Doing this work isn’t easy. But each day, time and time again, thousands of us wake up to fight the systems of oppression and injustice for those who aren’t able to. The struggle for freedom has come a long way, but there is still so far to go.
Through Project Pilgrimage, I have journeyed twice to the Deep South to visit historical sites from the Civil Rights Movement and organizations working to improve racial relations today. Prior to my second trip, I wrote a post introducing the Pilgrimage and my feelings about returning. In these next pieces, I reflect on new observations and findings since my trip. Not only is the Pilgrimage an amazing opportunity to turn learned history into reality, but it provides a deeper look into issues relevant today.
As a young Black woman, I went into this second pilgrimage excited to learn more about the history of my race and figure out where I fit in the puzzle of social justice. This time, everything hit me harder. Here we are at sites where some of the darkest parts of America’s history occurred yet continue to go unrecognized. Since I have been lucky enough to see these sites and hear from some of the legends who lived through these times, I feel a responsibility to ensure this history continues to be shared and not forgotten.
TENNESSEE: Civil Rights organizing & education
Tennessee is always a great starting point for the pilgrimage. It sets the tone with strength and pride before we start to dive into the more somber parts of Civil Rights history.
Learning from those before us
We began our journey in Nashville, Tennessee where we had the privilege of meeting with Dr. Bernard Lafayette and his wife, Kate. Dr. Lafayette was a Freedom Rider during the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) Freedom Rides. A critical contributor to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolence approach in the Civil Rights movement, he was also a key organizer in planning and executing the Voting Rights Movement in Selma, Alabama. You can learn the history through books and research, but to actually hear it from firsthand accounts provides context you cannot receive anywhere else.
Nashville is home to Fisk University, a Historically Black College & University (HBCU). Fisk produced a number of Civil Rights leaders such as Diane Nash and John Lewis, and was home to many other SNCC members. Members would often skip class to participate in counter sit-ins, marches and protests, frequently resulting in arrests causing students to miss more class. Teachers were understanding for the most part – some so supportive they would have schoolwork brought to jails.
Highlander Research and Education Center
Next, we made our way to Highlander Research and Education Center. Years before our arrival, many Civil Rights leaders came to Highlander to learn the nonviolence approach. Today, they serve as a catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building. While we were there, we focused on communities – specifically, looking at where each member of the pilgrimage came from, and how these communities are made up. We looked at who holds power, how change is created, and how communities are populated – all important factors, because the stories of communities need to be understood before one attempts to make change.
I appreciate the work Highlander does and the approaches they use. They take a great interest in popular education, which is a participatory process that combines people’s experiences to develop collective analysis and strategies for action for positive social change. They also focus on acknowledging the experiences people face to progress, a common theme in racial reconciliation.
ALABAMA: Breaking legacies of racism
First Baptist Church
Our first stop in Alabama was Montgomery, home to Dr. Ralph Abernathy and First Baptist Church, famously known as a safe place when an angry mob of whites held Freedom Riders, church members and others captive inside for 15 hours in 1961. The church opens their doors to us each pilgrimage and hosts a concert where we sing with some of the choir members. Faith was and continues to be a shared value between most in the movement, so it is important to experience the interconnectedness the church community brings.
The lasting ‘heritage’ of Montgomery
Equally important as understanding the past is identifying problems we see today. Since Montgomery is the state capital, we toured the Capitol building. As soon as you step on the Capitol stairs, the foregrounds are filled with monuments to the Confederacy. While confederate flags have been removed, I still have to ask: What message is being sent by continuing to memorialize this “heritage”?
American history continues to glorify the Confederacy, justifying it as having fought to protect Confederate states’ rights. But whose rights were sacrificed as a result? In truth, Confederates were fighting for the continuation of slavery. Not only is this an injustice to African Americans by depriving them of their identity, but it creates a hierarchy between races and reinforces the ideology that White history is more important than Black history — when in reality, Black history is American history.
Fortunately, a nonprofit organization aims to confront history to heal the wounds of America’s past. Founded by Bryan Stevenson, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, challenging racial and economic injustice, and protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.
…in reality, Black history is American history.
EJI serves both as attorneys and historians, working to unveil some of the darkest parts of America’s history, such as lynching and racial terrorism. They have already documented 4,075 racial terror lynchings, and are creating a memorial to remember these victims and lynching’s lasting impacts. For instance, states with the highest historical lynching rates have the highest death penalty rates today. These states also have high rates of racial disparity in incarceration; African Americans are incarcerated nearly six times the rate of Whites. Incarceration not only robs years from people’s lives, but it also takes away their voice due to disenfranchisement. All of this stems from deep racial history. I think it’s time to stop criminalizing every African American and instead question the “justice” in our justice system.
Brokenness in Birmingham
Not far from Montgomery is Birmingham, home to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, notoriously known for the September 15, 1963 bombing that killed four little girls: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair. We heard from Carolyn McKinstry, who was a close friend to the four murdered girls. Hearing stories like the Church bombing provided important context during our time here. A textbook might cover the event, but rarely do you see how it affected the community long-term. McKinstry was able to convey this, recalling that “after the bombing, no one really talked about it and life carried on routinely.”
In my opinion, this shows the severity of the fight for freedom. There wasn’t time to sit back and pause to grieve. Bombings were so frequent in Birmingham, the city became known as “Bombingham.” I don’t think the actual bombing was a surprise to the community, but the painful realization that people could ruthlessly take the lives of innocent children because of the color of their skin was alarming.
Kelly Ingram Park
Kelly Ingram Park is directly across the street from the Church and served as a staging ground during the Civil Rights Movement. It was also here where foot soldiers of children and high schoolers were hosed down and attacked by police dogs in May of 1963. It wasn’t until 1992 that the park was renovated as a place of reconciliation to compliment the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute located across the street. All three entities are preserved as historical monuments.
Birmingham has a dark history, and you can tell brokenness still lingers in the community. There is a heavy presence of people experiencing homelessness taking shelter in the park. Jefferson County, where Birmingham resides, went bankrupt in the fall of 2011 and continues to struggle. The city of Birmingham has one of the highest crime rates in the country. Additionally, 37% of residents have incomes below the poverty level, the public transportation system struggles, and food deserts are all too common around the county.
The city of Birmingham has one of the highest crime rates in the country. Additionally, 37% of residents have incomes below the poverty level, the public transportation system struggles, and food deserts are all too common around the county.
Coming back to Birmingham was difficult for me. It is hard knowing that many of these problems stem from racial and classist discrimination. I had to check my own privilege; even though I am a Black woman, I still have the privilege of living in the wealthy Seattle area where I attend a top university. I receive many more “passes” when it comes to people questioning my race, and I’m more accepted – or at least I’m made to feel more accepted. Of course, Seattle experiences problems with racism, but it makes you realize at least we are more accepting of differences.
In PART 2 of my pilgrimage reflections, we move on to Mississippi and then back to Alabama, concluding with my return back to Seattle.