Civil Rights Pilgrimage South

During Spring Break 2011, students, faculty and staff are taking an eight-day bus ride to the American South’s civil rights landmarks. Political Science Professor Dennis Simon leads the pilgrimage with SMU’s Chaplain’s Office.

Touch and sight

An update from Casondra, a graduate student in the Master of Liberal Studies program:

Dr. Simon asked us why we like to touch things. What creates our connection?

When we are born and are growing through life, touch is how we learn. It’s how we know when something is too hot to handle or what is soft and comfortable. It’s also how humans connect with each other, with a hug, handshake or a pat on the back.

For myself, I am a texture person. I buy things that I will enjoy the shape and feeling of, from my wallet to clothes to my cellphone case. Touching different things helps me connect to my past, and that includes the past that did not directly involve my lifetime. When I touch a name etched in stone and close my eyes, I can pay my respects to the people who have given their time, effort, and their life so that I can exist with my current freedoms today. Touching helps me remember the people and places so I can keep the feeling that I have right now and take it with me when I go back home to Dallas and live my daily life.

Today we visited Ole Miss, and we looked at the statue of James Meredith and walked around the Lyceum. Touching the statue was important for me. Whether or not it was the artists’ intention, the statue was not smooth like a plate or plant holder. It had grooves like he was walking in the wind. For me this creates the conflict without words being said. It gives it a depth that I personally understand, and when I touch these groves in his coat jacket and feel the tension that he felt, it creates a stronger connection for me.

Somewhere it was said on our trip that we would not have race issues if we were blind. It is sight that creates these boundaries to each other. Our sight has given us the ability to judge each other on surface value qualities instead of our humanity.

Throughout the past week I have seen so many museums and have noticed how they have used sight to portray the American Civil Rights Movement. When we went to the Rosa Parks Museum I was slightly skeptical. I have been learning about these things in class and have heard many of the same stories told repeatedly this week; what was I really going to get out of this museum that was honoring only one specific event (probably the most known event in civil rights history).

As I looked up in the video room, they had wall posters of “whites only” signs, but they were cut in different angles and put onto different boards, so half of the picture was in front of the other. As we entered the museum they continued to use my sight to bring me closer to the conflict without constantly screaming derogatory words on video. I appreciate the thought and creativity of the museum because it allowed me to visually explore Rosa Parks’ world and look into her conflict by the use of vision.

At the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, they did the same, but slightly differently. At one point the wall was completely mirrored, so you had to look at yourself when you were reading about the brutality of the oppressors. To look at myself and the people around me, it was really moving for me. It affected everybody, not just individuals in the movement. It has affected me today, emotionally, legally and justly. If these brave souls had not fought for themselves, where would I be today? Would I have the same opportunities? Would I have the same mind? I am lucky to have my sight, but I can’t let it impose itself on me.

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Meeting a ‘maker of history’

simon-thumb.jpg An entry from Dennis Simon, faculty leader from Dedman College’s Department of Political Science:

Simon6.jpg This morning, the members of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage attended the Robert Graetz Symposium in Montgomery, Alabama. The setting was historic – the 1st Baptist Church once pastored by Reverend Ralph Abernathy.

The speaker was Bernard Lafayette. It is difficult to exaggerate Dr. Lafayette’s influence in the civil rights movement. He was an original member of the Nashville Movement and of the Freedom Riders (see The Children by David Halberstam). As a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he was “first on the ground” in the Selma Voting Rights drive (see Black in Selma by J.L. Chestnut). As an assistant to Dr. Martin Luther King, he was a coordinator of the Poor People’s March in 1968.

Dr. Lafayette was a “maker of history” whose career as an activist and educator is now in its sixth decade.

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In the chair of Lloyd Howard’s barbershop

Kelvin%20.jpg An update from Kelvin, who is earning a Master of liberal studies:

Haircut.png Highlight of the day was being able to have my hair cut by Lloyd Howard, a man featured in a film at the Rosa Parks Museum and also a well-known teacher to the African American Community. Not a teacher in a sense of books and the classroom settings, but a teacher in a sense of fundamental, moral and ethical-based principles in the chair of his barbershop.

