SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2012

During spring break 2012, students, faculty and staff are taking a nine-day bus ride through the American South to visit civil rights landmarks and leaders in the movement. Political Science Professor Dennis Simon leads the pilgrimage with SMU’s Chaplain’s Office.

Wrestling with history

An update from Kim, a Master of Liberal Studies student:

Curtis Wilkie spoke with the Pilgrims.

Southern writer and journalist Curtis Wilkie once described Willie Morris’ book North Toward Home as a seminal book for anyone who ever “wrestled with Mississippi.”

In a very real sense, that’s what SMU’s civil rights pilgrims have been doing – and it’s not just a matter of wrestling with Mississippi, but with the large, uncomfortable legacy of the struggle for equal rights in the American South in the ’50s and ’60s.  By Thursday, the pilgrims had arrived on the hilly, green campus of the University of Mississippi to share dinner and a few stories with Wilkie, who knows a thing or two about this wrestling business:

“I am a product of a segregated society,” Wilkie said, by way of introduction. He was raised in a family that disapproved of Jim Crow, he said, but was not vocal about it. “There was no sense of inevitability in Mississippi that segregation would fall.”

Wilkie was a holdover senior at Ole Miss, retaking one important course needed for graduation, when the campus rioted in 1962 over the registration of James Meredith, its first black student. “It got very foolish, and very tragic,” Wilkie recalled.

It took federal troops ordered in by President John Kennedy to quell the violence, but the photos and television images of rampaging whites and burning cars lingered long after the smell of tear gas.  The people who went out of their way to intimidate and humiliate Meredith during his time there were in the minority, Wilkie said, though 90 percent of the student body was opposed to him being there.

“That’s our ugly story.”

Wilkie went on to work as a journalist in the Mississippi Delta during some of the most important years of the civil rights movement before settling in for a long, distinguished career at the Boston Globe. One of the figures he came to know in that early job in the Delta was Meredith, and while Wilkie was not a part of the rioting mob back in 1962, he felt compelled to apologize to him.

“I was not a profile in courage,” Wilkie told Meredith.  “I could have at least taken you for a cup of coffee.

“It’s something I didn’t do then, and something I’m sorry for to this day.”

Wilkie came home – all the way home – when he retired from the Globe, and is now chair of the journalism department at the university that tried to bar Meredith 50 years ago.  Those early years as a journalist in his home state left a very bad taste in his mouth, but he learned over the course of his career that as horribly as racial terrorism had played out in his own back yard, racism was not unique to the American South.

Many Southern newspapers chose not to cover the civil rights movement, but the Clarksdale Daily Register, the small daily that Wilkie went to work for right out of college did, giving him access to the most important leaders of the era – including Martin Luther King. Wilkie’s last conversation with him was in March 1968, as King was trying to organize support for his Poor People’s Campaign.

“He was beginning to fade a little bit,” Wilkie recalls.  Younger activists had lost patience with King’s commitment to nonviolent protest and were pushing for  more aggressive tactics. “The movement was really beginning to shatter.”

King was speaking to a black congregation in a small church in Mississippi, Wilkie said, when a white man came barreling through the back door of the church, heading straight for King. As Wilkie was wondering whether he should behave as a journalist or try to stop the man, the intruder reached for his back pocket.

He pulled a hundred dollar bill out of that pocket, which he pressed on King as a donation.  It was not the way Wilkie had expected the scene to play out, as King was at that time probably one of the most threatened men in America.

“Were you frightened?” Wilkie later asked King.

“No, I can’t afford to be,” King replied.  “If I was frightened, I’d be immobilized.  Besides, the climate of violence in the South is diminishing.”

Of course, Wilkie remembers every word of that conversation in the context of what then happened at the hands of a sniper at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Two weeks later, King was dead.

“I left here angry with Mississippi in 1969 and said I wouldn’t be back,” Wilkie said.  “I’m back, and things are infinitely better.”

The increase in black enrollment at the University of Mississippi has been exponential, he said, adding that many black students on campus today are the children of alumni.  The student body recently elected a black woman as student body president, he said, and he is visibly excited about his role in planning a 50th anniversary celebration to honor Meredith’s admission in September.

