SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2013

During spring break 2013, 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 the SMU Chaplain’s Office.

Civil Rights Pilgrimage on KERA-FM

Professor Dennis Simon, Reverend Ray Jordan and junior Emily Mankowski discussed the 2013 Civil Rights Pilgrimage during Think on KERA-FM.

CivilRightsPilgrims

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Freedom music

An update from Harvey, a junior majoring in economics and political science:

After a full week of inspiring stories, historical context, and personal bonds, music summed up all of the emotions of this trip for me. Visiting the STAX Museum in Memphis has made me realize the importance of music in keeping up the spirits of many in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s important to mention that it was the struggle toward equality that gave African-Americans and their allies the drive to do what they did, but it was also music that played a part in reminding them what they were fighting for.

It reminds me of what they were fighting for. In other words, freedom music – as I shall call it – is an emotional tool that paints a future that overcomes discrimination and injustice. Music is a note that recognizes the struggles of the time in hopes of progressing toward a better future where we all shall overcome.

The horrific and very real images of the movement created a sense of sadness, anger, and stress inside me. It was music that reconciled these emotions in a positive way for me. This is not to say that the whole movement should be seen in a positive mood; we can never forget the wounds of racism. Nonetheless, when I woke up every morning of the trip realizing that freedom stayed on my mind, it was a reminder of the testament of the human spirit that was championed by those before me.

I can never truly understand those who faced the injustice of racism in the context they lived in. However, through their stories, and freedom music, I truly feel that emotional bond to their struggle and that fire inside them to continue the unfinished movement toward equality.

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A spring break packed with history

An update from Katherine, a junior majoring in political science and English with a minor in Russian-area studies:

Yesterday I got back from the 2013 SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage, and I cannot express how much more enlightened I feel. Being African-American, I knew the trip would be good for me because it would give me a better sense of what a lot of my older relatives went through. Now that I am back I can say that I did achieve that knowledge and even more. There are a couple of activities that we got to do that I want to describe because they had a significant impact on me.

Montgomery, Alabama, was probably the location where I learned the most for a couple of reasons. Much like Washington, D.C., Montgomery is packed with a lot of history, and some aspects of it even remind me of D.C. I learned a lot there. Visiting the Rosa Parks Museum brought to light the larger context of why America finds her important. My whole life I thought she was notable simply for not giving up her seat on a bus, but that action of hers sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Additionally, having dinner with the Reverend Graetz, his wife, and the Harris family was probably my favorite night. They all had big roles in the movement in Alabama, and I hope I grow up to be half as amazing as all four of them.

I also found Little Rock Central High School to be interesting. This was the first location that we visited. I found it intriguing because despite the fact that the Little Rock Nine entered the school over 50 years ago, the school still has an eerie atmosphere. Since we were there in the morning, I could not help but imagine the angry crowd of students standing around the school shouting before the Little Rock Nine entered the building. What is also strange is that when I posted a picture of me standing in front of the school on Facebook, one of my sorority sisters from Arkansas informed me that she went to high school there. I have quite a few questions for her now.

Lastly, I highly enjoyed the time that we spent at Ole Miss. Ole Miss really does have a lot in common with SMU, from the architecture to the very Southern social culture.  On Thursday night, we had dinner with an Ole Miss professor, Dr. King, at the Southern Journalism and Politics building. He gave us a great overview of what James Meredith – the first African-American student admitted to Ole Miss – is like now, and what the school is like today in terms of race relations.

Dr. King said some interesting things, like how Mr. Meredith has a very quirky and unpredictable personality. He said a lot of the students at Ole Miss who engage in behavior pertaining to racial insensitivity actually come from out of state. Lastly we also learned that Ole Miss has a meaning behind it. During the slavery period, the slaves would refer to the master’s wife as “ole miss,” so I have always been wrong in thinking that it stood for “old Mississippi.”

