Friday, April 29

How long? Not long
How long? Very long!

The Civil War ended in 1865.  The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed to protect and guarantee the rights of freed slaves.


In August of 1955, a 14 year old boy from Chicago, Emmet Till, was visiting his family near Money, Mississippi.  He and some cousins went to buy a treat at the Bryant Grocery Store and, while there, he encountered a 21 year old white woman, Carolyn Bryant, the clerk.  He was accused of whistling at her.  Emmet was a stutterer and his mother had taught him to whistle to help his stuttering. 
That night, he was taken from his grandfather's house at night to "teach him a lesson" by Carolyn's husband, Ray Bryant and J.R. Milan.  He was brutalized and tortured to death and thrown in the Tallahatchie River.  They used barbed wire and a heavy gin fan to drown his body.
But the body was discovered and his brave mother demanded that her son's broken body be returned to Chicago to an open casket so that "all the world could see what they did to my son."

This event became a national outrage and is considered to be one of the beginnings of modern day Civil Rights Movement.


We went to the town of Glendora, population 300, where we met black mayor Johnny Thomas.  He has worked tirelessly to revitalize the town and to tell the story of Emmet Till in a museum there. Ironically, his father was one of four black men who were forced to dispose of Emmet's body and destroy evidence of the event.

 
The trial of Milam and Bryant took place at the Courthouse in Sumner.  An all white male jury found them not guilty but two weeks later they sold their story to Look Magazine, admitting they did in fact commit the murder.

  
As we toured the Courthouse today, we received a copy of a resolution presented to Emmett Till's family in 2007; in it the citizens of the County asked for forgiveness and gave a promise to nurture reconciliation and ensure justice for all.

Emmett Till Museum

Emmett Till Museum

Bridge from which Emett's body was thrown

Bridge from which Emett's body was thrown

Later we learned about Fanny Lou Hamer and her efforts to gain voting rights which included her attendance at the 1964 Democratic Convention (where she encountered Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale).  "All my life I've been sick and tired. Now I am sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Charles Mclaren and Hattie Jordan

Charles Mclaren and Hattie Jordan

At the Tutwiler Clinic we met Dr. Ann Brooks, a Catholic nun.  She started this free clinic in 1983 and has given her life to the physical, social and spiritual needs of this poor area.  A gift of medical supplies from the Fairview Foundation in Minneapolis was presented by Steve Obaid.

Tomorrow we turn toward home. The impact of this journey and the images and stories of these brave people give us energy to: "Keep on keepin' on" toward freedom for all.

Thursday, April 28

City of Brotherly Love…?

Philadelphia, a small town in central Mississippi, was the scene where activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were killed in June of 1964 by members of the Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement. 

Murder Site Sign

Murder Site Sign

In Memory of Gravestone

In Memory of Gravestone

Schwerner and Chaney had been running a Freedom School to promote voter registration rights and to empower African Americans in the midst of the oppressive system they were enduring; they led this Freedom School at Mount Zion Methodist Church just outside of Philadelphia. On the night of June 16th, 1964, members of the Klan assaulted Mount Zion church members and burned down their church to lure Schwerner and his friends back to the area.

We sat down in McClelland Café with Jewel Rush McDonald—a woman whose mother and brother were beaten by the Klan on June 16th, 1964—and learned more about this horrific experience. In the 60s, McClelland Café and other places in the neighborhood served as safe havens for civil rights activists. We enjoyed a hearty and filling Southern meal prepared by Beverly and Randy who carry on the tradition of this family-owned restaurant.

McClellan's Cafe Exterior

McClellan's Cafe Exterior

McClellan's Cafe Interior

McClellan's Cafe Interior

It wasn’t until 2005—forty-one years later—that a man was charged and sentenced to 60 years in prison for his part in the deaths of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. He is still serving time today.

While in town, we also got the chance to spend time with the first Black mayor of Philadelphia, James Young. Serving his second term as mayor, Young also serves as a pastor in a nearby town and is a paramedic! He acknowledges the horrible past of his community, but also sees progress and has hopes for a brighter future. He reminded us of the importance of building relationships with those who differ from oneself, and that in order to change perceptions, you have to get people to visit.