But ever the journalist, Wilkie shares both sides of the story. “I won’t sugarcoat it,” he pledged, explaining that uncomfortable symbols and attitudes remain:  The university finally deep-sixed its “Colonel Reb” mascot a few years back, but there are students who continue to boo the “Rebel Black Bear” that replaced the old Southern plantation owner.   The Colonel Reb Foundation exists only to bring back the cartoonish old plantation owner mascot.

Administrators have tried to compromise.  Rather than banning outright the playing of  “Dixie” at athletic events, school officials allowed the band to pair “Dixie” with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – until students insisted on replacing the last line of the hymn with the shouted refrain, “The South will rise again!”  And Wilkie points to perhaps the biggest symbol of all:  The school’s nickname – Ole Miss – was a slang nickname for a slave owner’s wife.

“It’s ugly, and it’s still going on,” Wilkie said, sighing.

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Scenes from Birmingham

An update from Kim, a Master of Liberal Studies student:

16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham

It was Youth Sunday on September 15, 1963, when a bomb planted by the Ku Klux Klan went off just outside an outer wall behind the ladies lounge at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.  Four little girls who were preparing for church – Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley – were killed in the explosion. The church had been the staging area for civil rights demonstrations that brought hundreds of Birmingham schoolchildren out of their schools and into the streets to march for their freedom.

The sanctuary of the church

Bigotry and racial hatred ran so deep in Birmingham in the 1950s and early 1960s  that it earned the unsavory nickname “Bombingham” in recognition of the frequency of bombings targeting  black homes and churches.

One of the most compelling images of the civil rights movement, frozen in time as a statue in Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park, is that of a Birmingham teenager being set upon by a snarling police dog.

Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from 16th Street Baptist Church, was the site of several days of civil rights protests led largely by high school students in May 1963.  Photographs and television coverage of these violent confrontations that pitted Police Commissioner “Bull” Connor’s officers,  attack dogs and water cannons against children shocked the nation.

The park that SMU’s civil rights pilgrims toured Thursday is a peaceful place, redesigned with statues and memorials that both recall the violence and encourage reconciliation.

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16th Street Baptist Church

An update from Janelle, who is participating in the pilgrimage with her father, Ed:

It was a beautiful day to remember such an ugly part of Birmingham’s history.

I knew today was going to be a little difficult for me since we were headed to the 16th Street Baptist Church. Before going into the church, we crossed the street to Kelly Ingram Park and I stood at the corner envisioning what it must have looked like that day in 1963 when young students left the church with a demand for racial equality. At that moment, flashes of the infamous pictures of young children being blown over by fire hoses, and dogs being set free to attack, played like an unending slide show in my mind.

These children, most without the permission of their parents, had chosen to walk out of school to the church. From there, they were to walk toward the Capitol Building. They were told in the planning meetings that this would last for three days and they would be arrested. The plan was to fill up the jails.

As they crossed into the park, water from the fire hoses lightly sprayed across the children. When they began to dance and play as if it were a water park, law enforcement turned the water on full force. Children were blown over, their clothes peeled off. One account mentioned the water pressure was so strong that her hair was torn from her scalp.

Then the dogs were released. German shepherds attacked children causing some to be hospitalized and require stitches.

Other children were jailed for close to a week in jails crowded with criminal offenders. Jails were so crowded police that had to empty a barn to use as a makeshift jail.

Even if these children did not foresee the violence, they were well aware of the potential of being jailed. When a child was interviewed and asked what they were going to do that day, she said, “Today, we’re going to get our freedom.” At such a young age, they understood the concept of inequality and the abstract of idea of freedom. But not because they were taught it, because they were forced to live it every day. As adults in current society, we cannot find the courage equal to that of these children.

At the park, I knelt down at the statue of the dog and tried to imagine what this would have looked like from the point of view of a child. As an adult, there was something disquieting in my soul. I could not conceive of the fear they must have felt.

Today, along the walkways of the park, the words “Freedom Walk” are etched in the ground.

Just a few short months after the Children’s Crusade, with wounds still fresh, a bomb erupted near an entrance to the 16th Street Baptist Church. As four precious little girls were getting ready for worship service, the foundation of God’s house was rocked, and panic spread like fire through the congregation.

