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.

Keep on walking

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

“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody…”

“…turn me ’round” & they didn’t.

With Joanne Bland

Selma, Alabama, is infamous for the horror that occurred on Bloody Sunday. Hundreds of civil rights participants gathered to march from Selma to the capital city of Montgomery to demand their voting rights. On their way out of Selma, they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. There, law enforcement ordered the marchers to turn around, and when they didn’t, troopers unleashed tear gas, drew weapons, and beat the nonviolent protestors.

We met Ms. Joanne Bland early Monday morning at the National Voting Rights Museum, located right at the foot of the other side of that bridge. With her dynamic personality, she led us on a tour of the town, highlighting key sites involved in the movement and sharing personal stories from her days as an 11-year-old member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Ms. Joanne was there on the bridge that day, and she explains that the violence seemed to last an eternity. Eyes burned, lungs filled up with gas, guns shot, bones broken, horses reared, people trampled, senseless bloodshedall protesters were unarmed.

And “…what happened at that bridge … did not stop at that bridge,” Ms. Joanne repeated numerous times. State troopers chased marchers from the bridge and into their neighborhoods, where they terrorized homes and churches, and rioted in the streets all night. These marchers, from all walks of life, wanted one thing: the opportunity to walk down to the county courthouse and register to vote, a task many of us still take for granted.

Pilgrims crossing Edmund Pettus Bridge

She expressed her frustrations with the current state of the black community that arrogantly wears their freedom, doesn’t vote or stand up for injustices, and thinks that the struggle is over because our President is black. She especially dislikes how folks say that people “gave their lives” during the movement. “NO. Those lives were TAKEN,” not given, she states frankly.

She charged us to be the generation that stands for something. Monday, we all walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, two by two, for Ms. Joanne Bland and the hundreds of others, as they did for us in 1965.

“We’re gonna keep on walkin’, keep on talkin’, walkin’ up freedom’s way.”

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A salute to Taryn

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

I am so proud of Taryn, my Pilgrimage roomie. Last night, civil rights leader Julian Bond asked for someone in our crowd (University of Virginia alums and SMU) to lead us in singing “I Saw the Light.” No one jumped forward!  SMU called out Reverend Ray, one of our fearless leaders, but he was not familiar with the song. Taryn quietly said to us in the back that she knew the first lines. That’s all it took for us to loudly prod her on (…that and a rather bold physical lift out of her chair by a UVA participant!)

Taryn reluctantly went to the front of the room and led the group of well over 100 folks, Julian Bond, and the Rev. Robert and Jeannie Graetz. We loved it!

Taryn has bragging rights for life!

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Warriors don’t cry

An update from Ed, who is participating in the pilgrimage with his daughter, Janelle:

Today the SMU Pilgrims met Joanne Bland. We recently read a book titled “Warriors Don’t Cry,” written by Little Rock Nine member, Melba Pattillo Beals, which captures the spirit of a warrior that is alive in many African-Americans.

It is the spirit that allows you to stare down gun-toting sheriffs for the privilege to vote. It is the spirit that allows you to face godless cowards who misuse their authority to oppress rather than protect. It is the spirit that gets you to speak to countless people about your life and experience.

Her spirit can’t be explained to those who may be surprised by her bluntness. To fight injustice, you must be blunt. Injustice does not respect weakness.

Joanne Bland is a woman who has seen, as Tupac Shakur once said, “so many tears, so many fears.” It is being able to see through those tears that empowers her to carry on.

Each year Joanne explains to those who think that Civil Rights is a past struggle that it lives today. Her spirit is a warrior spirit that will never die. For those who say Joanne Bland needs to tone it down, I say that maybe injustice has toned down, because warriors don’t cry.

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Where did all the passion go?

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

This morning I paused for a brief moment in preparation for what I was going to experience in today’s journey.

Before coming, I anticipated my visits to both the Pettus Bridge and the 16th Street Baptist church to be the most emotional. So far, I was right about the former. It evoked so much emotion and response that I’m frightened for tomorrow’s trip to the church. Remembering the story from the several references over the years was one thing, but I was going to hear it told from the mouth of someone who was there and I was going to be in that very place.