As the trip is over, I will definitely miss the family that the pilgrimage created. Not only did I learn a lot of U.S. history, I also had the privilege of getting to know some bright SMU students. In talking to my fellow pilgrims, I was equally enlightened by some of our conversations – much like listening to all of the speakers. Though it was initially hard giving up a week that was meant for relaxing, I know that I made the right decision. This experience will always be engraved in my heart and memory.

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Awakening

An update from Erin, a senior majoring in history and human rights:

Well, we’ve done it. We’ve said our last goodbyes to Alabama.

Part of me is sad to leave because the most incredible memories of the trip, for me, took place in Alabama.

Erin at the Civil Rights Memorial Museum in downtown Montgomery, Alabama

The other part of me, though, is beginning to get anxious about returning home. I’ve seen so much on this trip, learned so much on this trip, and have been flooded by so many emotions on this trip that I feel I just need some time alone in my apartment with a mug of hot tea, in my favorite old sweater, my personal journal, and several hours of quiet to truly process everything that has occurred these past several days.

I know we keep a journal during the trip, but unfortunately, the nature of the pilgrimage means that often there isn’t much time to do anything more than jot down a few bullet points of quotes or thoughts that I don’t want to forget and hope that I can find the time to really meditate on them before the craziness of life at SMU commences once more.

One observation, however, struck me so deeply and so profoundly that I knew I had to make time to flush it out fully or its true richness would be lost. It was not an “Aha!” light bulb sort of moment, or one brought on by a specific experience or interaction with any one person. It came gradually, like the transition of the haze of the dream world to the alertness of the conscious, as we crossed the Alabama countryside.

Watching the Alabama landscape roll by, I was struck by its natural beauty. Fields clothed themselves in lush, thick drapes of sunny wildflowers, and large tracks of green pastures were sprinkled with colorful cattle. Unnaturally straight lines of trees neatly divide one field from the other. An avid lover of creation and the natural world, I was entranced by the countryside that sped past me. I was particularly drawn to the trees, though it took a while for me to realize why. Though many of them were evergreens, still lush and fresh-looking even in the dead of winter, the overwhelming majority of them were deciduous trees, stripped of their foliage and barren looking.

The longer I contemplated the nature of the Alabama trees, the more I reflected on everything we had seen thus far on the trip, from the school where the Little Rock Nine were beaten, harassed and humiliated for desiring an equal education, to the home where Mississippi activist, Medgar Evers, was brutally murdered in cold blood.

Now we were headed to Selma, central to the Voting Rights Movement and location of the infamous “Bloody Sunday.” The longer I reflected on what we had seen and what was yet ahead of us, the more it seemed my imagination began to take over my conscious thought, and the more those Alabama trees hypnotized me. Slowly it dawned on me just how accurately Alabama’s landscape represents the situation that has so long tormented Alabama’s people. (Some would even argue continues to torment Alabama’s people even to this day.)

In my mind’s eye, Alabama’s trees were transformed into its people. Those lush evergreens became Alabama’s dominant white society that has prospered for so long off the backs of the black community. It appeared that their lives, indeed, their “way of life,” would be forever alive and green. On the other hand, the bare deciduous trees became Alabama’s oppressed black masses. They could not benefit from the pale winter sunlight the way the evergreens could, and thus, like the African-American community, they had to simply dig their roots deep and wait for spring to bring forth beauty and life to their branches once more.

It was the branches themselves that haunted me most. Their pale nakedness mirrored the despairing fingers of African-Americans across the years as they lifted their hands to the sky in a desperate struggle to claw their way to equality. I could almost hear their baleful cry of “why?!” Why was something as arbitrary as the color of one’s skin allowed to define whether a man lived or died and whether he could enjoy a life worth living? Why were whites the only ones who were allowed to live out the full humanity supposedly guaranteed by the United States Constitution, or even more, by a shared Creator?

