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.

Where fear meets hope

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

The Civil Rights Pilgrimage is an exercise in the art of change. It is the concept of change that greeted us this morning. The Arkansas Gazette had on its front page the election of Representative Darrin Williams to be the first black Speaker of the House in the Arkansas legislature.

We can legislate policy; however, we cannot legislate fear and hope. It is this same concept – fear by the white Arkansans and hope by black Arkansans – that met at Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The fear of what we don’t know still consumes the hearts of our citizens in 2012.

The triumph of hope over fear is what motivates our youth today. I see that in the eyes of some of our Civil Rights Pilgrims. With hope and no fear, we journeyed to Mississippi. It is the hope that we have overcome our past. I, like my peers, ask whether or not we have overcome. The answer as we travel the Delta is that we are further down the road than before.

Jackson, MS

In a small kitchen in Jackson, Mississippi, at the table where Medgar Evers planned Civil Rights programs, we plan our next goal.

Whether the goal is dinner or finding our place in the world, we are not troubled. Trouble is not being able to see past our differences. There we were, black and white in Jackson at night; sharing a laugh, not troubled by the “Ghosts of Mississippi, because we know ghosts live in the dark, and we live in the light.

Onward Pilgrims, we move forward to a day in which justice lives.

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Another kind of ‘war on terror’

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

I struggle to start today’s journal entry because I’m still in awe. Today I encountered two stories I’m very familiar with, but I saw them in a different light.

First, we visited the Little Rock Nine visitor center. I reflected on the book Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals and the movie The Ernest Green Story, two of the nine. Their accounts are horrifying and disheartening.

The school itself is a thing of beauty. Its breathtaking in its grandness. I closed my eyes and imagined Elizabeth Eckford walking down the street toward an angry mob.

Toward it. Not away from. The fear she must have felt and the courage she had to muster are unimaginable. She could have simply chosen to not get off the bus, but she did.

The irony to me is that, although the fight was for equality in its purest form, African-Americans didn’t even have what Jim Crow said they did: Separate but Equal. How can you say a school built for white students costing an estimated $1.5 million is “equal to” a school with the same number of black students that cost $400,000? Or how can you pay teachers with more education and certificates one-third less than their white counterparts without the same education? While I argue “separate but equal” isn’t equal at all, one can also argue these Jim Crow laws didn’t even uphold their main platform.

The second was an unexpected stop at the home of Medgar Evers. It was a little eerie walking up the driveway because I have watched Ghosts of Mississippi several times.  The thought of a man being gunned down in front of his home where his family is waiting is heart-wrenching.

But I learned two things that caused me to think. One, while he was waiting on the completion of his home, he requested that the windows be higher so that it would be more difficult to cause harm. His family also would sleep on the floor. And two, he requested the front door actually be moved to the carport. This way, his family could exit the vehicle via the passenger side under the cover of the car and house.

One thing I realized today, that with all their training, restraint, tactics, precautions, these people were preparing for war. It was not much different from the War on Terrorism.  If being spat on as you walk to school or shot in the back in front of your family isn’t terrorizing, I don’t know what is.

As I walked in the halls of Little Rock Central High School, I envisioned Ms. Beals being pushed down the stairs and her books shoved on the floor. How ironic that the school sought to educate and prepare students for the opportunity to be productive and successful members of society while participating in the systematic destruction of the same. It makes me wonder about society’s current systems.

When my mind returns from its tangent, I notice the Arkansas Gazette’s top story of the newly elected Darrin Williams. He’s the first African-American Speaker of the House in Arkansas. I listen to the current principal of Central High describe how this school with such a tortured moment in history is now considered by some to be one of the most diverse high schools.

We’ve got a ways to go … but how far we have come.

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The power of place

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

The park ranger at Little Rock Central High describes how the Little Rock Nine were pushed, shove, spat upon and abused every day.

This was a day that started on the steps of Little Rock Central High School with stories of personal courage displayed by the nine black teenagers who faced down unspeakable hatred in dogged pursuit of an integrated, equal education.

Long hours and hundreds of miles after leaving Little Rock, our group was standing in a dark driveway in Jackson, Mississippi, examining by the light of a cellphone the bloodstains still visible where civil rights leader Medgar Evers was gunned down in front of his home.

The emotional push and pull of this journey came home with real force on this first full day of the pilgrimage. These events happened 50 years ago – the Little Rock Nine desegregated Central High in 1957 and Medgar Evers died in 1963 – but the power of place is very strong.

A statue of the Little Rock Nine, led by Elizabeth Eckford, outside the high school

Little Rock Central High School is still a functioning high school, and beautifully maintained as a historic site by the National Park Service.  By any measure it is fully integrated, and it’s the kind of school that draws bright, competitive students who bring home awards and honors. But as the Park Ranger who served as our guide wistfully noted, “Students still tend to sit with students who look like them.  There are elements of human nature you can’t legislate.”

Ranger/guide Jodi Morris has her own connections to Central High: Her father was in the Arkansas National Guard in 1957 and was called up to help protect the nine black students during their turbulent year at the school: “My dad was here for a month.”