Ms. Joanne Bland was to take us through the tour. One thing she said that resonated with me was, “Often, people say ‘they gave their lives.’ But they didn’t give anything. They were murdered.” It’s true.

I’ve oftentimes said that people gave their life for me to vote. But their lives were taken from them. In a way, by not using the word “murdered,” it diminishes what happened to them. After crossing the bridge, they saw the police in front of them, but the police had also closed in from behind. Bland’s sisters and brothers in struggle were beaten and trampled, and tear gas was thrown into the crowd. Police used bullwhips, clubs and cattle prods to move the “herd” as if they were animals. She would never forget the sound of screams and of a woman’s head hitting the concrete as officers on horseback mowed her over. Often, we attribute “Bloody Sunday” as simply the violence that happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  But the terror ran rampant throughout the streets until dawn.

I imagine a scene something like a war movie, where army men attack a small, unsuspecting village. Bland was separated from her father until the following morning. What fear an 11-year-old must have felt watching buildings in her neighborhood being shot into and a woman falling down the stairs seemingly to her death. The callous disregard for human life is painful to think of. Women. Children. Elderly. Everyone was attacked.

As we crossed that bridge together today, I was very emotional. Tears formed as I realized I walked the very road where men, women and children knowingly walked toward the possibility of violence for me to be where I am today. The blood they shed, the fear they felt and the courage they had to get up and do it all over again two days later is a personal gift to me.

On the flip side, in listening to the Harris sisters, you find such a startling dichotomy of the child’s experience in the Civil Rights. They talked about growing up with Dr. King’s kids, the planning meetings held on the third floor of their home and the experience of having the Freedom Riders secretly housed in their home for four days. The most shocking phrase she said, “we never felt fear.” After homes and churches were being bombed, she still felt no fear. This, to her, was the norm.

Nowadays, as Ms. Joanne said, “we wear these rights so arrogantly.” We haven’t had to work to receive them. They were just given to us. And less than 50 years later, we’ve forgotten the sacrifice our grandparents made at an age often younger than we are now. Ray asked, “Where did all the anger go?” He said bills don’t just get signed and everyone is happy and moves on. The anger had to find another outlet.

But my response is, “Where did all the passion go?” The ’60s and ’70s were filled with people who had a grand sense of purpose. They had a fiery desperation for humanity and a craving for equality. We’ve forgotten. But I continue writing these entries so maybe someone else will read and be inspired. Then maybe we can find our passion and remember together.

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Selma’s Footsoldier

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

Blanded.

[Joanne] Blanded.

I debated with myself whether or not to ask a question. If I raise my hand, it better be a good one! OK, go.

JB: “Yes, what’s your question?”

me: Do you think that Selma will ever change the name of the Edmund Pettus Bridge? [Confederate General]

The Bland Stare.

JB: “Girl, what’s wrong with you!”

“No. Why would we want to do that?” If you erase the name of the bridge, people can say ‘It wasn’t so bad.’ If you remove the bridge, people will say ‘it never happened.’ ”

Joanne Bland is a Selma Footsoldier in the true sense. She still is … as they say, Once a Marine, always a Marine. So it is with the Selma Footsoldier.

Ms. Bland is a Footsoldier who survived Bloody Sunday, fought through fear to march again two days later on Turnaround Tuesday, and then joined in with the March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. She has insisted on better grocery stores, inclusion of EVERYONE’s history in Selma, and is passionate about the education of Selma children.

Our Pilgrims found out that the police riot on Bloody Sunday went on all night long. The Marchers predicted a violent resistance to the March, but not the deliberate entrapment on the bridge with law enforcement’s vicious attack on peaceful protestors walking on the sidewalk two-by-two. I did my best to replay what it must have felt like as I walked across the bridge. My heartbeat sped up, and I clung to my walking partner. I will never know.

Ms. Bland helped me to understand the stories behind the story. When I spoke with her privately, Ms. Bland was soft-spoken, gracious, and even loving for a moment.

Then it ended.

JB: “Tell your children. Make ‘em want to get involved. Now, when are you going to invite me to SMU?”

I’ve been Blanded. I’m proud of it!

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‘What are you going to do?’

