Christina is part of a group of students, faculty and staff who are spending spring break 2007 journeying to the Deep South to learn more about the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage not only teaches lessons about America's racist past but reveals the courage and hope of those who dared to challenge it. The pilgrimage includes stops in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
We had a wonderful dinner Friday night in downtown Memphis where we were able to have a wonderful little restaurant all to ourselves. The pilgrimage had dined here the year prior and now had a connection with the executive chef and owner of Wendell’s World Beat Grill. We had some sharing time during dinner and a small presentation to Reverend Waters and his wife Yulice, and Dr. Linden for all of their work and direction during the trip. We drove past the Lorraine Motel while it was empty of tourists and its retro motel sign was lit.
Murder in Memphis
The next day we briefly visited several churches in Memphis, one of them being Mason Temple were Dr. King gave his last speech the night before he was assassinated. We went to the National Civil Rights Museum to learn in depth about Dr. King’s murder and the assassin. The NCR Museum is connected to the Lorraine Motel, which has not been in operation since shortly after the murder, and during the tour you can see the actual room where Dr. King was staying. The NCR continues across the street from the NCR Museum and the Lorraine. Here you can learn about the other half of the murder. Some believe it was a conspiracy involving some of Dr. King’s closest companions; some think the city was involved. There are many stories linked to his death, and so much opposing information it is difficult to narrow it down. In this half of the museum you can view the bathroom that James Earl Ray shot the bullet that killed Dr. King. The window in the bathroom is even intact from when Mr. Ray opened it to slip the gun through; of course the gap has been sealed shut. This museum is a must for anyone traveling through Memphis. There was also an anti-war protest going on in the lawn adjacent to the museums, which was interesting to watch.
We left the museums and headed out for our last stop of authentic soul food before returning to Texas. We got Neely’s BBQ to go and I went all out with pork ribs, beans, and cole slaw.
Central High School
Due to a shortage of time we were not able to visit the museum in Little Rock, Arkansas that houses information and artifacts from the famous “Little Rock 9” incident when nine black high school kids were bussed to Central High School in an attempt to desegregate the schools. We were able to stop at Central High, which is a beautiful and enormous high school. We sat and talked on the steps leading to the doors, we took pictures, we also thought about how we might have handled the situation had it been us attending or integrating into that great school.
A sweet ride home
I say “sweet” not in the context of a juvenile speaker but with a reminiscence of a wonderful, emotional, and open time as we shared with each other on the bus. It was deep. We took turns, as we felt led, to share what we had learned and how we felt different from when we left. We laughed (for we had many inside jokes at this point), I cried (hopefully a few others did as well). This time brought everything back full circle. Aside from my new interest and fascination with Ghandi, a quote I had come across really stuck with me. “You can gently, shake the world”. I still cannot believe how many of the people we learned about were near my age, and many were much younger. These people have or had something that I have not yet experienced. They had a passion so strong they risked far more than reputation to fight for it. I have been praying for an opportunity, whether I am 25 or 75 that I will have such a place in my heart for something that I will be willing to risk my life. I now know that I too can shake the world.
We arrived in Birmingham the evening before to relax and try to process everything we had already seen. Friday morning we began on a heavy note.
A Sobering Morning
We went to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, famous for the bombing which killed four young black girls. We walked around the basement, which is still used for church purposes but also a museum/memorial. The bathroom where the bomb was planted is now the church kitchen near the fellowship hall. This event is commonly regarded as one of the worst and lowest crimes the KKK committed during the movement. It was later documented by a KKK member that the bomb was not mean to injure anyone, only frighten and intimidate the church and movement participants.
Across the Street is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park.
Kelly Ingram Park is seen in many photos documenting the way police and city officials treated blacks in public protests. Many people were shot with water from fire hoses which protruded pressure so strong they sometimes made their skin peel back. The former police chief Bull O’Connor would send police canines to attack and maul the blacks during riots and protests. There are statues and replicas of scenes in the park that make your stomach churn as you walk past them.
This morning, like many of the mornings we had, made me stand there and wonder how in the world people could see these acts as justified or right, especially in the eyes of the Lord.
We left for Atlanta about 5:30am. Everyone got on the bus, got comfortable and didn’t move until we reached our breakfast destination in Atlanta, which was quite yummy. Soul food for breakfast, I think so.