The eerie echo of their weeping reverberated across the years to settle deep into my heart. I could not answer the many questions that I knew plagued them. We drove further, and a field unlike all the others caught my attention. Instead of a delicate headdress of golden blossoms, this one was full of trees that had been torn from their roots and carelessly thrown to the ground. It was the perfect image of abstract destruction, and the callous scene of the trees’ broken bodies served as an achingly suitable memorial to the hundreds whose lives were similarly broken and tossed aside in the black community’s continuous struggle for things no person should be denied. Freedom.  Justice. Equality. Hope.

The pain and injustice of their suffering combined with the shame I felt at being a descendant of the group that perpetrated that pain, that injustice…that evil. Maybe it was just the shadow of the grey, rainy sky, but, in any case, a gloom settled over my spirit the longer I watched those bare, clawing trees speed past my window until hot tears pricked my eyes. The history of blacks’ oppression is the history of my privilege, however unconscious or unwilling.

Would I give up all my privileges, past, present and future, if doing so could undo all the years of suffering on the part of the African-Americans? I pray to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, that I would do so, but it really makes no difference, does it? No earthly power can undo the past. As much as the trees humbled me, even led along a path of despair, they were also my guides to hope concerning the future as well.

The sight of new buds on the branches of a few deciduous trees harkened the arrival of spring, the time of rebirth, growth and revival. The chance to put aside the harsh realities of winter…never forgotten, but no longer an impediment to the fresh start promised by those tender green buds. Looking at them, I realized that is what the present is for me. A chance to put aside the horrors of the history that created the world in which I live, so that they do not become a paralyzing obstacle to any work I do, to ensure a future that more closely fulfills the cries of the African-American community across the years.

Freedom. Justice. Equality. Hope.

I don’t know yet what my role is to be in bringing about that future, nor what sort of tasks will be laid before me, nor what sacrifices will be required of me to shape that future. I do know that every time I think of trees now, I will be drawn back to Alabama and their silent order to ensure that their lesson will never be forgotten.

“We who are living possess the past. Tomorrow is for our martyrs.” ― James Farmer, co-founder of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), member of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), and initiator/organizer of the 1961 Freedom Ride

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Meeting heroes of the Movement

An update from Ana Sophia, a senior human rights major with a minor in French:

The Civil Rights pilgrimage has proved to be a beautiful trip that not only tells, but also brings to life American history.

It is surprising to discover how many important facts are untold in American history about the Civil Rights Movement that I learned in Dr. Simon’s Civil Rights course. Furthermore, it is astonishing to discover how much more there is to these stories and events once you experience visiting certain sites, and especially, meeting various Civil Rights heroes.

This trip provides an invaluable opportunity for students to meet the heroes of a Movement that took place not long ago. It is an honor and a privilege to be able to meet such individuals and listen to their stories. To feel what they felt and actually visit the places certain events took place. It is a dive into the past where people of color and whites were ordered not to mix publicly by law.

It is an intellecutal, emotional and even spiritual journey as you share the struggle of civil rights, of human rights. The call to action of each of these individuals you meet remains the most valuable part of the trip for me. Their suffering and struggle cannot go to waste. We are nowhere near done, and meeting such distinguished individuals as those you encounter on the trip pushes you to develop your own skills so as to reach your full potential and play your own role in creating a more just nation today.

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Day 6: Montgomery/Tuskegee

An update from Hayley, a junior majoring in anthropology, French and human rights:

Our first stop this morning was the Rosa Parks museum, and I really enjoyed the experience. I was a bit hesitant at first because I have been to some strange “interactive” museums, but this one truly captured the spirit of the Montgomery bus boycott. Watching the re-enactment of Rosa Parks’ arrest made me picture being surrounded by a mob of jeering and rude faces. Her stoicism and courage in this moment was reflected in the film, and her sense of unwavering calm was inspiring.