Jewel, James, and Cleo

Jewel, James, and Cleo

After lunch and conversation, our group moved on to Greenwood, MS, where we witnessed the huge disparities between Black and White neighborhoods. Many scenes from the movie “The Help” were filmed in Greenwood. Crossing the river from Baptist Town (a poor African American neighborhood established in the 1800s) to Grand Ave (adjacent affluent White neighborhood) was a startling juxtaposition. 

As our group continues to confront the past and the ways we have explicitly and implicitly participated in the perpetuation of an oppressive system that functions still today, we are being challenged and stirred to build more diverse relationships and to be the change we want to see.      

Wednesday, April 27

"OPEN THE DOORS"

Tom Von Fischer

As I walked through the front door of Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be one of the thousands who gathered in this place during the days of March of 1965.  The nightly mass meetings had set the stage.  And Brown Chapel became the starting point for the holy trinity of Civil Rights marches: 600 marchers on Bloody Sunday on March 7th ... 2,500 onTurnaround Tuesday on March 9th ... and 8,000 who started the March to Montgomery on March 16th.

Outside Brown Chapel, reading the tributes to those who had marched for freedom

Outside Brown Chapel, reading the tributes to those who had marched for freedom

Our group of Civil Rights Movement pilgrims gathered in the sanctuary of this historic place to hear the stories of two women - Joyce O'Neal and Diane Howard Harris - veterans of the Movement ... eyewitnesses ... participants ... Foot Soldiers.

Joyce spoke first.  Being members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the leadership of Brown Chapel had to respect the counsel of their bishop, who asked them to keep their doors closed, feared that hosting mass meetings would put the congregation, its people and facilities, at considerable risk.  Middle class African Americans had the most to lose, hence tended to be the most hesitant to fully engage with the Movement.

But with a sparkle in her eye, Joyce told us how the Bishop eventually changed his mind. "One day he said: "Open the doors!"  And with her face beaming, Joyce looked at us and said: "The rest is history!"

Open the doors!  Three simple, but powerful words that - for this pilgrim - summarize this day well.

Open the doors ... for the Spirit to do a new thing.  Old ways need to die ... freedom is coming ... "ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round."

Open the doors ... release the fears that hold you back ... that keep you from boldly stepping into the paths yet unknown.

Open the doors ... to watch the children and the women become the unsung heros of the Movement.

The day's itinerary also opened doors to the following conversations and highlights:

  • A visit with the Gee's Bend quilters, a rural women's cooperative.  We marveled at their artistry, not only in quilt-making, but also as they treated us to their gospel singing.   
  • Visiting the home and home church of Coretta Scott King, coincidentally on the 89th anniversary of her birth. 
  • In Marion, AL we listened to the powerful stories of two more women veterans of the Movement: Willie Nell Avery and Mattie Akins.  Mattie broke into tears describing the bloody beatings she witnessed on a regular basis.  But she told us they'd be right back the next day - keepin' on keepin' on registering folks to vote.
  • Taking their inspiration from Old Testament Joshua, Mattie and Willie and others in Marion regularly marched seven times around the Perry County Courthouse, singing and praying that the walls of segregation and hatred would come tumblin' down.  Thanks to their persistence and being emboldened by the Spirit, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted.
Perry County Courthouse

Perry County Courthouse

  • A visit to Jimmie Lee Jackson's grave put an exclamation point on our day.  Read the gruesome story of his murder here, including how it opened the door for the March to Montgomery. 

Tuesday, April 26

Crossing the Alabama River at the edge of Selma, the Edmund Pettus Bridge is an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.  The events here on March 7, 1965—“Bloody Sunday”—brought the nation’s attention, via television, to the brutality being inflicted by law enforcement on African Americans and Whites marching for civil rights and especially for the right to vote. Our group walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge this evening.

The day began in Montgomery, where we visited people and sites that were important in the Civil Rights Movement—including the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and the Martin Luther King, Jr. parsonage. Our drive to Selma retraced the route of the march—in reverse.  We saw the places where the marchers camped overnight, and stopped at the memorial site where Viola Liuzzo was killed after the night of the march. 