The time spent with him was priceless, and no amount of money that I gave could have been as precious as the time spent with him. He urged that we, as America, keep the fight, not only the black community but everybody. This fight is not for race anymore; it’s about making the world and especially the life of the next generation of Americans a better place.

Haircut2.png An interesting fact about Lloyd is at the age of 13 he cut hair alongside Rosa Parks’ husband, which was very cool. As we departed from the barbershop, he placed a seed in my life. The first, he expects to be watching me on Sundays; and two to make an impact especially in the African American Community. He stated, “You all are young, vibrant and educated – BE A LEADER.”

The stories I received in the chair were so rich, yet disheartening because the people of this time went through so much. But for him to share his story was remarkable, and a couple chunks of mesquite wood placed on the fire I have burning in my soul.

Something to think about

It’s very simple; life is about choices, either a choice to do right or a choice to do wrong. With whatever choice you make, make the very best of it, and during all the process, “be true to yourself.”

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So many stories to be told

hanna.bmpAn update from Hanna, a sophomore political science and marketing major:

I do not know how to even describe my day today or where to begin. This morning we went to the Civil Rights Memorial Center, where we learned about the 40 freedom fighters who fought for their lives. I realized my own ignorance at the museum because out of the 40, I only knew about 15.

The museum was beautiful; pictures everywhere on the walls and descriptions for people to become educated. I loved the hallway to the Wall of Tolerance; the pictures dealt with current movements: Gay movements, immigration issues, Middle Eastern movements, etc. It is a hallway dedicated to our generation and the fights that need to be fought.

Mr. Jake was our tour guide today and took us all over Montgomery, including the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. The church was beautiful, and I could still feel Dr. King’s presence within the walls. I did not know whether I had chills or was cold, but I believe they were chills. I felt his warmth surrounding me. For lunch, we went to Alabama State University, a predominately African-American university. We were stared at by everyone. But everyone was welcoming and nice.

Then we were off to the Dexter Parsonage Museum, where we met Ms. Cherry. We are so fortunate to meet such amazing people. Ms. Cherry, a teacher, is so passionate about her job at the parsonage. She led our group through Dr. King’s house and described everything in a way that made us feel the King family’s presence in every room. We finished the tour with Dr. King’s kitchen, where Ms. Cherry explained the epiphany Dr. King had in that kitchen. He was told to fight for justice and righteousness from an inner voice when he began to lose hope. We were standing in the room where Dr. King was able to stand up and go on through his own strength and faith.

For dinner, we met with Reverend Graetz and Mrs. Graez and the Harris family. All four are so beautiful, I cannot describe them any other way. Beautiful inside and out. Mrs. Harris’ daughter, Dr. Montgomery, was so intelligent and willing to share her stories. She imparted a sense of wisdom and knowledge that stuck with me; it was so important to her that we learn the past in order to prevent repeating mistakes in the present. Reverend Graetz and his wife were such uplifting and positive individuals who utilized their faith to do great things and fight for the oppressed.

I became emotional during the dinner because it broke my heart that Mrs. Harris was losing her memory when she has so many great ones to share. I realized that there are so many people willing to give their stories; it’s a matter of us stepping up to open our ears to listen.

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At dinner with history

Kelvin%20.jpg An update from Kelvin, who is earning a Master of liberal studies:

I’ve been around celebrities and famous professional players; I’ve shaken hands and received hugs. But I have never been as awestruck in my life as I was while sitting at dinner with history: Mr. and Mrs. Robert Graetz; Mrs. Harris, a neighbor of Dr. King during the civil rights movement; and the daughter of Mrs. Harris, Mrs. Valda Harris Montgomery. This experience was like no other, as we sat and listened to all their stories.

They are up in age but still feel the pain of the movement. On many occasions the history we encountered brought tears, especially when they walked in the room and our group of 35-plus gave them a standing ovation. Oftentimes after making a statement Mr. Graetz would pull out his hanky and wipe his eyes. I’m not going to tell you the story of Mr. Graetz, because I feel you should read about him and his family. You would learn something.

Something to think about….

Imagine being a father or a mother.

