Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2014

2014 marks the 10th Anniversary of the SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage. The eight-day bus journey takes students, faculty and staff to visit the American South’s civil rights landmarks and leaders in the movement. The group’s stops include Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas; the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama; Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King served as pastor; the campus of Ole Miss in Oxford; and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. King was assassinated.

Take the pledge to fight for freedom


An update from Kayla, a sophomore human rights and economics double major:

The Civil Rights Memorial and Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, opened my eyes to what fighting for human rights is all about; it’s not doing something to make you feel good, and it’s not helping out one group and neglecting others.

It’s about fighting for the freedom and equality of everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc. It’s about being the better person not because it makes you look better, but because it makes the community at large a better place for future generations. It’s about doing right for all humans.

Although in the back of my mind I had known this the whole time, today it was thrown in my face. As I took the pledge to fight for human rights in the museum, I took the pledge to make this world a better place than it was when I joined it.


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Pilgrims Meet Mr. and Mrs. Robert S. Graetz

An update from Melanie Johnson, coordinator in the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs:

Civil rights leaders, Mr. & Mrs. Robert S. Graetz. To meet them in my lifetime is phenomenal. They fought for rights that they currently had that others didn't and for that their house was bombed three times and their lives threaten numerous times. I can't say it enough---THANK YOU!!!

To meet the civil rights leaders Mr. and Mrs. Robert S. Graetz in my lifetime is phenomenal. They fought for rights they had that others didn’t, and for that their house was bombed three times and their lives threatened numerous times. I can’t say it enough – THANK YOU!!!

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An update from Karma, a junior majoring in political science and human rights, with a minor in law and legal reasoning:

Throughout my experience as a human rights major, and especially throughout my experience on this trip, I have thought a lot about our education system. What I find particularly distressing about our education system is the lack of holistic information we receive in elementary, middle and high school about the civil rights movement, and about our history in general.

When we learn about our history, we learn about it in such a distant and isolated manner. For example, when we learn about the persecution of Native Americans, we learn about it as if their persecution was that of an ancient time, and we fail even to make the connection that Native Americans exist in our country, and that they are still not given opportunities that they should have. This failure to recognize that the problem still exists is what breeds tolerance for football team names such as the Redskins.

Similarly, with the civil rights movement, we learn about these events as if they occurred in the distant past. Well, throughout my experience on this pilgrimage I have come to realize just how close and relevant the civil rights pilgrimage really is. Throughout the trip, I marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with thousands of people, including civil rights leader/U.S. Rep. John Lewis and one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sons.

I met the daughter of a neighbor of Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the Rev. Robert Graetz, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 – the year of the Montgomery bus boycott – and Mrs. Graetz. How incredible it is that I was able to participate in an event with people who were so connected to the movement, when throughout high school I never thought I would ever meet these people. They were just a part of the past.

Furthermore, I would like to point out that growing up, I did not know who John Lewis or the Graetz family were, or the role that they played in the civil rights movement. My understanding of the movement was (if we even got to the end of the textbook): Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, the Freedom Riders integrated buses, and people marched on Washington, and MLK Jr. had a dream. Boom. Problems solved.

This brings me to my next point. Because I was exposed to the civil rights movement in such isolated chunks, I never made the connection to the implications it has today. Throughout the pilgrimage, I witnessed an admiration for President Barack Obama in various museums, testimonies, etc. I began to wonder, is the connection simply about race?

My question was answered when I read Joanne Bland’s memoir, and how she said that, as a young woman who was involved in the civil rights movement, she feels instrumental in paving the way for having an African-American president today. I had never made this connection in my early life because I had been taught that with the passage of time, things improve. When, in reality, it is that with movements for social change, organizational efforts and a true stance for what is just bring change. I never made the connection because I had understood the movement through isolated events, and that after the march on Washington, the dream was achieved.

After this trip, I have understood the influence of the movement throughout time, until today with the election of our first black president, and have understood that the movement is not over yet.

Because of our sugarcoated education system, we fail to live up to our greatest potential both as individuals and as a nation. We consistently talk about raising our nation’s future leaders, and yet, when we do not teach our children about the civil rights movement, a movement that sparked the emergence of many other movements for social change, we fail to continue the efforts that many leaders and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement fought so hard to uphold.

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The March Continues

An update from Celesstia, a senior political science and Spanish major with minors in philosophy and German:

This trip has been more powerful than I anticipated. I knew that this would be a tremendous learning experience, but today I finally fully understood that I’m not only learning about history that before this week seemed far removed from me, but I am also learning about myself. I am learning more about who I am and the kind of person I want to be.

Participating in this pilgrimage made me realize that we are all connected to the civil rights movement. Not only do we all directly benefit from the work and sacrifices of thousands of people, but in many ways the fight for civil rights is not over. Every day we see examples of injustice. Millions of people continue to live in abject poverty. People are still discriminated against because of their race, sexual orientation, or religion. To paraphrase the great Joanne Bland, the world is like a jigsaw puzzle, we are all a piece in it, and the picture is not complete unless everyone’s piece is there. We all have something we can do, a part that we can play, in order to achieve true equality and justice.

