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.

National Voting Museum and Tabernacle Baptist Church

An update from Jazmin, a senior majoring in Spanish:

“Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having your legs cut off, and then being condemned for being a cripple.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here, 1967

The National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, Selma, AlabamaOur day started off at the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma, Alabama. This place was overwhelmed with artifacts and history of the events that occurred during the journey towards voting rights for people of color. I was drawn to the pictures of the officials that were hitting and hurting the “foot soldiers” (term for civil rights activists who were in the marches for equality). I also loved that every picture was black and white. I believe these pictures showed a message of clarity. The message of the marches and the violence towards the activist was an issue in which there was no shade of grey to defend, only acts of embarrassment.

I learned many things from this museum, from images of the most important people of the movement, to woman’s rights, and even the description of Gandhi’s message which Martin Luther King coined during the fight towards becoming first-class citizens.

Jazmin at Tabernacle Baptist ChurchAs you can guess…it only keeps getting better from here on out. When we arrived at Tabernacle Baptist Church, I was absolutely mind-blown by the surprise appearance of several foot soldiers themselves! I had the pleasure of coming face to face with history. I was in the presence of some of the most incredible people I had ever met.

On March 7, 1967, about 600 peaceful and determined marchers were firm on walking from Selma to Montgomery (roughly 52 miles) where they would utilize the march for national publicity to prove the unfairness of voter registration practices. Also, it was a form of protest for the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who died in 1965 from injuries he received while protecting his 82-year-old grandfather during a nonviolent protest. As the protestors approached the Selma Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by local police and state troopers. The foot soldiers were ordered that if they did not stop the march in three minutes, that there would be consequences.

The marchers continued with no hesitation. It was then that they were attacked with sticks, whips, tear gas, batons, and anything that the officials could get hold of. The beating did not stop at the bridge. It also continued throughout the town for the whole day. If there was an African American in sight, they were a target for cruelty. The aftermath of this cannot be put into words. Many who did not make it to the churches for protection were found beaten so badly that they lay unconscious, with bones broken, soaked in their own blood. The colored people were helpless, with no one to ask for aid since the people in power were the ones doing the beating.

Today we call this day “Bloody Sunday.” Though there was a second, symbolic march to the Pettus Bridge accomplished on March 9, 1965, the events of Bloody Sunday can never be justified nor forgotten.

Joanne Blackmon Bland and Annie Pearl Avery were among the “foot soldiers” I got to meet today. Joanne Bland spoke to us with pride and courage as she described what she went through in order to voice her beliefs. From being in jail over 10 times by the age of 13, to servicing and motivating other marchers, Joanne Bland never gave up. She is still strong facing racial issues today. She refuses to let history repeat itself and emphasizes that no matter how much her and her peers had done, there is never enough work to get done because racism is still alive today.

Annie Pearl Avery was also such an inspiration. Her kind words of wisdom reached my heart the way no other person had. Annie’s stories and messages promoted equality, power, dedication, strength, and most of all love. These strong women have been a constant reminder that I need to cherish my rights and my equality. Had it not been for the voice of many individuals in this nation, I could not sit here today expressing my thoughts, beliefs nor opinions. I am, and forever will be, in the debt of amazing individuals whom have impacted this nation with their strength and courage.

The price of equality has been death in many cases, and I need to realize that freedom was just not given to me; it was fought for gruesomely with blood, tears, and much valor. I believe now more than anything that with all these experiences, I will never take my freedom and voice for granted. I am learning to cherish every minute of every day of my freedom. Great Americans of any type of service who have fought for me and my country, I can never repay you or thank you all enough for your determination and courage. I am truly blessed!

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Choosing nonviolence

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

Growing up takes patience with yourself and with those around you.