It’s 2 a.m., you’re asleep, you have been home about four days after having your third child. The other two children are sleeping in another room and you hear a loud noise. It’s a bomb! Imagine being that mother, or that father, or that son or daughter – pretty powerful. Although the family was spared, that night was never forgotten.

Mr. Graetz told us something that just blew my mind: He stated that after talking with the demolitionists who evaluated what happened, he learned there were two bombs. (The KKK were responsible.) The first bomb didn’t go off, so the white men in the car rolled back around and threw another bomb to ignite the first one they threw, yet this first bomb did not blow up. Only the second and smaller bomb blew up. To the amazement of the crowd, Mr. Graetz stated that the first bomb was so powerful it would have blown up the whole house, but it didn’t even ignite. Look at how God works!

Seriously, put the shoes on your feet. It doesn’t matter what race or ethnicity you come from. Children’s lives were in jeopardy.

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The importance of engagement

roza-essaw-90.jpgAn update from Roza, a sophomore majoring in communication studies and political science:

Day four of the 2011 Civil Rights Pilgrimage came to a successful ending. We had a rare opportunity to listen to a presentation by Stephen Black, who is the grandson of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. Hugo Black was part of the Brown v. Board of Education court that struck down racial segregation. Mr. Black talked about the importance of civic engagement and the need to identify a passion or cause dear to our hearts and move forward with it.

Mr. Black said, “The biggest threat we face is not Al-Qaeda. I don’t think it’s another recession or the possibility of a worldwide banking crisis. At a much more fundamental level, the biggest challenge we all face is dealing with a 40-year trend toward civic disengagement – the time Americans spend engaged in relationships with people unlike themselves … aimed at purposes and causes beyond themselves.”

This message not only resonated with me but compelled me to evaluate my life in a whole new way. As an aspiring attorney, I now know that serving the underprivileged is no longer something I should do by choice, but a civic duty. I have an obligation to use my education to help lift the impoverished, the uneducated and the oppressed – not because it’s the nice thing to do, but because I am obligated to do so as a human being.

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Moments of truth

Casondra at the Southern Poverty Law CenterAn update from Casondra, a graduate student in the Master of Liberal Studies program:

Today started off dreary, overcast and slightly chilly from the rain the night before. It did not look like the weather would hold out for us at the beginning of our day. When we arrived at the Southern Poverty Law Center and Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama, I did not know what would be in store for me.

As we walked into the building the Center guide stopped all of us and asked one of the pilgrims to read a statement under a melted and battered clock. It was asking us to be patient with the security of the SPLC because it is a target of hate groups and the center had been bombed repeatedly. Threats have increased since President Obama has taken office, and due to the work the SPLC does. As we handed our purses over to the x-ray machine and we walked through the metal detectors, we became immersed in the Civil Rights Memorial Center.

As I waited for the rest of the group to get through security I was struck by a photograph on the wall. It was a picture of the KKK, but they were women. Once again, the history books have never told me about women being in the Klan and I have never asked until it was presented to me. I decided there to change my paper topic for the class. I thought this was my revelation for the day (within the first 10 minutes), but I was completely wrong. It was only my first. Even through the museum I was getting hit with injustice after injustice and common-sense thoughts.

CRMC wall artWe watched a movie in the CR Memorial Center and I began to cry upon hearing the story of Emmett Till. By day four of the pilgrimage all of us have heard this story several times but the more times I hear of his story and others it’s becoming more resounding for me. Emmett was 14 and visiting family in Mississippi, and he had a speech impediment. A white woman thought he was whistling at her (she was mistaken), and a few nights later her husband and his half-brother found Emmitt and beat him and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. Emmitt’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral so everyone could see how badly these men had mutilated her child.

As I am writing this, it pains me. But I feel that we have to be honest with history – the good, bad and ugly. Even though Emmitt should not have died, nor in the brutal way his life was ended, it did bring light to the racial violence of the South, and it helped to start the civil rights movement.

CRMC wall artAt this moment I would like to make something clear. We have been conditioned to think of black history one month a year, and MLK day as a Monday off that gives us a three-day weekend. Black history is not “black history.” It is American history. It is something every child should be learning the details about, just like the construction of U.S. democracy after winning our freedom from Britain. We should give our students a better understanding of where they come from, and not just three pages in a history textbook. Anyway…back to the trip.