White students were actively encouraged by outside adults to torment the black students, she said. They would pass out professionally printed cards and brochures that would encourage students to attack the Little Rock Nine.  And day after day the black students were kicked, pushed down stairs, tripped and spat upon.

“What we would call post-traumatic stress syndrome now? Well, all of them had to process it on their own,” Morris said.

We spent the morning in Little Rock, and it would be fully dark by the time the bus hit the outskirts of Jackson, Miss.  Some in our group were puzzled when we pulled into a residential neighborhood – our driver had made a few wrong turns already.  But it made sense when the bus stopped under a streetlight in front of the house we recognized as Medgar Evers’ home from documentaries and a movie (Ghosts of Mississippi) we’d watched on the road.

So our day ended with bloodstains and bullet holes, as we heard the retelling of the night Evers was assassinated, and walked through the modest little home he’d shared with his wife and three children.  Our guide for this part of the journey, Minnie Watson, explained how NAACP Field Secretary Evers had asked for a design change when his home was being built: Already getting threats for his efforts to register black voters in the Jim Crow south, he asked that the front door open to the carport, not the street side, so that his family could quickly escape the car for the safety of the house if they were attacked.

But Evers was leaning into the trunk of his car when a white supremacist propped his rifle across the branch of a nearby tree and fired a single shot into Evers’ back.  He managed to drag himself almost to that specially installed, carport-facing door when he collapsed, his keys still in his hand.

Sunday morning starts with another bus ride – this time to Neshoba County, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964 by the Ku Klux Klan and buried in an earthen dam during the “Freedom Summer” voting rights drive.    And then we drive on to Selma, Ala., home to the infamous “Bloody Sunday” attack on civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

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History is more than a story

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

As I get ready to shove off into the waters of history, I think of the hundreds of stories about the civil rights era I’ve already been told, and the hundreds of stories I’ve already encountered.

I remember the times my father made my sisters and I watch Roots as a rite of passage. I remember the trip we took to The 6th Floor Museum before the Independent School District decided we were old enough to understand what happened and its importance. I remember sitting at the feet of my great-grandmother listening to her talk about her grandfather, who was a slave. I remember her telling me the jobs she had to take, and I compare that to the fact that I’ve always been told I can be anything I want to be.

The stories I’m going to hear this week and the people I’m going to learn about are the reason I can be anything I want to be. I am because they were.

This week’s motto: I will learn something new. Maybe I won’t learn a new story, but I’ll learn new facets to a story I already know. I will gain more insight. This week, history will not just be words on paper. It will be a living, breathing thing. It won’t be a story. It will be a life, a contribution. This week, history will be motivation for me to find a way to make my mark on this world. It will not be just precedence, but a standard.
This week, history will find a way to touch the lives of 41 people in one way or another. And whether we know it or not, at least one moment will stay with us for a lifetime. The question is, how will that moment serve as a catalyst to help the betterment of society and the individual lives we touch? How will we pick up where they left off?

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Thoughts of a pilgrim

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

I have been involved in civil rights for over 30 years, and it was a pleasure that my daughter asked to go on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage.

Last year, I went on the pilgrimage while in Dr. Dennis Simon’s class. Two years, two groups, one message. The message is diversity. America’s greatness lies in its diversity.

As I lie in my bed to prepare for tomorrow’s events, I am in awe of how far we have come. I will now watch President Obama on TV. It is true, we have come a long way.

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Preparing to board

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

We’re ready to go. You can come see us off at 3 p.m. in front of SMU’s Hughes-Trigg Student Center. But once we board the big bus, if you stand in the center aisle and look us over, you’ll see a pretty interesting mix of both undergraduates (mostly young) and Master of Liberal Studies students (many older) led by political science professor Dennis Simon, Ray Jordan for the SMU Office of the Chaplain, and student leader Bethany Mackingtee.

One of our travelers came for the first time as an MLS student last year. He’s taking the journey all over again, but this year he’s bringing his daughter. That tells you something.

This is the eighth year that SMU has offered its Civil Right Pilgrimage, and the fifth year for Simon. When our class, “The Politics and Legacies of the Civil Rights Movement,” began meeting in mid-January, Simon didn’t have any trouble communicating his passion for the subject, bringing home the point that the people who lived through this turbulent, shameful and important period of American history have important stories to share that most people will never know.

“We need foot soldiers in the civil rights movement,” Simon said. “The foot soldiers you are going to meet are aging. And the foot soldiers are worried about their grandchildren not knowing civil rights history.”

Simon has been telling us for months that this trip tends to change people – that we won’t be the same when we get off the bus nine days from now. We drive through to Little Rock tonight, starting our journey at Central High School, where nine black teenagers fought through angry white mobs and day-to-day vitriol in 1957 to begin the slow process of integrating public schools. Before the week is out, we will have traveled throughout Mississippi and Alabama, and will end our journey in Memphis, Tenn., where Martin Luther King was assassinated.

“Think of this movement as a wave washing over a beach,” Simon said. “It changes things.”

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