Seeing his words
Our main purpose for going to Atlanta was to visit the Atlanta History Center Exhibition of Morehouse College. Tucked away in Buckhead, Georgia were the actual sermons and speeches of Dr. King. We walked through this exhibit, every wall lined with paper after paper of Dr. King’s writing. The King family recently sold his personal papers to the city of Atlanta for some thirty million dollars. There were report cards on display as well; ironically Dr. King made a C+ in public speaking. Some of his sermons were 25 pages long. His letters from a Birmingham jail were also there, along with the leather briefcase his lawyer transported them out of the jail in. We saw his side notes, his footnotes, where he highlighted main points. After seeing so many documentaries on Dr. King, I could actually imagine his voice inflection speaking the words I was reading. There were many books on display with personal notes inside the jackets from presidents, celebrities, and foreign royalty.
Dr. King’s Home
We went to some very neat and significant places in Montgomery within these two days. One cannot visit Montgomery and not see the house that Dr. King and his family resided in while he was preaching at Dexter Avenue Memorial Baptist Church. We visited the memorial museum which is right next door to the restored parsonage. Almost all of the furnishings within the home were replicas but it was neat to imagine the family having breakfast in the kitchen, or Dr. King sitting up very late at night working vigorously on a sermon or speech.
Freedom Riders Rest
Just a few houses down from the parsonage is the home of Mrs. Vera Harris, whose husband is now deceased. Mrs. Harris has a large home, which was recently certified as a historical marker in Alabama. The pilgrims happened to meet Mrs. Harris last year and thus made the connection enabling us to visit her at her home this year. This was one of my favorite places and truly got me thinking about something specific the rest of the week. Mrs. Harris and her family were very involved in the movement, and they lived in a more up-scale black part of Montgomery. When the Freedom Riders came to Montgomery they were being sought after by the KKK and many racist whites. Mrs. Harris’ family housed all of the Freedom Riders for protection. The National Guard had been deployed all over the city at the time so they were provided round the clock protection. Had the KKK known exactly which houses were being protected, the Harris’ and the Freedom Riders would have probably been murdered. However, it was not obvious because of the fact that the guard was stationed all over the city. We spoke with Mrs. Harris’ daughter for a while inside, standing in the places the Freedom Riders stood and slept. We sat were they sat and laughed and bonded. Many of these riders were our age; brave students who knew that there was something much greater than they and that it was time to act.
Until Justice Rolls Like Waters…
The Southern Poverty Law Center is an internationally known law facility. It was founded by two white men dedicated to equality during the movement. They have since then moved buildings to accommodate the work they are doing. This particular law center has history seeping from its roots. It was the place where Medgar Evers’ case was handled, among many other filings and suits. They do a great amount of work for racial tolerance and human rights. Next to the SPLC is the Civil Rights Memorial Museum, personally one of the best museums we visited during our trip. Not only is the architecture and design of this museum elaborate and beautiful, the museum holds many stories of those who were never recognized for the heroic deeds and unselfish acts during the movement. You travel through this museum that was designed to flow like a river and read many stories of how people died fighting for something they believed in. One that touched me was the story of Vernon Dahmer which I will include in my photo gallery. At the end of the museum is a wall of stories addressing hate crimes in every form. There was a story of a gay man from Fort Worth who was murdered during the 90’s I believe. This section of the museum was titled “The March Continues…” and how true that is.
This day in Selma was by far the most impacting day on the trip for me, and one of the most impacting days in my life. We had an amazing tour guide, Ms. Joanne Bland, who also runs the National Voting Rights Museum. She was 11 years old when she marched from Selma to Montgomery and was arrested 13 times throughout her life. You can see Ms. Bland in several documentaries on the movement. She had incredible stories to share with us throughout the day. We met her at her museum but immediately left for the Slavery and Civil War Museum.
Stepping Back into History
The Slavery and Civil War Museum is what I am specifically thinking about when I say this trip would have been worth it if it was the only place we visited. The curator, which is a poor term to use to describe the many roles this woman plays in this museum, began our day in a way we were not expecting. She got on the bus immediately upon our arrival. She was yelling and snapping at us to get off very quickly, and I think our whole group was a little confused.
I pause and I am thinking about this day and how there is almost no way to put into words what was going through my heart and head.
She had us line up against the wall outside, and we realized what was happening. We were going through a mock slave trade. She was not angry at white people, she was not trying to punish us. She treated us (all the pilgrims) equally, as black slaves. The experience was about understanding from each perspective. It was about connecting, and making this trip and experience quickly break past the factual, historical, textbook knowledge. It suddenly became a matter of the heart, of personal obligation. Oh and it was amazing. This changed our individual tones and the dynamic of the group. Different groups were split up throughout the museum acting as slaves on a ship, a group of new slaves, and some were left to observe and listen to the horrific screams of the slaves. Our guide would switch back from a sad, beaten slave woman to a white master, playing both roles with such authenticity in the pitch black room. We ended this experience with an amazing time called a Circle of Greatness where we were together hand in hand sharing the wonderful qualities of our friends.