Selma, Alabama, is a quaint old town that values its history. It is a place where relics of the past stare at you and say “do not forget our history”: you can see the divide between the tiny rickety houses where African-Americans lived on one side of railroad and the beautiful antebellum houses of the white people on the other side. While driving around, you will see old theaters with a blacks-only entrance at the side and a county courthouse that you might associate with great protests and riots. Most important and most unique, you will see these preserved churches that shine as beacons of progress and change in an otherwise unchanging town.

On March 7, 1965, over 600 people marched on foot from Selma to Montgomery to protest African-American exclusion from the electoral process and the unjust death of Jimmie Lee Jackson – an African-American who had been killed while protecting his 82-year-old-grandfather at another protest. The marchers made it as far as Edmund Pettus Bridge (still in Selma) before state and local police attacked. Tear gas was in the air and the stain of blood on the ground as people were clubbed to death by local police; there was the sound of bones breaking as police horses trampled over marchers, and the general sense of panic as marchers saw the limp bodies of friends on the ground…

Today, at the Tabernacle Baptist Church (the site of the first mass Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee meeting in Selma), I met a woman who explained all this hate and hurt that she experienced as one of the foot soldiers on that Bloody Sunday. Despite all of it, she decided to practice nonviolence because “she was growing up.”

I hope I can grow up that strong one day.

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Our right to vote

An update from Michael, a sophomore majoring in human rights and religious studies and minoring in Arabic and ethics:

Today in Selma we had the privilege of speaking with some foot soldiers of the civil rights movement. One thread that ran through their speeches was the importance of voting. I heard what actually had to take place for all people to vote.

This strengthened my resolve to remain politically active. I was slightly disappointed with some of the local races in the last election, and was feeling a little discouraged. This inspired me to continue with my efforts to encourage people to vote, and to not take that right for granted.

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‘Ella’s Song’ and Medgar Evers’ home

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

We watched “Ghosts of Mississippi” on the way to Jackson today. Incredible. It was definitely the best acting that Whoopi Goldberg has ever done, and that’s including “Ghost.” I even loved Alec Baldwin in the film; it’s the only thing I’ve ever seen him in that I liked. Its depiction of the long, bitter struggle for justice concerning the cold-blooded murder of Jackson civil rights activist Medgar Evers by Byron De La Beckwith, the epitome of white supremacists, was masterful.

The entire time we were watching it, indeed, the entire day, I’ve had the well-known protest song “Ella’s Song” stuck in my head: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes. Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons.”

I couldn’t figure out why this song has been entrenched so deeply in my mind ever since I woke up this morning. It was only that one lyric, and honestly, it was more the two-line chorus than anything else.

Little RockWhen we visited Little Rock Central High today, the pull of the song was even stronger in my mind, but I actually left feeling a little disappointed in myself. Seeing the school where nine young children displayed more courage, dignity, and grace than thousands of adults, black and white, as they endured a living hell day after day for the benefit of future generations, was so exciting. My disappointment, however, stemmed from the failure of that excitement to mature into a deeper, more meaningful realization of what those nine students had to suffer, or what they achieved because of it.

I felt like a tourist when I was supposed to be a pilgrim. A pilgrimage is “a long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.” I’m not saying that I wasn’t having a good time. I loved getting to know my classmates better, talking and laughing with them, and generally just enjoying a beautiful day of Spring Break with my friends. What I am saying is that when we pulled out of Little Rock, my purpose didn’t feel so exalted, and I was definitely having a hard time grasping the “moral significance” of what we had seen.

“Ella’s Song” stilled echoed in my mind.

As we drove on to Jackson, I kept telling myself that it was only the first day, that it was all right if I hadn’t had a deeply transformative experience yet, that I should be careful about putting so much weight on my friends’ testimonies of life-changing revelations on the trip because “it was possible that even *this* trip could have been overly hyped up.” Yet the nagging anxiety that I was somehow missing the entire point of the trip continued to plague me.