I walked down those steps descending into the fellowship hall. And, although the church has since been changed and stairs built over where those little girls perished, a grievous feeling still passed through my body. Those girls had been members of my family since I was first taught about this movement. I felt as though I had grown up with them because I had grown up with the memory of their senseless deaths. The vision of an interview of one of the mothers holding a piece of brick that penetrated her daughter’s skull is one that will live with me forever, just like the picture of Mamie Till viewing her son’s body for the last time.

During the blast, one of the windows with Jesus stained in the glass was destroyed. Symbolically, only his face was gone. Blinded by hatred, retaliation and revenge, it is impossible to seek Jesus’ loving and forgiving face.

In my time of study, I had never realized that two other young boys were shot and killed while another was wounded that same day. This is proof that there are so many unnamed victims of the malicious and volatile denial of basic ethics and morality.

I sat outside the building by the marker placed where the door once was and read their names out loud to myself, and silently promised my “sisters” that I would live for them. I would live for that which they died.

We closed out the day speaking with journalist Curtis Wilkie, who was present the night of the violent riots on the University of Mississippi campus in response to the enrollment of James Meredith.

He recounted how he and many other Ole Miss students were at a big game when Meredith was secretly brought on campus. When the students returned, they found marshals had entered the campus to enforce desegregation. Students began to throw rocks and bottles, and in response the marshals sent streams of tear gas into the crowds. The riot would go on all night, leaving several injured and two dead.

I must ask how can we mobilize behind such a victor-less cause while ignoring causes that can affect us all? Unfortunately, that is also a question I’m forced to pose today. We are so quick to judge homosexuality, religion or the lack thereof, abortion, etc., when we have a staggering child homelessness rate and children who don’t get a good meal unless they are in school. What is really important here? What is really the moral issue?

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HBCU visits

An update from A’Rielle, an accounting major and ethnic studies minor:

I often have told my friends that I want to participate in some kind of exchange program at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). HBCUs are known for their history, communal experience, rich learning environment, and of course, Greek life.

I am truly fascinated by HBCUs since I’ve had family members attend these institutions and my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, was founded on one.

On day four of the Pilgrimage, we stopped at Alabama State University for lunch. Being surrounded by so many students who looked like me was very different, but equally amazing. I especially was interested in the reactions from students who had never been to an HBCU, or heard of one for that matter. Many of the students expressed feelings of discomfort, stemming from “the stares” received when we stepped into the cafeteria, which may have been because a large group of people, many of them in SMU gear, walked in at lunch time without swiping a meal card!

During reflections the following day, a student expressed that from this rare experience as the minority, he could imagine how black students must have felt during the Movement. A few of us interjected, “The MOVEMENT? That’s how WE feel at SMU EVERYDAY!” After we finished laughing at the irony, Ray stated that when we’re in situations where we feel uncomfortable or uninformed, we should seek to engage in dialogue to gain understanding.

By the time we arrived at Tuskegee University (another HBCU), pilgrims were prepared to learn more about the black college experience. Tuskegee is definitely one of the most beautiful campuses I’ve ever seen! After ordering smoothies at Tuskegee’s Jazzman’s Cafe and relaxing on the patio of the student union, a few of us set off to explore. As we journeyed around the spacious campus, students and staff excitedly ran over to our group to introduce themselves, ask how far we had traveled and personally welcomed us to Tuskegee. In the main quad area, standing around the steps with current students talking about our majors, hometowns, and the awesomeness known as snow days, I observed those original feelings of exclusion and discomfort quickly withering away. I was mostly struck by the importance of and emphasis on community. One of the guys joked about the fact that everybody knows everybody on campus, and just a few seconds later, introduced us to two more students who happened to walk by!

On the quad socializing with members of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., (a historically black fraternity). Yes, they actually wear business attire to class on a regular basis!

By immersing into the campus life and conversing with students, that afternoon many of the pilgrims were able to clear up any misconceptions about HBCUs. This trip continues to jerk us out of our comfort zones, and I’m enjoying every second of it! Visiting both ASU and Tuskegee was especially moving for me since I was able to interact with current students as well as alumni that were active in the Movement. Those college students were the hope for their generation, just as we are for ours.