After the museum, Sorsha, Erin, Yusra, and I visited the Alabama state capitol as well as the Supreme Court building. The capitol was beautiful and filled with so much history. I stood on the steps where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as president of the Confederacy and walked where the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers ended their long journey. The capitol was also beneficial as a learning experience because it tied many of the other events and people we have learned about together. We saw a portrait of Governor George Wallace in the main room as well as a statue of his wife, Lurleen. Knowing the complex story of Wallace’s background and hunger for power made the context of the capitol building all the more interesting.

After lunch at an old-style soda shop (appropriate for the time period we are studying), we traveled to Tuskegee and visited the Human Rights and Multicultural Center there. It was a strange set-up, including the history of the city from the dinosaur age to the modern CRM. The most interesting part of the museum for me was the information on the Tuskegee Institute syphilis study. I had studied this before in a couple of my human rights classes, but seeing the campus where the research took place as well as photographs of the participants themselves made the information really sink in.

One photograph that struck me was one picturing a three-inch needle in the back of one of the participants: This needle was used to extract fluid from the spine to test for neuro-syphilis and the caption explained that no anesthesia was used. This epitomized the cruelty of the experiments as well as the overall deception of the program. I am still shocked by this use of human beings as mere cadavers, especially after the cruelty of the Nazis was revealed after WWII. I also found out that President Clinton officially apologized for the experiments in 1997, which is something I had not known before.  Although I am glad that President Clinton showed remorse for these events, it is really the conductors of the experiments that should be apologizing.

One of my favorite parts of the day was visiting Tuskegee University and Booker T. Washington’s house. I loved the feel of the campus and how welcoming it was. I also was excited to see the context in which critical portions of the CRM took place, such as the work and murder of Sammy Younge, Jr. I felt that the stories of this town have been largely overshadowed by those in Montgomery and Birmingham, and I’m glad the museum and university take the opportunity to showcase the city’s role.

Tonight we arrived in Birmingham and listed to lawyer and human rights activist Stephen Black discuss his NGO, Impact Alabama, and the race issue in general. I definitely had my “aha” moment tonight! We were all in awe of Mr. Black’s call to action and specificity in defining exactly what we needed to do in order to improve society. He did not sugarcoat anything and let no injustice go unnoticed, the true mark of a dedicated human rights activist. I was inspired by his work in education and health care for Alabama children and would love to apply after I graduate!

 

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Being ordinary

An update from Hiba, a junior majoring in biochemistry and human rights with a minor in Arabic:


Hiba on Martin Luther King Jr.'s porch in Montgomery

Hiba on Martin Luther King Jr.’s porch in Montgomery

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about change is that it often comes in the form of a person. Not an extraordinary person. Just an ordinary person.

It is that ordinary person — the one who lives under the same house that you and I consider “home,” who is plagued by the same fears you and I wonder about late at the night, and who unearths strength from the same kind of love that we associate with family, in religion, or in people.

Today was a reminder of that concept.

If you ask a fifth grader in Texas about Montgomery, they will tell you it is the capital of Alabama and expect you to comment on how great they are for knowing that. If you ask a fifth grader in Alabama, you’ll get a different story: It is where Martin Luther King Jr. first served as the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and where you can see his first house, it is the spot where many civil rights advocates met in the March from Selma-to-Montgomery and many were involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and it is the place where you can still meet numerous ordinary people — like Martin Luther King Jr. — alive and willing to tell us their stories.

We went to all those places today: Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr.’s first home, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a relic of the segregated bus system.

As I looked in on the humble structure Dr. King called his home, I realized how ordinary this man was: He was a closet smoker who hid his cigarette buds from his wife, he sat in a normal chair and desk to write his sermons, and he would, like any college student would, go to the kitchen to make coffee when he was stressed. I looked out of the porch that he probably looked out of when contemplating the future of the civil rights movement.

What is it that separates any other person from this individual? A vision, confidence, courage, and, what I’m starting to realize is the most important, a lot of faith in people.