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

Martin Luther King, Jr. Parsonage

Martin Luther King, Jr. Parsonage

Walking across the bridge some of us thought of this as holy ground. Others recalled the swinging billy clubs, the screams, and spattered blood. Some looked down and marveled that the police didn’t push people over the bridge and into the river. It’s an emotional journey to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Not until you reach the crest of the bridge can you see the other side—where the police were waiting for the marchers.

The bridge was also a mark of redemption when, two weeks later, the marchers crossed the river and completed their journey to the capitol in Montgomery.

Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge

Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge

In Selma, we ate dinner at the Tabernacle Baptist Church and talked with some of the people who marched back in 1965; foot soldiers who were young teenagers at that time. As we’ve heard before, those struggling for civil rights saw the hand of God in so many events that happened then.  So did we.

Monday, April 25

“The best way to send information is to wrap it up in a person.” (J. Robert Oppenheimer)  That’s what our experience has been!  This group of 15 travelers is learning about the Civil Rights Movement by meeting and talking with veterans of the Movement who can speak of their personal experience with this struggle. So we have the opportunity to not only benefit from being in the place where these events occurred but also to receive the information wrapped up “in a person”.  

An early Monday morning walk brought us to Court Square at the intersection of Commerce Street and Dexter Avenue.  As the name suggests, commerce truly occurred here:  this was the site of a massive slave market. Then about a century later it was the site of the Bus Stop from which Rosa Parks boarded the bus and refused to give up her seat – 368 days later the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended by order of the United States Supreme Court.  (We learned from Valda Harris Montgomery later in the day that her father was responsible for the transportation system used to move people during the entire boycott - she called the system of people-making-it-work a “divine system”).  Turning to look up Dexter Avenue on this bright sunny day one can see the Capitol of the state of Alabama where the 54 mile march from Selma to Montgomery ended in 1965, and also the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor in the 1950’s.

After a stop at the site of the former Greyhound Bus Depot where Freedom Riders were beaten in 1961, we were looking forward to visiting the State Capitol building only to find it closed on this fourth Monday of April to commemorate Confederate Memorial Day on Capitol Hill; we observed a holiday spangled, still, with Confederate flags and ladies in vintage dresses.  

Confederate Flags

Confederate Flags

Off to a tour of the Civil Rights Memorial (which is sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center).  Learning came wrapped in a person:  Lecia Brooks, the SPLC Director, explained their mission:  combatting hate, intolerance and discrimination through education and litigation; working for decades not only on issues of racial justice but also LGBTQ issues; and challenges facing immigrants.  “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor. Never the victim.” (Elie Wiesel). 

At the Southern Poverty Law Center

At the Southern Poverty Law Center

A group picture was taken by the memorial fountain:  “ .  .  . UNTIL JUSTICE ROLLS DOWN LIKE WATERS AND RIGHTEOUSNESS LIKE A MIGHTY STREAM.” (MLK). [The Memorial was designed by Maya Lin]

Civil Rights Memorial Center of Southern Poverty Law Center

Civil Rights Memorial Center of Southern Poverty Law Center

At the First Baptist (Brick-a-day) Church, Joseph Lacey and Howard Davis recalled how in May 1961, Freedom Riders and parishioners were held captive for 15 hours while an angry mob surrounded the church; telephone conversations with Attorney General Robert Kennedy led to troops providing a safe exit.

Before leaving for Tuskegee, we had a working lunch with Dr. Valda Harris Montgomery.  She is the daughter of Vera Harris and lived a few doors from the parsonage where MLK and his family lived starting in 1954.  She recalled her home being used as a “safe house” for Freedom Riders (including John Lewis and Diane Nash) who strategized in her attic before again boarding busses for Mississippi. We are looking forward to visiting the Harris House tomorrow and visiting with Vera Harris; she is now 93 and was married to R.H. Harris, a Tuskegee airman. 

We departed for the Tuskegee Army Airfield where the first class of African Americans was trained for service in the American Air Corps in World War II.  Their service was distinguished but they faced continued discriminations and racism upon their return home.  While we are familiar with the V  for Victory sign, some in the African American community advocated a double V (VV), standing for victory at Home and Abroad.

