As a Seattle native, it’s not every day you walk past Martin Luther King Jr.’s church where people gathered in attempts to elevate their second-class citizenship standing to first class – or cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge that so many marched across to access the basic right to vote no matter what obstacles stood in their way.
These are just a couple of sites I’ll be visiting in the Deep South to support a deeper connection to our nation’s history of oppression and inequality, which can be harder to see when you live in a state like Washington.
Because stories of our past influence our future, the nonprofit Project Pilgrimage aims to uplift all people through an interracial, intergenerational 10-day journey to the Deep South to visit and learn from historical sites, people and organizations. This year, I am fortunate to be one of the pilgrimage leaders.
As an African-American young woman, it is difficult to navigate through life in an environment that is seen as so progressive and oftentimes claims to not even see race. We live in a society where race is a social construct that reinforces negative stereotypes. This is why people need to see race. This is why I need people to see my race. I need people to understand why people like me don’t have the same opportunity to be successful as others. I need people to understand that the struggles my ancestors faced decades ago still manifest in my life today.
Fortunately, I have been lucky to experience many privileges that not everyone has access to. Attending the University of Washington is one of those. I am a senior working to complete my Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications with a minor in Diversity. After graduation, my goal is to diminish the disparities people of color deal with today through a direct communications approach. Through a variety of courses offered at the UW, I have been able to gain a deep historical understanding of the Black Struggle.
A significant experience that has supplemented my learning was my trip to the South on a Civil Rights Pilgrimage originated by Project Pilgrimage. I was able to go as a participant during the Fall 2016 Pilgrimage and will attend the Spring 2017 trip as a leader. I am not only excited to walk alongside other participants during their journey, but I look forward to sharing my experiences through this blog.
Prior to embarking on my first pilgrimage, I spent a lot of time reading and studying the history of oppression that African Americans and people of color (POC) have experienced. A lot of this helped form my thoughts about and around my identity. I finally had an understanding of what it meant to not only be Black but a Black woman, and how those two identities intersected. I was ready to take everything I had been reading about and turn that into lived experience.
Visiting these historical sites was enough alone to affect my experience. But I didn’t realize how much meeting people from southern communities and hearing their stories would impact me. People in the south are constantly reminded about the tragedies and victories that have taken place on land they walk on every day. I could see their awareness through their actions, how they welcomed us in so graciously, and through their strong faith.
In addition, the intergenerational and interracial group I traveled with played a monumental role in my learning. The pilgrimage experience is not perfect, so of course there will be misunderstandings and differences of opinion. When this happens, the ship doesn’t sail so smoothly, but how we deal with conflict is when growth occurs. This allowed me to observe how race and difference is discussed and articulated, which only made me want to commit to social justice work more.
During this Pilgrimage, we will go to Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama to visit a variety of places with historical and contemporary significance. Some of these sites include Fisk University, the Historical Black College and University (HBCU), Highlander Center, Court Square (Montgomery, AL), William Winter Institute (University of Mississippi, Oxford, MS), University of Alabama, the city of Selma, Alabama and more. At each place we enter, we will learn about the events that occurred there, why they are so significant, and how they impact communities today while we reflect on how it all affects us as individuals.
Since I have already been to many of these places, I have a decent idea about the feelings I will experience. But since the Fall 2016 Pilgrimage, I also have learned more and about myself and the Black Struggle, so I am still prepared for the unexpected. It is also crucial to be aware of the political climate present in our nation today, and it will be interesting to observe the differences in coming from a liberal “Blue” state and entering conservative “Red” states. I am excited to take this journey, and I look forward to reporting back upon my return with new findings and realizations from my experiences.
Read Marissa’s reflections following her March 2017 pilgrimage: