Since the civil rights movement began sweeping through the South 50 years ago, the winds of change have carried away some its most notorious locations and enshrined others as monuments to courage.
On March 1, 2013, more than 250 people, including 33 members of Congress, nine Wright State students, and faculty member Tracy Snipe, Ph.D., gathered to begin the 13th Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama. On the first day, they stood on the steps of the University of Alabama campus building where Governor George Wallace blocked the entrance to bar black students from enrolling, as two students stood up to segregation in 1963.
The pilgrimage, sponsored by the Faith and Politics Institute in Washington, D.C., is a three-day event aimed at fostering understanding of civil rights issues, past and present. For the second year, Wright State students participated as part of a seminar class led by Snipe, associate professor of political science, with financial support from the College of Liberal Arts and the Division of Multicultural Affairs & Community Engagement, among other units. They were among 35 people from high school to age 30 selected for the Students and Stewards program of the pilgrimage.
“Our hope is that as young people travel on the pilgrimage, they understand the history and how it impacts the future,” said Rev. Joseph A. C. Smith, who oversees the Students and Stewards program for the Faith and Politics Institute. “This year, we are looking at the concept of non-violence, asking them to reflect on where violence is present in their lives and what non-violent responses might be.”
After visiting Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the pilgrimage group traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, for a visit to the Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park, where police turned dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protestors, and the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young girls were killed by a bomb while in Sunday school. The 1963 church bombing turned public sympathies toward the civil rights movement, and the survivors of the bombing are the subjects of Snipe’s academic research.
The second day was spent in Montgomery, Alabama, the capital city where Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus, Martin Luther King, Jr., preached, and the Freedom Riders met with brutal resistance.
“After going to places like Alabama, you have a greater appreciation for the degree of courage it took to be a pacifist,” observed Snipe. The proximity of the protest sites to the state capital building, for example, put them “a stone’s throw away from danger.”
As important as seeing the sites of the civil rights movement was the opportunity to meet its heroes, together with current political leaders.
Congressional representatives on the pilgrimage crossed the political aisle, from John Lewis, Democratic representative from Atlanta, Georgia, to Eric Cantor, Republican House Majority leader from Richmond, Virginia. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and Attorney General Eric Holder were among those representing the Executive Branch.
Rep. Lewis has been a civil rights activist since the 1960s. He was a young leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a Freedom Rider. Along with Hosea Williams, he led a non-violent protest march that began on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama; it turned into “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, when state and local police attacked. This year’s Congressional Pilgrimage concluded in Selma with a worship service at the Brown Chapel and the annual commemoration of Bloody Sunday, as 5,000 people recreated the walk over the bridge, led this year by Vice President Joe Biden.
The Wright State students were impressed with the approachability of the leaders on the pilgrimage and inspired by talks by such civil rights legends as Rev. Bernard LaFayette, who heads the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island, and Ruby Bridges, who, at the age of 6, was the first African American child to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans.
“The experience was something that will live with you forever,” said Andrianna Milton, who is majoring in African American Studies and plans a teaching career. Her own family history is tied to Alabama, where her paternal great-grandmother died on a plantation. When she met Rep. Lewis, she was struck by the fact that he was college age when he joined the civil rights movement. Of his non-violent approach to change, she said, “We can carry that on today.”
“The biggest thing they taught was that you can’t understand how to move forward until you understand where you’ve been,” said Michael Tyler, who researches the civil rights movement as part of his Wright State Master of Humanities program. “You look at the struggles that others went through, people who died so that people they never knew could vote. It’s the power of one—what one person can do.”
The desire to influence social justice issues during their careers was the impetus for many of the Wright State students to join the pilgrimage. They found government and private-sector leaders enthusiastic about helping them through networking and internship opportunities.
The in-depth stories of the pilgrimage are yet to be written by the Wright State students. Brooke Moore, who plans to go into health administration, spoke with a senior vice president of Pfizer. Christopher Jones talked with Rep. Lewis’ chief of staff about a possible internship. Chad Lovins plans to get a master’s degree in international relations. Jamal Russell is a senior in English literature and has written on his experiences visiting civil rights sites. Amaha Selassie is working on ways to build trust among diverse students on campus and will participate in the Caux Scholars Program on peace building in Switzerland this summer.
Selassie thinks a lot of work needs to be done to achieve the goals of the civil rights movement: “The struggle is still going on right now. There are a lot of underlying issues that haven’t been dealt with. We need to heal past wounds on both sides.”
Legacy of Hope and Fear
The Wright State contingent planned its own tour of important civil rights sites beginning at the Freedom Riders Museum in Montgomery, followed by stops at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site and Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama. Selassie, Milton, and Moore created a video blog at the museum. Their video, which focused on the current generation’s views about the struggle for civil rights, is on display in the museum for visitors to view.
The group also went to Jackson, Mississippi, to see the home where civil rights leader Medgar Evers was slain. The tour was expertly conducted by curator Minnie Watson. Later, local historian Dr. Dewey Knight led students on a tour of the University of Mississippi in Oxford. James Meredith was the first known African American to integrate this institution, leading to violent protests in 1963.
After darkness had fallen on a long day of traveling, the Wright State group arrived in rural Money, Mississippi. They came to view the haunting remains of the grocery store visited by Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy whose brutal murder in 1955 for alleged slights to a white woman touched off the national civil rights movement. The students described the desolate spot as a chilling reminder of what it must have been like to be an African American citizen in the South so many years ago, living in fear of being carried off and killed. In fact, they said the unease was palpable at that site still today.