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

The pilgrims' Selma to Montgomery march started at Brown Chapel AME Church.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., is just as high and steep today as it was 47 years ago – and you can’t see what’s on the other side until you reach the very top.

When 600 civil rights marchers moved slowly across the bridge on March 7, 1965, they didn’t see the line of Alabama State Troopers and sheriff’s deputies on horseback until they reached the crest.   The troopers were waiting for them with clubs and gas masks, but they kept walking.

The marchers were ordered to disperse, and when they did not, the troopers and sheriff’s posse rushed the crowd – kicking men, women and children, hitting them with nightsticks and running them down on horseback.  The brutal confrontation came to be known as Bloody Sunday, and because it was so well-documented by the news media, served as a major catalyst in the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

Selma resident Joanne Bland

SMU’s civil rights pilgrims walked the same bridge Monday in a slow, drizzling rain, and came off the span at the exact location where Alabama troopers and sheriff’s deputies attacked the marchers.  But it was Joanne Bland, a Selma resident who was only 11 years old when she tried to march across the bridge that day, who brought to life Bloody Sunday and the events leading up to it.

She is strong in her opinions, both earthy and humorously confrontational in the way she delivers them, and isn’t about to let anyone forget the legacies of that movement: One of the first things Bland tells you is how much she hates it when people say the heroes of the civil rights era “gave their lives” for civil rights.

“They did not give their lives – they were murdered!” Bland said.

Bland’s tour of Selma is a portrait in stark black and white – an examination of how two societies in the Jim Crow era of segregation lived in the same town, but used different entrances and water fountains, used the public library on different days and even used separate hospitals.  Bland’s mother died of complications from pregnancy when the blood transfusion she needed was not available through what was then the “colored hospital,” and the transfusion was refused her at the white hospital because even blood was segregated by race.

“My mother died because there was no ‘black’ blood,” Bland said.

SMU pilgrims cross Edmund Pettus Bridge.

So it was left to Grandma to explain that only the white children would sit inside Carter’s Drug Store and eat ice cream as they twirled around on the shiny, silver stools. “When we get our freedom, you can do that, too.” Grandma told her.

“I became a freedom rider that day,” Bland recalled.  As soon as young people realized they could join the protests for voting rights in Selma, they did, Bland said, adding that she was first thrown into jail with other children for her participation in protests at the tender age of 8.

“We’d come home, take a bath, and be right back in their face.”

But things really heated up when Martin Luther King started coming to Selma, she said.  He probably didn’t make more than about seven trips in all, she said, but where King went – the news media followed.  And that made all the difference in how effective your protest would be.

The planned march from Selma to Montgomery grew in response to the death of a young demonstrator, Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was killed by a police officer while trying to defend his grandfather during a protest march in Marion, Ala.  Some leaders in the movement vowed to march all the way to the state capitol and deliver Jackson’s coffin directly to Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

The troopers waiting at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge were there on Wallace’s orders to stop the march, and Bland vividly remembers what happened when the column of marchers refused.  She heard what she thought were gunshots, but later proved to be the sound of tear gas canisters being fired into the crowd.

“It was awful,” Bland recalled.  “I had never experienced violence.  I knew we weren’t going to Montgomery.  They were just beating people!

“You know what I remember the most? The screams.  It seemed like it lasted an eternity,” Bland said.  And while history records the violence as the “incident” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Bland says the troopers and the sheriff’s deputies on horseback followed the marchers back into town and continued to beat them.

“What happened at the bridge happened all night long,” Bland said.

People poured into Selma from all over the country as a result of the news coverage of the violence, vowing to complete the march.  When the protesters re-grouped to attempt it two days later, Bland and her sister were back with them.  “I was scared,” she said, but a federal judge had issued an injunction to stop another march and Martin Luther King kneeled, prayed and turned the group around when they met another phalanx of troopers at the base of the bridge.

Two SMU pilgrims uneasily check out the view from a civil rights-era jail cell in the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Ala.

But everything changed a week later – President Lyndon Johnson called for the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the federal injunction was lifted.  When the group of what had now swelled to 4,000 people left Selma to march to Montgomery, they walked under the protection of 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard (federalized by President Johnson) and another 2,000 soldiers, as well as FBI agents and federal marshals.  They arrived in Montgomery on March 25, where the group swelled to 25,000 people as they approached the state capitol.