I finally gave up and did the only thing I know to do when I have worries that just will not be silenced: I prayed. My Christian faith is the bedrock of my life that allows me to make sense of a world that too often just does not make sense. I wish I could say that it was a long passionate plea that transformed me into a truly pious pilgrim, but I have the unfortunate habit of getting extremely carsick whenever I try to read (or, apparently, write) in a vehicle, so even just a short “Lord, help my heart and mind to be open to your presence on this trip. I know I will be wondering, ‘God, where were you when this happened?’ and, ‘God, how am I supposed to respond to this tragedy?’ and many other things, so please help me to be aware and attentive to your Spirit moving. I don’t want to waste this trip,” required an hourlong nap for me to recover. When I awoke, “Ghosts of Mississippi” was just beginning and “Ella’s Song” resumed its haunting chorus in my mind.

The film definitely touched me; I’ll admit that I even teared up several times, but I cry every time I watch Belle say “I love you” to the Beast just before his transformation, so I didn’t think of my tears as significant.

It wasn’t until the bus came to an unexpected stop, and I looked out the window to see a house and a blood-stained carport, made recently familiar to me, that God began to separate the chaff of my tourist attitude from the precious kernel of the pilgrim within. As we piled off the bus to gather around the very house where Medgar Evers was gunned down, I began to take pictures.

Photography has been a hobby of mine for several years, and I particularly love it for my travels because it provides a cheap but extremely personal manner of obtaining souvenirs. I have taken many photos on this trip already, trying to capture forever the little details and thoughts that come to my attention during our trip, so there was nothing new about me breaking out my camera.

What was new was the irrational level of frustration I experienced when my camera decided not to cooperate. The darkness essentially overcame my camera’s ability to find something to focus on in the darkness, without which it.would.not.take.the.picture. It didn’t matter what I did. Flash, no flash, nothing was working. I was about to give up and just stand there, pouting, in the darkness when Professor Simon called our attention to something on the ground. It was the bloodstains, now 50 years old, the testimony of one man’s courage and another man’s cowardice.

Our coordinator, Ray Jordan, subsequently began to tell us more about Evers’ death, things the film hadn’t gone into. He spoke of how half of Evers’ chest had been blown away by the exit of the bullet from the 30.06. (My family hunts regularly; I have seen up close just what that caliber rifle can do to a deer from a hundred yards away. To imagine what it would have done to a man from less than thirty yards away ices my stomach and makes my blood race like fire!)

Ray went on to describe how Evers was still alive and conscious of his wounds (in a limited way) as he and his family waited…and waited…and waited. First, for the ambulance to take its own sweet time in arriving at the scene; second, for the doctors at the nearest hospital — a “whites only” hospital — to come up with every excuse they could think of to not treat Medgar Evers in “their” hospital; third, for one white doctor, who agreed to take all liability on himself in order to treat Evers, to get prepped for all the necessary operations. Ultimately, the Evers family, the Klu Klux Klan, and the white hospital community all waited for the same thing: for Medgar Evers to die.

I listened and stared at the bloodstained concrete and felt a rush of hot shame wash over me until it bordered on physical pain.

Here, a man had been assassinated in one of the most cowardly manners possible, a shot in the back, in the dark, from in hiding.

Here, a man had been slain for standing up for his dignity and the dignity of millions more.

Medgar Evers had fought to bring equality, justice, freedom, hope, in essence, a future to the African-American community.

And I was upset because I couldn’t take a picture of the scene of the crime?

Justice had been delayed for more than 40 years while a heartless, cruel man guilty of murder walked in the free air and bragged about it.

And I was angry that I couldn’t get a snapshot for my scrapbook or whatever?!

I hadn’t thought my tears significant earlier, but I knew better as I felt them gush down my cheeks in the darkness of the bus ride to the hotel. That was the moment that this trip became something more to me, something real, beyond simply educational or motivational or inspirational. It was transformed in ways that, unfortunately, I have no words to describe. Talk about, “Be careful what you pray for!”

I asked God to teach me during this trip, and with just a malfunctioning camera and a few drops of blood, He managed to call into question my motives concerning the trip, my ability to see through the present and into the past, AND my ability to empathize with the pain and despair of people whose struggles are not my own, and I’m a History and Human Rights major for crying out loud!!