After the CR Center we walked down the block to the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. This is where Dr. King was the senior pastor of the church and where many meetings where held. There is a beautiful memorial down in the basement, which I suggest at some point in your life to go see.

MLK's chairBut the true treasure was in the sanctuary. I was able to see the pulpit where Dr. King gave his sermons and where he talked to the masses of the community during the Montgomery bus boycotts. I was able to see the chair in which he sat before he took the podium. I took the moment to think back to everything that I have learned about this church, room, Dr. King and his oratory, and it was more than I could handle. I started to break down and cry. I have a lot of reasons – but just the sheer amount of history, the honest good people working for humanity that have been in that room, and their lives taken too quickly…how couldn’t you?

A Dexter Parsonage historical plaqueAfter lunch at Alabama State University we went to Dexter Parsonage, where Dr. King lived when he was senior pastor at Dexter Avenue Church. The parsonage has been kept to the way in which the King family lived. Many of the pieces are authentic and some are period. Miss Cherry, who led us through the home, was so passionate and a phenomenal human being. Her story in the King kitchen was riveting. If you are looking for something that will connect you to the human spirit, ask for Miss Cherry at the parsonage. You will not be disappointed.

Stephen BlackAnd we had another surprise guest speaker today: Stephen Black! (We’re in the photo at the left.) He is head of Ethics and Social Responsibility at Alabama State University (and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s grandson). When he spoke to us about what WE can do, it really resonated to me. I really needed him today. His speech about how to do good and changing the structure is what I needed. I have been very conflicted about how to go about this – and not that I have been given divine answers, but it was great to see somebody that was doing good because he took the responsibility upon himself to change things. He was an honest man speaking to us from the goodness of his soul, and you could see that plain as day.

You would think that this day would have ended by now. But no, we still had dinner with Reverend Robert Graetz, his wife Jeannie, and Mrs. Harris and her daughter who lived next door to Dr. King when he was at Dexter. The personal accounts they gave us are so invaluable. Reverend Graetz gave us some great advice about creating a better society. Take it one step at a time. Treat people with kindness and do small day-to-day things. When you see injustice, stand up. To think of what the Graetz family went though, bombing of their home and frightening calls from the KKK just because they were white and helping with the boycott – the determination and commitment to their beliefs is astounding. Society today (and I’ll include myself too) give up too early when things become difficult. When I look back it’s amazing to see what ordinary people stood against and how they have come out of their struggles stronger and helped to create a better society.

Overall, today was a hard day. Not a bad day, just a day full of honest truths, from the past and within myself.

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‘Just a Neighbor’

simon-thumb.jpg An entry from Dennis Simon, faculty leader from Dedman College’s Department of Political Science:

I am certain the Pilgrims of 2011 will write about our dinner and discussion with the Graetz and Harris families this evening in Montgomery, Alabama. Our time together was remarkable – from the “standing ovation” given these “keepers of history” upon their arrival to the hugs and tears as our time together ended.

One highlight of the evening was the announcement that Dr. Valda Harris Montgomery has published her memories of growing up in the Montgomery of the 1950s and 1960s, titled Just a Neighbor. Dr. Montgomery, a faculty member at Alabama State University, was 8 years old when the bus boycott began in 1955. She was 13 when her family clandestinely housed the “Freedom Riders” after they were attacked at the Montgomery bus station in May of 1961. She was 17 when she participated in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march and later expelled from St. Jude’s Catholic High School. She was subsequently “reinstated” and allowed to graduate through a decree of the Archbishop of the diocese. We learned that not only did she hear Dr. King speak on numerous occasions but that she also, as a neighbor, babysat his children, Yoki and Marty (as she affectionately calls them). Her story is both informative and fascinating.

The SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage has visited with Dr. Montgomery and her mother for several years. And here is a wonderful connection. First, one of what academics call “endorsements” or “blurbs” for this book was written by Ray Jordan, our pilgrimage coordinator. Second, a book typically begins with an Acknowledgment page, and Dr. Montgomery’s first sentence in this section reads: “I would first like to extend gratitude to the students of Southern Methodist University (SMU) for the suggestion to put my memories on paper.” As several of this year’s Pilgrims remarked – “how cool is that?”