Hiba with Rev. Robert and Jeannie Graetz in Montgomery

Hiba with Rev. Robert and Jeannie Graetz in Montgomery

It is one thing to realize that this might be the case, and another to meet individuals who show these traits. Today, I also had the opportunity to have dinner with two other of those ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary feats in the name of justice: Mr. Robert Graetz, his wife Ms. Jeannie Graetz, and Ms. Vera Harris.

When you first see them, they seem like the typical senior citizens you find owning you at pool or bingo at the senior center. But, they’re tougher than they look. Mr. Graetz, a white pastor who served a black congregation in the 1940s in Montgomery, Alabama, openly worked with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Montgomery Improvement Association to spearhead the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He wrote a book we read in class, A White Preacher’s Memoir — that I got signed! He and his wife are an inspiration. A warm couple that stood up in a time where being a white American didn’t mean accepting differences.

Then, there was Ms. Vera Harris, who is the sweetest lady I have ever met and who was Martin Luther King Jr.’s neighbor. Her humbleness when talking about her participation, and her smile. She and her family worked vigorously in the campaign for civil rights — housing freedom riders, giving first aid and treatment to marchers from the Selma-to-Montgomery-March, and living a life of nonviolent protest.

I guess being ordinary isn’t that bad.

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Where Dr. King felt doubt

An update from Michelle, a sophomore human rights and anthropology major:

Montgomery, Alabama, is a city full of history in regards to the civil rights movement. We saw only a part of that today, including the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King was pastor, the Civil Rights Memorial, the Dexter Parsonage and the Freedom Riders Museum. We had an awesome talk with Reverend and Mrs. Graetz, Vera Harris and her daughter.

One moment of the day that really stuck out to me was when we were visiting the Parsonage, where the King family lived from 1956 to 1960. His house looked just as I imagined any house to look at the time.

While in that stereotypical kitchen, we listened to a clip from one of Dr. King’s speeches. He talked about how one night, he got a call that threatened his life and his family. This was nothing new to him, of course, but it has particularly rattled him that time, so he got up and made himself a cup of coffee in that very kitchen so he could think and hopefully get to bed. It was there that he wondered why he was doing this, and if he should keep going. He revealed his uneasiness for himself and his wife as well as his newborn daughter.

Hearing that voice that we all recognize as THE voice of the movement express any doubts, especially standing in the very place where he lived, worked, and then had those doubts, humanized him. History discusses MLK as an icon. Sometimes it is hard to remember there was a real man behind that icon, rather than just a name in a book. King is generally viewed as being unwavering, as the unafraid leader of the people.

Standing in that ’60s-era kitchen, listening to him talk about those internal struggles that he had at that very table, connected us all to him in a way I wasn’t expecting. There, MLK was humanized, which gives me even more respect for the work he continued to do throughout the movement. Humanizing and making real the struggle for civil rights and the people who experienced it is a recurring theme through this trip.

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Our point of uncertainty

An update from Genesis, a junior political science and human rights major:

Today was filled with so many things. The Civil Rights Memorial, Alabama State University lunch, King Parsonage, Dexter Avenue Church and dinner with the Gretzes, Veera Harris and Dr. Varla Montgomery at O’Dessa’s. Where to begin? Where to begin?

Well, the Civil Rights Memorial is amazing because it fills in the places where other museums leave off. Such as the 13-year-old boy who was killed the same day as the church bombing that killed four little girls. It keeps not only its visitors but also the world abreast of those who continually want to spread hatred. Lunch at Alabama State University was fun. At this HBCU (historically black college and university), I wonder how my life would be different if I went there.

Next, I’ll talk about the Dexter Avenue Church and the Parsonage where the Kings stayed. It’s always a walk back in time to go to these places because they contain the same furniture from that time and these museums have worked hard to preserve the time period.