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Change came as a 15-year-old girl

An update from Kim, a Master of Liberal Studies student:

Attorney Fred Gray with senior Bethany

When 81-year-old Fred Gray came striding into the little museum in Tuskegee on Wednesday, to look at him was to imagine that time really does stand still.

More than 50 years ago, he was the attorney for the civil rights movement. He carried the legal fight for Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King, and the march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery in 1965.

But there’s nothing “still” about Gray. His whole life has been about massive societal change, and on the day he met the SMU civil rights pilgrims, he was rushing between appointments surrounding the massive criminal case he is currently working. He perched on a high stool, peered over his glasses at the group, and told a story most people don’t know:

“My first civil rights case was not Mrs. Parks,” Gray said.  “My first case was for a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin – before Mrs. Parks.”

He explained that in March 1955, about nine months before Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated city bus to a white passenger, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott and launching a movement, the teenager had also refused to give up her seat. Unlike Parks’ quiet refusal and decision to face arrest, Colvin had to be carried from the bus – fighting.

Colvin was convicted of delinquent behavior – Gray couldn’t prevent that.  And the time was not yet right to push for more. But young Colvin’s experience was still fresh when Parks defied the system, and local leaders called for the boycott.

“We wanted to make sure that what had happened to Claudette wouldn’t happen to anyone else. When Rosa was arrested, we were determined to solve the problem of the buses from then on.”

Turning to look into the faces of the young students in the SMU group, he brought home the message:

“There’s no question in my mind that Claudette Colvin gave Rosa Parks the moral courage to do what she did,” Gray said. Had the 15-year-old girl not refused to move, not knowing what kind of retaliation she would face as a result of that refusal, would Parks have made her stand, he asked? And if Parks had never been arrested, and Martin Luther King not been chosen to lead the bus boycott, what would the next chapter have looked like?

“The whole history of the civil rights movement might have been different,” Gray said.

Gray answered a few questions, and made a few gentle jokes about his age and the unexpectedness of continuing a vital legal career at 81.  But he had a challenge for SMU’s young travelers:

“Just remember that problems may never be solved if you don’t solve them.” He had worked hard to be prepared when the bus boycott happened, he said, but had a big moment of doubt when it did.

“I got scared.” So Gray called the people with the most experience in these matters – Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP lawyers who had successfully argued the Brown v. Board of Education case. They stepped up.

“There are people out there who will help you,” Gray said. “But you have to start it.”

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This history must not be forgotten

An update from Bethany, a senior and the student coordinator of the Pilgrimage:

The Civil Rights Pilgrimage is not new to me. Two years ago I embarked on this journey that forever changed my life, and I then made it my responsibility to assure the continued success of the CRP by becoming the Student Coordinator.

The CRP, to me, is not just a deviation from the Spring Break norm. It is instead an enriching experience focused on a time in history about which many people have become ignorant. It is unfortunate that Black History is being erased from the history books. The Civil Rights Movement was such an important movement that changed America politically and socially. It had a profound impact on the lives of Americans, and it is still impacting us to this day.

The Civil Rights Movement can explain phenomena such as the development of our political parties and the evolution of public school systems. It is for this reason I become so upset that Americans are graduating each year from high school deficient in an understanding of the Civil Rights Movement. It is this feeling of frustration that ignites my passion to continue educating others on this disturbing time in our nation’s history and of the resilient warriors who kept marching on.

Saturday, March 10:

Saturday morning we woke up to a beautiful sunrise stretching over Little Rock, Arkansas. As I walked the streets in front of Little Rock Central High, I couldn’t help but see Elizabeth Eckford. She was walking up the street alone. No one to protect her, no one to cry to, and no one to block the hate that wanted to harm her. As she approached the intersection of LRCHS the angry mob yelled out, “There’s one!” They immediately pursued her; cursing and yelling at her. She looked for a friendly face, but there was none. The dress that took her two weeks to make was soiled from spit. She was not allowed to go to school that day.