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Welcome to Selma

Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2011-Casondra in SelmaAn update from Casondra, a graduate student in the Master of Liberal Studies program:

We were riding the bus, and all of the pilgrims were told that our first stop was a museum in downtown Selma. Then, amazingly, Minnijean Brown boarded our bus! One of the Little Rock Nine was in my presence and it was like being in a room with a rock star! (I love these surprises on our trip!) It is amazing the civil rights celebrities whom we are able to see and hear their firsthand accounts!

She had such a good attitude about today (not about the problems, but how to look upon the past), but I think one thing she said that affected me personally was that she was able to forgive herself for forgetting the awful things that happened to her. The malice with which the children treated her and the others was ridiculous. And what she says is true. The media never reported how many times soup was dumped on her, but they only reported when she dumped the soup on the boy and she was expelled. There is so much history that has been left unwritten. I know on this trip I am learning more than any book can teach me.

Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2011-Selma civil rights muralMeeting Miss Bland was like having my granny back. You listened and you respected her for her life, her maturity. I loved the walking tour and the rock. Miss Bland took us to the starting ground of the marches that went to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We each picked up a rock that the leaders stood on and it showed me that all of these heroes and she-roes were ordinary people who kept going in the face of danger.

Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2011-Edmund Pettus BridgeWhen Miss Bland told us about her walk on the bridge on Bloody Sunday, it was hard to think of children in the march getting trampled and the sheer brutality of the police. I know this brutality existed, but it still takes me aback every time I hear of it. I’ve been raised to respect and honor the police and people who work for our government, but it’s only through recent times that this can be true for all Americans (and of course I’m being way too broad…I’m sure governmental racism still exists somewhere in America).

But on Bloody Sunday, the screaming, the tear gas…how do you treat humanity like that? We all have our differences, and I understand the institutionalization of the innermost feelings of white Southerners then, but still…how do you hurt a child? Of any color or origin?

Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2011-Viola Liuzzo memorial markerCivil Rights Pilgrimage 2011-Viola Liuzzo painting on civil rights muralOn the way to Montgomery we stopped at Viola’s memorial. It’s just so incomprehensible for me to think of such hatred that the Klan would kill her for being a good person. She looked into her heart and helped people who were working hard and needed a ride back to Montgomery from the march in Selma. She and so many others were killed and hurt just because they were following their moral code.

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Simple equality

Kelvin%20.jpg An update from Kelvin, who is earning a Master of liberal studies:

Wow, what a day.

I learned so much about the life of a real social activist in about 45 minutes. Holding back tears, because I only receive a watered-down version of racism in my little time on this earth – whereas Minnijean Brown Trickey (one of “The Little Rock Nine”) suffered six hours a day in what she called “U.S. terrorism at its worst. Hell and torment day in and day out.”

Minnijean considered her problem for being expelled from school, the simple concept of being tall, beautiful and PROUD. Although jokingly saying this, she felt that the confidence in her was what pushed her through such horrible times in life.

Something to think about….

How would you feel if you were tormented every day because you felt the right to know that the earth wasn’t flat? Minnijean stated that a reason she wanted to go to Central High School was because she wanted to read books that didn’t teach the earth to be flat. Such a simple concept, but yet she was wrongly treated for wanting to learn. WANTING TO LEARN!

How ignorant!

With such emotions flowing throughout the day, I must say my time here and on the road is phenomenal and I wouldn’t trade anything for it. God has given me a chance to dive into what really happened. Not just eyewitnesses, but people who were actually beaten, thrown, spit on, kicked, inhaled tear gas and felt the clubs of policemen. All for the simple right to be consider equal. Yes, receiving the right to vote; yes, receiving the right to go to school; most important, to be able to go into an ice cream shop and lick on a scoop of vanilla ice cream just like the white folk were able to.

Yes, all the rights were needed – but from what I’ve seen, heard and even felt in my spirit, the most important was the simple, non-complex, undemanding, trouble-free right to be considered equal.

A simple example: What the people we talked to today wanted was for the quarter in an African-American hand to be equal to the quarter in a white hand.

Simple, right?

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