I wanted so badly to ask Medgar Evers for his forgiveness at that point, but, obviously, that luxury was not an option for me. Ironically, my camera did end up taking a few pictures, though they were all far below what I would have considered my normal standards. However, I have come to see that imperfection as a gift.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and the one shaky, dark image that I have is worth far more than that. It reminds me to pursue God’s justice, not artistic beauty or technical perfection. In my one image is my safeguard against forgetting once more about the importance of humanity’s struggles and doing what I can to alleviate them, spiritually, physically, emotionally, materially, or intellectually. So thanks, Lord, for a faulty camera and a good, solid thump on the head for a wake-up call.

Evers' Home

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Pilgrimage Day 2: Mount Zion Church

An update from Jazmin, a senior majoring in Spanish:

Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner memorial at Mount Zion Church, MississippiToday we went to Mount Zion Church, where two white men and one African American man – Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney – worked during Freedom Summer just before their gruesome murders. The three activists were heavily involved in the civil rights movement, where equality was always a priority. Because Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were both white men who supported the movement, the Ku Klux Klan became intimidated by the kind of power and success the movement would obtain with white men on its side.

The three men had been working to register black voters in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. After investigating the burning of a church, the group was arrested by the police on non-legitimate charges. The men were imprisoned for several hours and released after dark into the hands of the KKK, who then beat and murdered them in the worst possible way. It was not until more than 40 years later that the murder case was tried. In addition, though there were many members involved in the killings, only one Klan member, Edgar Ray Killen, was convicted for them and sentenced to three terms of 20 years in jail.

Jazmin in MississippiMy thoughts on this event were inspirational. Though the event occurred in 1964, the civil rights activists never stopped fighting for justice. The pain one can endure from the loss of a loved one is by far one of the worst that could exist. To know that a person you love was killed in such a horrendous way makes matters that much worse. I am proud that justice was served. I am glad that after all the wrong in the world, some good has come out of it. I was happy to know that the suffering of the people was heard.

It gives me much courage and hope that it was individuals that made a difference. We learn about the civil rights movement as a whole, and do not look at it in depth enough to realize that it was only about individuals.

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From fear to free

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

I never realized how similar “fear” and “free” sound until today.

Today we were able to meet Ms. Jewel, an African-American woman whose family members were beaten and abused in the Mount Zion Church before the building of God was burned down because its members were trying to create freedom schools, freedom houses and more institutions to promote voting within the marginalized African-American community (better known as Freedom Summer).

Ms. Jewel discussed the hate omnipresent within the community – the KKK robes found in a white man’s home by an African-American maid who was cleaning and the knowledge that African-American children could not go to a particular store because of the white people running it. She decided to go to the North with her husband. Fear led her to leave her home for a new one. And, the idea of being free brought her back to her home in Mississippi to fight – fight to ensure that her story and the stories of others subjected to hate are in Mississippi textbooks; fight to make sure that true freedom is attained by those who desire it.

With her story in mind, we continued on our journey toward Selma. The bus drives are long, but they give me a chance to think about things that make us human, the things that make us want to fight, and the things that make us want to back down at times. It also makes for opportunities to bond with your fellow pilgrims and take bored pictures…..

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In the footsteps of the Little Rock Nine

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

This morning we woke up, scarfed our continental breakfast, and headed straight into the thick of history that was Little Rock Central High School. It was here that the “Little Rock 9” first integrated Arkansas high schools.

In the dominant narrative that most people learn in regards to this historical event, they went to the high school, people protested, the governor tried to stop it, and then the president sent soldiers who escorted the students in, and then all was well and integrated. As we have come to learn in class and readings, though, it was not quite that simple.

The nine black students who integrated Central took three weeks to get into that school. The first day, Elizabeth Eckford arrived alone. She braved a crowd of about 200 people protesting her arrival and was bombarded with terrible insults, ending the walk down the street with her handmade dress soaked in spit.