“Do you know that six months later they passed the Voting Rights Act?” Bland asked. Then, she then leaned over toward the group of SMU pilgrims and a smattering of college students from Minnesota and issued a challenge:

“When you cross that bridge, I want you to think, what are you going to do? The people who fought for the rights you wear so arrogantly had eighth-grade educations.”

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Sunday morning in Philadelphia

An update from Ed, who is participating in the pilgrimage with his daughter, Janelle:

In the year 2012, the church is just as segregated as it was in 1965. We have come so far and sacrificed so much for us to forget God.

God is the only one that can order our hearts to overcome hatred and bigotry. As much as we try as human beings, our success is much like those three who died in Mississippi that “Freedom Summer.”

They died as one. They died with a goal to make freedom become a reality for others who did not have it. They, in their last moments, made their peace with their God; no doubt crying out in anguish for the bitter cup of hatred to be removed from oppression.

Though they probably worshipped God individually, they saw in their last moments, the hand of God touch them as one.

Sunday is about faith. Sunday is about love. Sunday is about God. Through this trip we have had a total immersion in the Civil Rights struggle, and one theme resonates. Faith.

We have traveled across the Delta and into the heartland of Mississippi to attend church. Our pilgrims do not know that by us worshipping together, it is a revolutionary act. By sitting down, worshipping a God that knows no color, we in fact do what the Civil Rights Soldiers did before us. They tossed aside conventional thought and interacted with others who were different, for God loves us all.

We are Michael Schwerner, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman. Our collective souls are not black. They are not white. God judges us for humanity, not our color.

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Images of a Pilgrimage

Jan, a junior journalism and human rights major, has been photographing the pilgrimage.

See a slideshow of her work here. slide show

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The church and civil rights

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

“I woke up this morning with my mind, stayed on Jesus”

After worshipping at its sister church, we visited Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. This is the church depicted in the movie Mississippi Burning that was burned down in 1964 in an effort to locate three Civil Rights workers who were later kidnapped and murdered.

From what I overheard, a lot of people said they had never been to a church service like that. I’ve attended a Methodist church all my life, and although this morning’s church service was not different to me, it did reignite a new admiration for the part that church played in the Civil Rights Era.

Church in that time, much like it was in slavery, was the central part of life. At that time, people could gather in a trusting environment and share struggles and triumphs and give encouragement and understanding to each other while worshipping God. Church was at the center of both their politics and their social life.

It reminds me of an off-Broadway play my mother performed in called Crowns. That show discusses the many reasons and meanings behind wearing a hat in an African-American church. One line in the play says it’s rooted in the African custom of presenting yourself in excellence before God. These churchwomen wore hats at funerals, weddings, celebrations and worship services.

With that thought, my mind’s eye scans to the famous pictures of women in the ’60s attending church. I picture Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers and Mamie Till attending the funeral services with such poise, dignity and class. And that hat.

That hat, like the churches in the black communities, was a tradition that symbolized more than just a fashion accessory. In my opinion, it was a symbol of status that demanded the respect that was too often denied these women in the outside world.

As for the churches, it was the members’ own personal piece of peace. Church was a world where, even in its imperfections, the offer of equality and common humanity was the sustenance needed to make it through the rest of the week in a society that deemed its members less than human.

I listened as Ms. Jewel McDonald described her mother, brother and an elderly couple being beaten as they left a church meeting at Mt. Zion that June night. Almost 50 years later, and she still cried as she told the story. The church was burned down.

I can only imagine the courage and dedication it took to rebuild that church, not once, but twice.

On our way out of town, headed to Selma, I found it fitting that we were behind a truck with the word “hope” on the rear of the truck’s bed. On a bus of wonderfully diverse people, we are following hope. We are chasing the hope that things are better. The hope that this newfound knowledge and experiences will forever change something in our minds and thus affect some tiny sliver of the future. We are chasing the hope that these lives and words will not be forgotten. The hope that, not only will they be remembered, but also admired and revered.

At least, that’s my hope.