The right to an education was not afforded to all. Education meant knowledge. It meant the power to no longer be bound and oppressed. Education harnesses a power that at that time segregationists did not want blacks to obtain. It was not the case that Brown v. Board was decided upon, and then whites and blacks went to school happily ever after. No, it was a deadly struggle that caused physical and psychological wounds. For the Little Rock Nine and other blacks, many of them suffer from stress disorders and cannot speak in large groups. It scarred them. They were beaten, yelled at, spit on, cussed at, and yet are the strongest people I know.

That night the bus headed from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Jackson, Mississippi, to the home of Medgar Evers. Medgar Evers was a civil rights activist who devoted his life to social justice. Mr. Evers was shot in his driveway in front of his family. How could somebody do such a horrible thing in front of his family? An innocent man shot in the back by a coward who could not face the advancement of colored people.

Inside his home, I imagined his son. He was weeping for his father as his mother held him close to her. Outside the home on the driveway lay his blood. After all these years, it had not washed away. It serves as a reminder that evil has not washed itself away – and neither has violence from hate groups.

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Ordinary people, extraordinary courage

An update from Janelle, who is participating in the pilgrimage with her father, Ed:

Last night, we had the pleasure of meeting Reverend and Mrs. Robert Graetz. As the only white member of the Montgomery Improvement Association, Reverend Graetz attracted quite a bit of attention. Moreover, because of his involvement with the boycott, they were often harassed. But, as a member of the clergy, he was unwavering in his involvement with the road to equality. As for Mrs. Graetz, she said it was a “circle of love” that protected them. And no threat, hatred or negative wish could penetrate that.

When asked about raising his family during this time in Montgomery, Mrs. Graetz didn’t hesitate to chime in saying, “We raised our kids black.” They were so immersed in the community and devoted to advancement that he was the pastor of a black congregation. She also said they went to black theatres because they refused to sit in the white section and segregation laws prohibited them sitting in the black section.

It’s no surprise that this involvement made them a target along with “agitators” or “troublemakers” in the black community. Their home was bombed on three occasions. They spoke of the night it was bombed after the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

That night, four churches and two homes were bombed. Their home was to be the first home attacked. Upon investigation, they found this bomb had 11 sticks of dynamite, two fuses and TNT. That bomb was meant to destroy the entire neighborhood. The first bomb did not go off and the offenders returned to the Graetzes’ home with a second, less deadly bomb. Although this bomb did explode, it rolled right over the first bomb without detonating it. Mrs. Graetz’s “circle of love” was evident in God’s divine protection.

Reverend Graetz said when that bomb went off, Mrs. Graetz sat up in bed and calmly said, “My word. Another bomb?” I’m in awe of the steadfast dedication, unshakable faith and sheer bravery it took to endure night after night and day after day the danger that was heaped upon them with the hopes of deterring their efforts.

This morning we went to the Rosa Parks Museum. The tour guide told us the story of the boycott and I smiled to myself as I realized, we already knew this. Not because we studied it but because we had an opportunity to hear it from someone who was there in the thick of it. We heard for someone who stood in the gap for us. How beautiful is that?

We then stopped by Tuskegee and met with Mr. Fred Gray, often called the attorney of the movement. Mr. Gray was the legal representation for Dr. King and Rosa Parks, among other things. Each face of the movement has challenged us to live to the full extent of our power. To use our voice. He said Claudette Colvin was his first case. She refused to give up her seat on the bus before Mrs. Parks. She’s a name often overshadowed by Mrs. Parks. But the reality is, without her arrest, Mrs. Parks may not have encountered the weariness and found the courage to take the action that would later give her the name “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”

We also had an opportunity to hear from Stephen Black, grandson of Justice Hugo Black, whose vote in Brown vs. Board of Education ended with the Blacks’ move out of state. There was so much backlash that there was actually a law passed that Hugo Black could not be buried in Alabama.

After their involvement in the movement, you could accept if the Graetzes were to quietly retire somewhere and enjoy their seven children and 26 grandchildren, or if Mr. Black were to live his life out of state. But they didn’t. Black asked if the status quo is good enough. And even though they have far exceeded what was requested of them, the Graetzes answer the question with a deafening no.