The first thing I noticed about this was just how long that street is in front of the high school. I can’t imagine having to walk down that, head held high while hundreds of people told you how they did not want you there, solely based on the color of your skin. The sheer size of the school was also something that was both impressive and a bit haunting — to have to go to a place that big, filled with people who either hated you or were afraid to associate with you, every day — as Minnijean Brown put it, was “7 hours of hell.”

Another thing I noticed immediately were the four statues on the face of the building, right above the doors; they were each labeled, reading “Ambition, Personality, Opportunity, and Preparation.” This struck me, especially the one that represented opportunity. The Little Rock 9 were coming to Central High to get equal opportunities and were blatantly denied for three weeks. Once they got into the high school, I still would not say that the educational opportunities were close to the white students’. Although they then had the same teachers and the same classes, they were subjected to daily torture; to be able to flourish in an environment like that seems nearly impossible to me.

Little Rock even closed its high schools for a year in protest of this integration. I wonder what the difference in experience would have been had all 200 students who applied to Central High been able to attend – whether it would have been better or worse for the students and the reactions of the public.

Whenever I go on trips like this, I try to put myself in the person’s shoes. In this case, I had to try to fathom what it would feel like if I were Elizabeth Eckford or any of the brave nine students. I walked up to that looming brick building, walked up those stairs, and looked at those same doors they had to pass through every day. I found that putting myself in that position was … well, just plain hard.

This was a high school, right now, that normal kids still attend. I could have very well attended this school if I had lived in Little Rock, and yet not too long ago in 1957, the atrocities that were segregation, discrimination and blatant racism were happening on those very steps and in those very halls. The place felt so normal that to try to imagine the hatred that was harbored there was outside the scope of my imagination.

The only thing that made it a little more real to me was that it was exactly like the pictures. The only difference between the pictures and what I saw was that instead of seeing a mob of angry whites crowding around Elizabeth Eckford, I saw my diverse group of civil rights pilgrims standing there, or sitting on top of the “Little Rock Central High School” sign. I saw ROTC students of all races and colors running around the campus. And those sights I saw today were what made me leave with hope in people and the progress that we have made and can continue to make.

Being at that school brought history to life. It was real, and right in front of me, in a way that was so tangible that it made it so real and so unreal at the same time.

Across the street from the high school campus was the visitor’s center for the high school; it is a National Historic Site. (Imagine going to a high school that is a National Historic Site, in front of which state officials every so often give talks!) There we watched a short documentary on the events that happened at Little Rock Central High, and this quote really stood out to me: “Hate is much easier to organize than understanding.” It is a line that applies not only to the events of Central High, not only to the Civil Rights Movement, but also to humanity.

What is easy is not always right, and what is right is not always easy. The Little Rock 9 chose their struggle for not only the betterment of their own lives, but also for the rights of their fellow man. The people who protested their integration of Central were those who chose what was easy at the time, what was expected of them. If we all did that, I would fear for the world we live in. The Little Rock 9 did more than integrate an Arkansas high school, but set an example for their fellow man as to how to do what is right, despite the consequences.

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Pilgrimage Day 1: Little Rock Central High School

An update from Jazmin, a senior majoring in Spanish:

Little Rock Central High School

“The effort to separate ourselves whether by race, creed, color, religion, or status is as costly to the separator as to those who would be separated.” – Melba Pattillo Beals

Jazmin in Little Rock

Today was the first official day of our pilgrimage. Our group got to go to Little Rock Central High School where in 1957, nine African American students attempted, for the first time, to integrate the school. On May 17, 1954 the United States Court issued Brown v. Board of Education, which declared by law that segregated schools  be unconstitutional. With this law being passed, the United States was entitled to desegregate all schools throughout the nation. After this decision, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) attempted to register black students into all-white schools throughout the south. Little Rock Central High was one of the best schools in the state, the African Americans community wanted equal education and equal opportunity. Most importantly, the NAACP wanted to challenge Brown v. Board of Education to make sure the law would be carried out.