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Freedom Summer murders

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

Mt. Zion Methodist Church

Traveling the deeply forested roads that wind through rural Neshoba County, Miss., it’s easy to imagine that things haven’t changed much since 1964 – but they have.

The congregation rebuilt Mt. Zion Methodist Church after the Ku Klux Klan burned it down in 1964.  They rebuilt it again after it burned once more in 1971.

When Jewell McDonald moved back to Neshoba County in 1994, 30 years after the summer the Klan beat her mother nearly to death and murdered three civil rights workers, she thought that the racial attitudes of local white residents had finally begun to change. She joined a multiethnic group of county residents who, in 2004, on the 40th anniversary of the murders, issued a call for justice that resulted in a new investigation.

But it was 2005 – 41 years after the crime – before a local jury finally convicted Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter for his role in a conspiring to kill civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. Back at the time the murders occurred, Mississippi officials refused to prosecute the killers.  The U.S. Justice Department charged 18 men with conspiring to deprive the three activists of their civil rights and seven were convicted in the 1960s – though the longest term any of them served was only 10 years.

And no one ever came to trial for the attack on McDonald’s mother.

“My mother later said that some of the men with the group of Klansmen who beat her were National Guardsmen out of Meridian,” McDonald said.  “She recognized their rifles.”

FBI agents would take her mother around to stores and other public locations to see if she could ever identify any of her attackers, McDonald recalled. “But she never could.” And nobody ever revealed what someone had to have known.

“Some of the whites were just as afraid as we were,” McDonald said.

McDonald shared her story with SMU’s civil rights pilgrims on Sunday, from the fellowship hall of the twice-rebuilt Mt. Zion church. She apologized for the tears she seemed unable to control as she recalled how her church had agreed to allow Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman to organize a Freedom School there in the summer of 1964 to help prepare black voters for registration – a tough and dangerous job in the Jim Crow South.

Her mother and other church leaders were dragged from their cars and beaten for allowing the civil rights activists to operate out of Mt. Zion. The Klan was looking for Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman the night they arrived by the carloads at the church.  McDonald clearly cannot erase the image of her mother and brother when they returned to the house that night: “You could see the blood.  They dragged my brother out of the truck and said, ‘Where’s the white people?’ ”

The Klan came back after the beatings and firebombed the church on June 16, 1964. Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were murdered five days later when they arrived in the community to investigate. Their murders provoked national outrage and horror, and proved to be a turning point in focusing the nation on just how far some were willing to go to prevent black Americans from not only exercising the right to vote, but also exercising the basic freedom to live in peace and security.

“The whites in Neshoba County have made a 180-degree turn since 1964,” McDonald  says today.  “Most of them know what is right.”

The historical marker on the winding road in front of Mt. Zion church

The winding road in front of Mt. Zion is different, too, these days – and it’s not just the “Freedom Summer Murders” historical marker staked out in front of the church. What is now a sturdy, paved road was just a dirt strip that turned to impassible, muddy ruts after every rainstorm when longtime Mt. Zion member Obbie Riley was young. He remembers when white people in the county got the roads and black people got the mud, because people who couldn’t vote didn’t have any voice in how the tax dollars were spent.  More evidence of change, Riley was elected a county supervisor in 2007.

Riley was just a child during that Freedom Summer, but some images remain clear: “I remember the soldiers searching the fields behind our house for the three missing men.”

Riley sees that paved road as a big symbol.  Because people made all those sacrifices 50 years ago, he said, people don’t get basic services like roads based on the color of their skin. The power to vote means politicians have to pay attention to people’s needs regardless of the color of their skin.

“Why was it so important for people to be willing to lose their lives?” he asks. “Because my vote is just as powerful as his or hers. People at Mt. Zion thought having the power to vote was worth almost anything”

But both McDonald and Riley are clearly disturbed that the legacy of voting in Neshoba County is not as strong among black voters as the memories  these graying leaders share of the sacrifices made to guarantee that right.

“You would think we blacks here in Neshoba County would be running to the polls!” McDonald said.

“We have voter registration drives,” Riley said.  “But there’s a segment in Neshoba County that won’t register because of jury duty.

“Can you imagine how that hurts me?”

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