They continue to be active in civil rights and humanity issues. When asked what her family’s views are, Mrs. Graetz said several of her 26 grandchildren were biracial. “When my son was younger, he came home saying, ‘Mom, I really hate white people.’” They just didn’t know anything different, proving the teachings of love and acceptance are just as powerful as the teachings of hate prejudice.

Mr. Black said there’s a difference between charity and justice. For a time, although I know their definitive value, I have linked them synonymously. But with this food for thought, I determined that doing charity work is often finite action whereas seeking justice is the ongoing journey. Like Joanne Bland, he pointed out we as educated people are privileged and with that privilege comes certain moral obligations.

I choose to participate in both. I choose to be charitable on my road to seek out justice. I will give of myself, not just money. Before this trip I think I had a decent sense of who I was and I what I wanted to do to impact the world. But now, I feel a sense of duty and urgency to make things happen. Ordinary people changed the nation with extraordinary courage.

To affect change, sometimes we must have the courage to stand alone. But with faith, I will never have to stand alone.

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Postcards from Montgomery

An update from Kim, a Master of Liberal Studies student:

Dexter Ave. Baptist Church parsonage, where the Rev. Martin Luther King and his family lived in Montgomery.

Imagine starting a day at the pulpit where Martin Luther King preached “It’s Safe to Murder Negroes in Montgomery,” and ending with a conversation with former NAACP chairman Julian Bond and two leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Our group is starting to experience a kind of historical (and sometimes emotional) whiplash.

SMU’s civil rights pilgrims have been talking for days now about the importance of place in understanding the civil rights movement.  But when you bring people into the equation who lived through the movement, overlapping both time and place, it packs a wallop.

We have followed the route of the 1965 voting rights march along U.S. 80 into the state capitol of Montgomery, where Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a city bus in 1955 sparked a successful bus boycott and molded King into a leader in the emerging civil rights movement. It’s a beautiful city of rolling hills, and the trees are budding out early – just as they are in Dallas. On at least two occasions we have slowed at the top of a hill that gives the same view of the shining capitol dome that those marchers saw as they approached George Wallace’s seat of power in 1965.

So think of this as a foldout postcard from the Montgomery leg of the SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage – a collection of images focused around visits to the sites of famous civil rights victories and defeats, and walking in the shoes of the men and women who drove the movement. We have been:

  • Lingering in King’s office in the basement of the Dexter Ave Baptist Church, running our fingers along the edge of his desk
  • Standing behind King’s pulpit in the Dexter Avenue sanctuary, looking across the sanctuary to imagine it crowded with thousands of people as the bus boycott heated up
  • Standing on South Jackson Street, looking up the street to the parsonage where King lived with his young family, to the Harris family home where the Freedom Riders were hidden from angry mobs, and to the hotel where performers like Cab Calloway would entertain in the Jim Crow era
  • Standing on King’s porch, looking at the crater where a bomb landed on Jan. 3, 1955; standing in his kitchen, where he made the commitment to pursue the campaign for civil rights, no matter what the cost
  • Sharing a conversation between former NAACP chairman Julian Bond and his friends, the Rev. Robert and Jeannie Graetz, a white couple who defied local tradition and bombs to work in the leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The Graetzes are elderly now, and they have devoted their lives to the cause of civil and human rights.  They moved to Montgomery in the mid-1950s to pastor a black Lutheran church, and enthusiastically led their congregation’s participation in the civil rights movement.  It was a dangerous position for whites to take in those days, and the Graetz home, too, was bombed by people infuriated by the bus boycott and the overall pursuit of equal rights for black Americans.

Graetz discovered the civil rights movement in college, joining the NAACP when he was just “a 20-year-old kid,” in his words.  He had no qualms about accepting a pastoring job at a black church in the Deep South when he got out of seminary, but the reality of Jim Crow Montgomery, with its completely divided society, was a much bigger hurdle than he expected.

“We didn’t realize what segregation was,” Jeannie Graetz explained.  They made the decision to live as their congregation lived, at least to the extent that they could.

“We went to movies in black theaters,” Jeannie Graetz said, her husband adding that the black theater managers never charged them for their tickets because doing business with them would have been a violation of the strict segregation laws.   And once the bus boycott began, Graetz took his turn driving in the fleet of car pools created to get Montgomery’s black citizens to work without having to ride the buses.

