings

An update from Garrett, a junior double majoring in business management and public policy:

On our last night of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, many of my fellow pilgrims and I ate at BB King’s Restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee. I ate with individuals of different races, beliefs, and walks of life. I could not help but thinking that this was a small portion of the Dream that Martin Luther King had hoped for.

Earlier that day I had walked through the National Civil Rights Museum inside of the former Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated. I learned so much information about the struggle for Civil Rights and how far we have come as a nation and as a people.

However, as we drove around Memphis it became evident that there is still so far to go. All around Memphis there is evidence of the ongoing effects of systemic racism that we are still unraveling. The projects in Memphis reminded me of those in Montgomery, of those in Selma, and of those back home in Dallas. All of these were filled almost exclusively with African-Americans.

Over the course of the pilgrimage, I had walked in the footsteps of great men and women, who had left a proud legacy of service for me to follow. Today, the ongoing issues of police brutality, gender equality, LGBT rights, and immigration reform make it evident that my generation will have its hands full helping to further realize Dr. Kings dream. I know that it will not be easy, but I know that it is definitely possible, just as it was that night at BB Kings.

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An update from Ella, a senior majoring in human rights:

It was at the Freedom Riders Museum in Montgomery, Ala., that I learned the importance of place in discovering history. Something like segregation of bus terminals, walking into the building and seeing the layout is impressionable in a way that descriptions in writings fail to conjure. I noticed this trend of the significance of place at more sites – grounds upon which brutal violence took place. Quite literally, the pavestones cry out.

Now sealed up with colorful tiles, this used to be the "colored entrance" at the Montgomery, Ala. bus station.

Now sealed up with colorful tiles, this used to be the “colored entrance” at the Montgomery, Ala. bus station.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge – iconic, oft photographed, a symbol of Bloody Sunday – what more could be seen in person? The experience of walking across on those narrow, raised sidewalks overlooking the misty banks of the Alabama River is the observation of place – seeing and hearing and feeling the scenery and scenario that the marchers also experienced as they headed into the moment when all hell broke loose. I looked at the pavement and imagined the horses’ hooves, the clamoring steps of those running away, and the spots touched by the blood of those who fell and were beaten, such as Rep. John Lewis, the congressman from Georgia.

The Freedom Rides were another traversing of a group of rights champions that met with bloody beatings. These were young people whose principles and convictions trumped their human desire for safety and long life – youths such as John Lewis. The presence of a young Rep. Lewis can be found on the ground in many of the major civil rights events as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC.) His stalwart courage and tenacity inspire my respect and admiration.

Young activist John Lewis became a congressional Representative for the state of Georgia.

Young activist John Lewis became a congressional Representative for the state of Georgia.

Another historical encounter where place mattered was the home of Medgar Evers, activist and NAACP field secretary assassinated in Jackson, Miss. on June 12, 1963. Evers, in his driveway coming home to his family, was brutally shot by Byron De La Beckwith using a rifle suited for sporting game. The bullet that ripped out his chest proceeded with force through a window, bored through a wall, struck the metal refrigerator, and finally ricocheted through a watermelon by the sink. I saw these holes. I saw the pavement from his driveway to his doorstep stained indelibly with the blood that drenched his shirt and gushed like a river down the stone. It is sacred – this represents a man’s life.

As poignant as focusing on the acute loss of one life is, it is harder to imagine that stark reality multiplied by the many lives cruelly dispatched by hate seething from supremacists aiming to maintain their power and fearing change. Maya Lin’s stone table memorial of names at the Southern Poverty Law Center, sponsored by the Civil Rights Memorial Center, documents a select representation of civil rights murders from 1955 to 1968. Inscribed in granite, stained in blood, the memory of these people’s lives, and the cause by which they died, cries out. We cannot forget. These are America’s true heroes that Martin Luther King, Jr. hoped the South would one day recognize.

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Selma slow to change

An update from Ella, a senior majoring in human rights:

Selma, Alabama

It’s a name that graces history lessons and is synonymous with the voting rights struggle of African Americans. Yet looking at the actual small town nestled along a curve of the Alabama River, its appearance belies its fame and historical significance. As a vanguard of change, one would think that it would be the first to partake of the fruits of change.

But Selma is stuck on a pause button.

EllaThis is not to say there hasn’t been improvement – just not the stellar progressiveness a student from the 21st century might assume for the epicenter of the voting rights struggle.

For one, economic progress is slow for the African American side of town. Such leads to the next shocking observation: Selma is not even now one integrated town. Clearly, there is a “white” side and a “black” side. Actually, why should this be so surprising? The civil rights groups chose Selma particularly because it was a hard case that would bring attention to the extremes of the Jim Crow South and denial of voting rights. This was a hard nut to crack.

Just because legislation was passed (Voting Rights Act of 1965) doesn’t mean change happened as quickly as the flipping of a page. Transformation is a long process, and even then, that is with positive intention, willingness and cooperation. There are numerous obstacles to that positive progress taking place. Getting the vote, although it brought access to municipal improvements, does not translate into political power automatically.

The same Mayor Smitherman, who in a Freudian slip called Dr. King “coon,” remained in office until the turn of the 21st century. The power establishment knew how to play politics well. Several black candidates were encouraged to run, fracturing and diluting the power of the black vote, which had increased by four times in less than a decade after registration obstacles were removed. Selma and the struggle for voting rights (as first-class citizens) was key to the movement for civil and political rights for African Americans.

As the famous human rights journalist Jerry Mitchell told us, gaining the vote transformed Mississippi. Even though progress is uneven and oft stopped short, at least it has begun. That is where today’s generation comes in to continue the struggle to make true in practice what is ideally subscribed: “There is no such thing as a lesser person.”

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In the footsteps of the Little Rock Nine

image001An update from Kashundra, a Master of Liberal Studies student focusing on human rights and social justice:

We had the opportunity to end our Civil Rights Pilgrimage where the “Little Rock Nine” in Arkansas attended high school. What teenager wouldn’t want to attend high school here?

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