I am learning to connect to history in a very personal way. I am connecting to people who struggled, fought, and lost their lives during the civil rights movement. When I see pictures of little girls who in 1963 were murdered in a church in Birmingham, all I can think of is my little sister. My heart breaks for their families and I can’t imagine how anyone could possibly murder innocent children.

We can connect to the past because we’re all human. We can use this knowledge and connection to the past in order to fight against the injustices of the present. Joanne wanted us to find our own piece in the puzzle in order to make the world a better place.

Visiting the civil rights memorial and the Southern Poverty Law Center cemented this idea for me. Although the memorial and museum are dedicated to the many people whose lives were taken during the civil rights movement, they said that atrocities and human rights violations are still occurring in the world today. They emphasized that “the march continues.”  The fight for equality is not over. What is your piece in the puzzle?

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Keep marching!

An update from Bettye, who is earning her Master of Liberal Studies:


Yesterday, at Alabama State University, I had the great honor of sitting beside Dr. Julian Bond. A memory forever. Keep marching!!!

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I am here now

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

We traveled to Selma, Alabama, earlier this week and were privileged to have Joanne Bland guide us through Selma’s history and take us back in time to her participation in the civil rights movement. Ray Jordan, one of our leaders, warned us she had a big personality – and that she did.


Mollie and Joanne Bland

Amongst my fellow pilgrims, I was trying to blend in and follow Joanne’s explicit rules and instructions. Naturally, as I’m trying to avoid drawing attention to myself, Joanne asks me to come stand by her. (As a side note, she called me Ray Charles because we apparently resemble each other. I’m just guessing it had something to do with my sunglasses.) As I stood next to Joanne, she looked me in the eyes and said to me, by the grace of God you were born the color you are, and because of that you have not had to suffer like I had to. I could not find the words to respond to her remark.

Throughout this journey I constantly ask myself, where would I have been if I were alive in 1965? Although I hope and pray I would have been at Joanne’s side fighting for justice, I won’t ever know the answer to that, but what I do know is that I am here now. As we have heard repeatedly this week, the fight is not over, and I am here now.

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Pilgrims March with Thousands

An update from Melanie Johnson, coordinator in the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs:

Pilgrims participated in the march across Edmund Pettus Bridge in commemoration of 'Bloody Sunday'

Pilgrims participated in the march across Edmund Pettus Bridge in commemoration of ‘Bloody Sunday’

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Pilgrims with Alabama Leaders

The Civil Rights Pilgrims are also posting on Facebook.

Great group shot of this year's pilgrims with U.S. House Representative Terri Sewell and Mayor of Montgomery Todd Strange.

Great group shot of this year’s pilgrims with U.S. House Representative Terri Sewell and Mayor of Montgomery Todd Strange.

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Photo from Selma

An update from Alexandra, a junior majoring in history and human rights with a minor in Arabic:

Civil rights mural featuring the Rev. James Reeb and Jimmy Lee Jackson, taken in Selma near the Voting Rights Museum.

Civil rights mural featuring the Rev. James Reeb and Jimmie Lee Jackson, who were slain while supporting civil rights. The mural is in Selma, Ala., near the Voting Rights Museum. 

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Why this does not grow old

An update from Dennis Simon, associate professor of political science:

This is my seventh year of serving as the faculty leader of the SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage. As we departed campus on Friday afternoon, I found myself thinking about why traveling for eight days over a welcomed spring break does not grow old. Why have I not become tired of this enterprise? After some travel and discussion time “on the road,” it becomes easy to answer the question.

First, I get to renew my partnership with Ray Jordan, whose title of trip coordinator drastically understates his role, contribution, and value to the pilgrimage. His many talents, including perspective and insight, never fail to impress the Pilgrims and make this journey far more than a tour of historical venues.

Second, I continue to learn. Each venue and the “stories” associated with those places are layered. Each visit takes me deeper into history to discover additional complexity and nuance. For example, there were over 200 black students who initially applied to attend Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The “powers that be” found this number to be far too large for their tastes. To pare down the list, they imposed the requirement that no black student would be permitted to participate in any extracurricular activities – be it sports, band, drama, music, or clubs. What a perversely ingenious method to limit the number of black students.


Congresswoman Terri Sewell and Professor Dennis Simon in Selma, Ala., at a ceremony dedicating the Edmund Pettus Bridge as a National Historical Landmark.

Third, there is the family analogy. Our pilgrimage is different from a “tour” because of the people who meet with and speak to our group. Among those are Ms. Joanne Bland in Selma, Mr. Jake Jones along with the Graetz and Harris families in Montgomery, Mrs. Jewell McDonald in Philadelphia, Curtis Wilkie in Oxford, and Ms. Elaine Turner in Memphis. During our ride to Little Rock on Friday, Ray Jordan and I discovered we shared a perception – our journey is similar to a family vacation to visit beloved relatives. The people with whom we meet are part of an extended Pilgrim family and there is great anticipation in getting to experience, once again, their wisdom and insight.

Fourth are the students. I see the “impact” of the pilgrimage first-hand. I get to observe and interact with 36 individuals – different in so many ways –who, over the course of eight days, share a common experience and become a distinctive group – SMU Pilgrims. That experience will never grow old.

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