This is my favorite part of the whole trip because I am obsessed with Martin Luther King’s enlightenment. Because oftentimes we set Dr. King on a platform, with a god-like presence that can’t be touched. He sits above us and changed the world, and was assassinated. All the good ones usually are – Jesus, Malcolm X, JFK, so many others.

But I love this part because it humanizes the great man whom we all celebrate, MLK. Even in all of his greatness he had that point of uncertainty. A point where he had to tap into a source deeper and greater than himself; he realized he couldn’t handle it all. It’s a point I think we all get to, where everything stops for us and we have to look up to our source of strength and ask, Are we going in the right direction?

It is this reflection that I love because oftentimes in our quest of purpose and destiny, our own mind and those circumstances that surround us cause us to question ourselves. However it is in those times where we must look up and receive a word from the God that placed us on this earth, just as Dr. King did.

Last but not least the EXCELLENT dinner at Odessa’s and the great stories and conversations with the Gretzes, Veera Harris, Dr. Montgomery, and her grandchildren. The amount of history and love that was shown in that room fills me up. Through these individuals I have truly learned that love is not an action, it is not even a way of life, but it envelops you in the same manner that hatred does – it just has a better outcome. Love is shown all over these four people, and their love toward justice and love toward doing what is right inspires me.

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Reminders of racism

An update from Hayley, a junior majoring in anthropology, French and human rights:

Day three was a really fun, rejuvenating day! I managed to stay awake for the documentary about Nashoba County on the way from Jackson to Philadelphia. The story is so fascinating.  I found it so sad when Chaney’s mother was interviewed, saying that if none of the victims had been white, then her son’s case never would have been touched. It was honestly despicable. His family had to suffer just like the other two victims’ families.

The most enraging part of the film, however, was any interview with Killen.  That he could still harbor so much hatred for a people that had never done anything to him was unbelievable. It reminded me that, especially in Mississippi, racism still exists today.  I also found it very interesting that the whole case is still a tender topic because many of the perpetrators are still alive. I wonder if more details will emerge after there are no more witnesses.

By far my favorite part of the day was going to the service at Stevens Chapel. The environment was so welcoming, and I was grateful that the congregation warmly took us in. Ray’s speech was unbelievable and so moving. I actually found it very refreshing that this church provided an example of how Christianity (or any religion for that matter) and human rights can be reconciled. These days it seems like Christianity has been attributed to more hatred (Westboro Baptist, for example) than good, and I was so proud of this church for proclaiming equality.

The environment was so fun with everyone engaged in the service, and I felt like a part of the community.  Also, that our group contains Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Christians and atheists made the experience especially powerful.  Regardless of religious beliefs, we could all agree on the fact that “no one ‘deserves’ anything.”

It was also an incredible experience to drive to Mt. Zion UMC.  As we were passing through the forest, all I could think of was that this is one of the last sights that Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman saw.  The forest has a strange spookiness about it, especially when you consider what happened there: KKK meetings, kidnappings and murder.

On a more positive note, I really enjoyed listening to Mrs. Jules talk, especially after seeing her in the film earlier this morning. She has an amazing story and I admire her work in forming the Philadelphia Commission and seeking justice.  She is a true leader of her community and I am honored to have spoken with her.

Later in the evening during our reflection time, I found out that one of the people in the room had been related to the African-American “snitch” who alerted the KKK about the freedom school at Mt. Zion. I had wondered what was going on when Mrs. Jules circumvented the question about inside informants. It seems that the community is still very tender about this subject, and I understand why. I just hope that our curiosity did not make the situation too awkward. Pastor Peggy relieved some of the tension by picking up the slack in conversation, and I found it interesting that she confirmed the snitch rumor.

Even 50 years after this crime I could see the toll the agony of human loss took on the community.

The congregation at Mt. Zion was so sweet and the meal was DELICIOUS! I haven’t had real Southern cooking in a long time, and I definitely missed it!

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