Graetz downplays the pressures of those days and credits his wife for enduring it well: “There were times when the burden got heavy,” he concedes. “But it never failed that this lady would cheer me up and get me going again.”   There were a few times when King had doubts, too, he said: “He knew he was going to die.”

The Graetzes left Montgomery in fall 1958 to pastor another black congregation in Ohio, but spent their lives in passionate support of civil and human rights – particularly LGBT issues in their later years.  Even now, when most their age would be pursuing a quiet retirement, the couple is part of the community at historically black Alabama State University. The Rev. Graetz is working with the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture, and Jeannie Graetz is enrolled as a student.

See a slideshow of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage.

Follow the pilgrimage on Facebook.

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In Dr. King’s footsteps

An update from Janelle, who is participating in the pilgrimage with her father, Ed:

Today, I walked in Martin Luther King Jr.’s footsteps.

I went to the church he led and the home in which he and his family lived. I stood in the pulpit. I felt pride as if I were his child, a member of his congregation or friend. I saw the couch at which he played with his kids, the table where he used to plan significant events that would turn the tides of society’s acceptance and tolerance of each other.

Almost fifty years later, there is still an indentation on the porch where a bomb threatened the lives of the King family and thus, the life of the nonviolent movement.

The tour guides described the lives of the people who lived in the neighborhood with Dr. King. The neighbors who, like the Harrises, were affluent members of the black community. They were pastors, teachers, physicians and pharmacists. Those were the people who attended the Dexter Avenue church. Those were the people whose faces often go unseen and voices go unheard when talking about the era.

At the Southern Poverty Law Center, we heard about some of those other martyrs. Those names that are often unspoken and unrecognized were given faces and lives before we recognized their death.

It was said, “We looked in the river for faces. That’s where we always looked for our people when they disappeared.” That was the poignant statement made. I imagine the fear my mother would’ve felt in that time if I were gone longer than expected. When you looked at your family member and told them “goodbye” for the day, it was a large possibility that you were telling them “goodbye” for a lifetime.

The most impactful vice for me has always been the death of Emmett Till. He’s always been someone I described as the sacrificial lamb that caused the nation’s stomach to turn. Not only did they kill someone, they killed a child. Not only did they kill him, they tortured him. And after they beat him and tortured him, they disfigured his body. And with the courage his mother found to display his body, the nation’s eyes were forced to see and acknowledge the real face of hatred.

I think the part of the trip that was the most eye-opening for most, was the wall of faces that told stories of recent victims of civil right violations. As I rounded the corner, I saw another young lady looking at the picture of Billy Jack Gaither, a young man who was killed in 1999 because he was homosexual.  The quotes from the killer describe how he beat Gaither, cut his throat and, when the killer had no more energy, threw his body into a fire. Through my tears, I watched her read this story and others along the wall as a few tears fell from her eyes as well. I silently linked my arm with hers for mutual comfort. Without saying a word, we walked the rest of the names together.

At the outside monument, water washes over the names of people and pivotal events in the movement. Water, with its cleansing effect, can heal the wounds, but cannot erase the scars. I ran my hand over Emmett Till’s name and I thought of Trayvon Martin, killed less than two months ago because he was thought to be “suspicious looking.”

At that moment I realized the monument is unfinished because the movement is incomplete. We are still struggling to fight the same injustice but are too blind to recognize it for what it is.

Today, I walked in the footsteps of Dr. King’s leadership and dedication to a cause. It’s my responsibility to remember that and do the same tomorrow.

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Alabama snapshots

An update from Kim, a Master of Liberal Studies student:

Shirley Cherry, our tour guide at Martin Luther King's home: "I was 10 years old when Emmett Till was murdered. My parents, they told me to stay in my place if I didn't want to be like him." Cherry marvels at the man who preached, "It's Safe to Murder Negroes in Montgomery." "That's why I wanted to tell you about Martin Luther King," she said.

Pilgrims at the Southern Poverty Law Center's powerful memorial, designed by the same woman who designed the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. The names of 40 Civil Rights heroes are engraved into the surface of the fountain.

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