The National Voting Rights Museum
After the slavery museum we went back to Ms. Bland’s museum, the National Voting Rights Museum. She led us around the small and quaint museum, which is the way it is because they have refused to take any government or corporate money to invest in the museum in hopes to keep it as authentic and honest as possible. The march occurred for two reasons; one to obtain voting rights for black in America, and the other was in protest of the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a high schooler in Selma. Ms. Bland lived through Bloody Sunday, and there were lots of commemorating artifacts of other survivors there.
We left the museum and walked shortly to reach the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This famous bridge was crossed right before marchers reached a mob of police and angry KKK on the other side who beat them ferociously and leaving behind the Bloody Sunday. We were a solemn group as we passed over this bridge, two by two, overlooking the river.
We began Sunday morning having church at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Brown Chapel AME is the church that held the mass meeting led by Dr. King before the infamous Selma to Montgomery march. It was neat to worship in a place that also held such political and historical significance in times as recent as our parents generation. I believe it was the weekend prior that Obama had spoken at while Hillary Clinton was speaking at a Baptist church down the street. We left the church for lunch and then stopped at the site where Reverend James Reeb was brutally murdered. He was a white pastor who came to Selma to support the movement. He was killed on the sidewalk while walking with some black men and passed by a white café. I believe the anniversary of his death was several days after we stopped to recognize him.
This evening in Selma was a blast. It is a tiny town and the only things open were Wal-Mart and the bowling alley. We rented out the skating rink across the street from the bowling alley and just had a great time laughing and enjoying the company of the people we would be sharing so much with in the days to follow.
Our first day began in Jackson, Mississippi. We had a wonderful tour guide while we traveled through the city of Jackson. Our first stop was the courthouse where we met four men, each with their own story of contribution to the movement. We sat and listened to them passionately retell what they have gone through, who the fought alongside with, and what they are doing today. One man had been shot twice, once in the head and it was a miracle he lived. He spoke slowly, pausing often, he was the oldest of the speakers and time was getting to him.
House of History
Ms. Graves took us to the house of Medgar Evers. Mr. Evers was a well-known field secretary in the NAACP. His house has been restored within the past 10 years and is in near original condition to the time he lived there. Evers is well known from his assassination by Mr. Byron De La Beckwith. Beckwith has posted across the street from him and shot him in his driveway as Evers was getting things out of his trunk. It was a very strange feeling to be gathered under the carport is his driveway, the very place he died in a pool of blood in front of his wife and children. We gently explored his house, and his children’s room where the mattresses were on the floor in caution of flying bullets coming through the window. Later that evening on the bus ride to Selma we watched Ghosts of Mississippi, which was a movie (starring Whoopi Goldberg and Alec Baldwin) about Evers’ life. His wife is still alive and will hopefully be making an appearance at SMU sometime next year. The restoration of the house was funded greatly by the making of this movie, which featured the original home.
After leaving Mr. Evers home, we took a tour down the historic Farrish Street of downtown Jackson and had lunch at Peach’s Café which was on original café from when that district was a designated “colored” area of business. Then it was off to Selma, Alabama.
We leave campus this afternoon, heading for Jackson, Mississippi. I am excited, as I try to suppress my slight feelings of anxiousness for the trip. I know it will be so moving, I just hope my body will be refreshed every day to take it all in.
I have a unique place in the trip. I am a student assistant in the Chaplains office on campus, so I have been helping coordinate plans over the past few months. My supervisor, Betty McHone, participated in the pilgrimage last spring break, and since the beginning of the fall semester she has been talking about it with me. Amidst all craziness of planning for the trip, she has a sweet tone when she speaks about her pilgrimage memories. I knew it would be a once in a lifetime experience, and especially from such a genuine and special perspective.
Yes, we are student tourists on the outside -- visiting, observing, venturing, but I do not think it will feel that way. We are going to meet amazing people that had personal experiences, good and bad, with the civil rights struggle. A large part of the experience that Professor Linden and Reverend Waters strive for is the emotional connection.
I am not a history major, and my knowledge about civil rights only extends to what I have learned growing up in school. I smile when I think about the unique relationship and understanding I will have with the civil rights struggle when I return to campus.