Friday, May 17, 2013

Civil Rights Tour of the South

by Monique Swaby

Over nine days and five cities, from Friday, March 8th – 16th, thirty three people from various racial identities headed on one of Wake’s Alternative Spring Break trips, to the heart of the South. The goal: to explore the deep history, past and present, of our segregated nation. By exploring the era of Jim Crow the trip hoped to foster change makers. We toured all the major sites and places that commemorated the movement such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, National Voting Rights Museum, Dexter Ave. Church and Parsonage of MLK Jr., University of Mississippi, Kelly Ingram Park, and the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, AL where four little black girls were bombed on a Sunday morning. During our daily drive, we watched films such as Soundtrack for a Revolution, Ghosts of Mississippi, 4 Little Girls, and Mississippi Burning.

I remember the following during our visit in Reverend King’s home. As we stood at the edge of the door frame in the King’s kitchen, all the students circled inside, my colleague and I could not help but turn away as we listened to the recording of Dr. King’s words explaining his call from God in this very place, to stand for justice. I turned my eyes to the ceiling in hopes of containing the tears burning in my heart.

The days to follow would be no easier, yet it empowered us all to hope and re-imagine our world as we  crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge where Bloody Sunday occurred, or engaged in a slave trade simulation. We ended the tour at the Lorraine Motel and Museum where MLK Jr. was assassinated. This site was haunting and powerful, yet what was uplifting was the “Freedom’s Sisters” site, a traveling company from the Cincinnati Museum Center and Smithsonian Institution. This showcased some women who participated, propelled, or sustained the movement who we rarely discuss. Women such as Ella Jo Baker, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer, Sonia Sanchez, Dorothy Irene Height, Septima Poinsette Clark, Kathleen Cleaver, and so many more. Many of us have heard the popular names, such as Rosa Parks, MLK Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Medger Evers, James Meredith, Loretta Scott King, but on this trip we also learned the silent names and faces of everyday people called Freedom’s Foot Soldiers. Those who risked their lives; children, women, men, black, white, Jewish, LGBT, rich, poor, people from all walks of life because they saw and heard the outcry of a people. They understood truly that their freedom was wrapped in the freedom of all people.

Did you live through this era? If not, what would you have done? For many black communities and some white, the institution of Church was a centerpiece for empowerment, community, hope, love, and change. For others, it was a place of oppression, against speaking out, a point of guilt, shame, or ignorance, as their pastors and other church going folks donned themselves at night in KKK dress or silently participated in American apartheid, becoming a torment and terrorist. The church was a major player in the battle for civil rights during Jim Crow, but it was not always cut and dry as to what side you were on. I recall a conversation my supervisor and I had where she proclaimed, “If it was not for the Church’s role during the Civil Rights Movement, I would have left the Church a long time ago.” I believe she was only referring to the church that hoped for a new and better world, not one that demanded its rights remain the same, separate and not-so-equal for all. There is much re-education to be done, from the people of courage, to the visible signs that remain from our tortured past. We as the next generation must advance the struggle for equity to ALL people. Do our part by becoming aware of the issues and taking a step to action. If we do not, who will? Yes, some change has come, yet there is still work left undone because “the Arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends toward Justice.” God is calling us to listen and act in love. Will we, the next generation presently, only two people removed from the Civil Rights Era, take up the baton of practicing and manifesting true racial reconciliation? Let us do our part, together.

Monique Swaby is a first year student at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. This post originally appeared on Wake Div's blog, Unfolding.

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