Little Rock Central High: To many this was a facility of education, but to the Little Rock Nine it was a place of hatred and intolerance. For them, the school was a constant battlefield. They were pushed, bullied, spat, hit, ridiculed and threatened. This was a fight for equality! The nine teenagers ranging from the ages of 15 to 17 years old were put to the test. Every day they awoke to get ready for school, was a conquering day. The Little Rock Nine were determined to face the racist crowd that awaited them each morning.

For me, this was such a memorable experience! Coming to the school and picturing the way situations occurred was a extraordinary experience. As our tour guide was explaining the history and also with the reading “Warriors Don’t Cry,” I questioned how the white man could have been so hateful to minority individuals. The Little Rock Nine were only young adults trying to better themselves for the future, like the other white students attending, and what even us today are attempting to do. To walk up to the steps of the school every day facing such hatred is inspiring. Though the school was shut down for a year because the town preferred to be punished than desegregate, I am glad that they all graduated and had promising futures. This story inspires me to be grateful and take action for my rights as a minority. It is because of people like them who pushed for equality and a better education that has allowed me to come to school today freely without worries. I am forever grateful for their stand in society and am very proud that we got to come across such a historical architecture through our journey.

The Clinton Presidential Center

Jazmin at the Clinton Presidential CenterThough this was not on our itinerary, I am so thankful that we got a chance to stop and take a look! I absolutely loved it. There was so much history inside the museum in which I did not even know President Clinton was a part of or accomplished. I enjoyed all the images that allowed for easy learning and more than anything I loved the white house duplicated rooms. Also, at the end, the video that we got to watch was very informative. I learned the many good deeds that Clinton carried out as President, as well as some background history of himself which helped getting to know him on a personal level and not only as a president and politician, but as a person like us.

Medgar Wiley Evers Residence

For me, Medgar Evers was the most inspirational moment of the night. Though it was only a 20-minute stop,  that was enough to feel the tension of the crime scene. As we approached Medgar Evers house, we had no idea where we were and I thought to myself, “What are we doing? We’re in a neighborhood of a crime scene at 10 pm!” Getting off the bus, I remembered looking at the house and thinking, “How?! Why?! ” Medgar Wiley Evers was an educated civil rights activist. He sought equality and was deeply involved in the movement. Evers was involved in the NAACP and sadly, he knew this was a threat to his family, neighbors, and himself.

Evers knew that since he was very involved in the journey for equality, and simply for the color of his skin, he had to take every type of precaution. When he built his house, he made it to where there was no front door entrance. There was only a small side entrance and a back entrance so that if anything happened, there would be enough time to get out of the house. The KKK had planned the murder of Medgar. There were two plans for the KKK that night. One was that the Klan was going to attack Medgar when he was driving down the street, but to their surprise Medgars had taken another route. Still, the Klan was determined to kill him that evening and went to the extremities of placing a sniper in front of his house.

When Evers got out of his house the sniper got a good angle and shot him in the back with hunting rifle. The intensity behind the rifle was so powerful that half of his upper cavity was blown off. He pulled himself from the driveway to the front porch where he lay in front of the house bleeding out. The police took a while to get him to the nearest hospital, but worse was that the hospital was a white hospital. No one wanted to attend Medgar because he was black. Later, a white doctor decided to attend Medgars but it was too late at this point. Medgars had died within one hour of being shot.

Walking up to the house gave me chills. We stood in front of the porch where Evers had been assassinated. There were still blood stains on the floor next to the steps where Medgars had bled out so much. I saw the gun shots in the window, and the placement of the house where the driveway pulled through the back and side for safety. I was in awe at the fact that someone had such hate inside them to do something so gruesome. It angered me! It made me vicious! It made me sad! Was this my country we were still learning about?

It was at this point that I became ashamed of America. I looked at the house one last time, I pondered over the neighborhood, put my head down, and walked back to my seat on the bus. I know we are on the road to equality, but at that moment, I had never felt so ashamed of the country I had been living in.

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The long walk to Little Rock Central High

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

“The task that remains is to cope with our interdependence – to see ourselves reflected in every other human being and to respect and honor our differences.”

– Melba Beals

In 1957, nine warriors chose to cross a wide threshold (in reality, only a few yards), separating what society deemed appropriate and what they knew to be true. They stepped onto Little Rock Central High School’s campus, and history was made. Nine warriors –probably a better description would be nine teenagers, who were at most five years younger than me – represented the first steps toward actualized equality by walking into the high school.

Today, as our first day on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, I got to see their battleground – a place where 15-year-olds and 17-year-olds spat, ridiculed, and hurt the Little Rock Nine, one of whom was Melba Beals.

When our bus first stopped a street down from Little Rock Central High School, I looked at it with one of those cursory “oh-this-looks-like-the-picture-I-saw-in-my-high-school-textbook-next-to-desegregating-schools-cool.”

We got out of the bus; one by one the 30 or so students on the trip got down to look at the memorial a street from the school — far enough to where the Little Rock school wasn’t the focus of my attention but near enough for me to notice its presence. We looked at the memorial: pictures of the Little Rock 9 walking into the school buildings, the National Guard that escorted these teenagers into their classes, etc. Still, I wasn’t fazed —I had read the book Warriors Don’t Cry, I had listened to the lectures in my Civil Rights class, and I had read textbooks. I cried when I read the book. I felt terrible and guilty when I learned about it in history books. This was no big deal.

But then, we started walking. It wasn’t a super long walk, but, like any horribly out of shape college student whose idea of exercise is the walk to Mac’s Place for a late dinner around 11:30, I noticed every step I took to the building. And, as I walked toward the building, everything made sense. The steps I was taking so grudgingly were the same steps that Elizabeth Eckford took her first day of school. And I noticed things, scary things.

First, I noticed how big the looming building was. Now, I come from a pretty big high school, but this building was huge! There are statues at the top in the middle of the building that I liken to the creepy gargoyle figures you see in medieval-type churches. For anyone who doesn’t know, gargoyles equal evil. The building architecture is kind of cool, but it seems out of place for a high school. They have a pond sort of thing in the front of their high school. There are long pillars that I always associated with antebellum-period houses. I wondered if these were the things Elizabeth Eckford noticed when she walked to her battleground. Did she seem daunted by the antebellum-looking pillars? Did she get scared by the gargoyles? Did she want to run away?

Then, I noticed how long and empty the street was where I was walking.  We were there on a Saturday, so it makes sense for the street to be empty of people.

But, then I imagined the street with people.

Tons and tons of people.

Adults with scornful looks on their faces.

Apologetic adults who would turn their heads away from me even though they’re presence was to support segregation.

My future classmates glaring at me, maybe making fun of my clothes or my looks or my people.

News cameras asking me what the hell I was doing here.

And then, my friends — sure, I might not know their names and they were in different grades — but they believed in my cause, they believed in interdependence, they believed in humanity that goes beyond color, race, and, hopefully, religion and sex as well.

And, then, walking toward it all, knowing that life would be hard, that people would hurt you, feeling like it might be ok.

That is, until the first person spits at you. And reality hits. It wasn’t going to be ok for a long time … and then some more.

Looking at Little Rock Central High School up close held meaning for me at that moment because I understood the unsaid words written in our textbooks, the feelings that might have been hard to describe in a memoir or a book, and that I will never be able to write in this blog.

There was fear. There was nervousness. There was anger. There was hurt. There was hope. There was a future to fight for.

Around the pond I mentioned before, there were nine stone benches with each bench engraved with the name of one of the Little Rock Nine, including that of Melba Beal. Those engraved names instill courage in those looking hard enough.

Posted in SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2013 | Comments Off on The long walk to Little Rock Central High