The evening was topped off with a walk to the Montgomery Biscuits stadium where the Biscuits faced off against the Jacksonville Suns.  Our Biscuits lost 4-3!  But they are 10-8, a better record than the Twins!

An evening with the Biscuits

An evening with the Biscuits

Sunday, April 24

Myrna Carter Jackson and her grandchildren, Kieron and Denitra (called “Little Myrna” by her friends)

Myrna Carter Jackson and her grandchildren, Kieron and Denitra (called “Little Myrna” by her friends)

“Because I was one of the taller kids, it was difficult for me to fit when the police squeezed us in the paddy wagon.” Myrna Carter Jackson was only 18 years old in 1963, the most momentous year in the history of civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama. The 15 members of our group sat spellbound as we listened to her recount stories of her participation in the Children’s March and other activities of the Movement. Hundreds of children would gather at the 16th Street Baptist Church. “Rev. Dr. King, Rev. Abernathy, John Lewis, and Andrew Young would speak to the kids and teach us about non-violent techniques.” She recounted how they lined up the kids in pairs. Then Andrew Young sent a group of pairs down the church steps with instructions to march straight down 6th Avenue. They were soon set upon by the infamous “Bull” Connor and firemen with hoses. “That was the decoy group,” she said. Then Young sent Myrna and her group out and told them to turn left and head down 16th Street where they made their way unnoticed to their destination of the Five and Dime for a lunch counter demonstration.

Myrna felt the hand of God at workin her civil rights experiences. For example, when she was jailed for several days along with hundreds of other children arrested for marching, she learned that the jail guards offered the regular inmates better food and privileges if they would beat up the children protesters. Not one of the inmates lifted a finger to harm a child.   Also, children would be released at random from the jail in the middle of the night. “We knew the Ku Klux Klan was out there “waiting for us.” Yet the Movement leaders always arranged for someone to pick them up and no children were harmed.

In speaking with us about the pardon the mayor of Birmingham offered in 2009 to some 2,500 people arrested during the 1960s protests, she said,”Pardon me? No, pardon you.”  She remains active in civil rights issues and organizations to this day, now at the age of 72.

Other highlights of the day:

  • Worship at 16th Street Baptist Church – site of the 1963 bombing that killed four young Sunday School girls
16th Street Baptist Church

16th Street Baptist Church

  • Tour of the Civil Rights Institute Museum
Group outside the museum

Group outside the museum

Klan Robe

Klan Robe

  • Meeting with Rev. Bob and Jeanne Graetz in Montgomery – Bob was a white Lutheran pastor of an all-black church in Montgomery, a friend of Rosa Parks, active in the bus boycott and civil rights organizations in Montgomery. They were awarded the Jim Siefkes Award for their work on GLBTQ issues. Still active, they are in their 80s.
Graetzes with Bishop Ann Svennungsen and Pastor Stephanie Coltvet Erdmann

Graetzes with Bishop Ann Svennungsen and Pastor Stephanie Coltvet Erdmann

Other thoughts:

  • Effective civil rights demonstrations of the 60s were non-violent on the part of the demonstrators and often technically illegal.
  • Church communities were the key places to gather, organize, be inspired and gain courage to participate in the demonstrations.
  • Myrna noted, it is critical that we get to know each other. Otherwise our imaginations play tricks on us and we develop fear of one another.
  • Information on the Children’s March:   http://www.biography.com/news/black-history-birmingham-childrens-crusade-1963-video

A Civil Rights Journey

From April 23 - April 30, a group of 15 ECLC members and friends are embarking on a journey to Alabama, Mississippi, and beyond as we confront our nation’s history, our own privilege, and learn from civil rights’ activists who have lived to tell the stories of their lives. Mark and Leslie Swiggum have led this trip for years with various groups from ECLC and other congregations, and we hope for many more to come. We invite you to follow this group’s journey through this blog as we reflect on what we experience.

Trip participants include: Leaders—Leslie and Mark Swiggum; Pastor Stephanie Coltvet Erdmann, Camilla Madson, Steve Obaid, Elaine Strom, Jim Strom, Minneapolis Area Synod Bishop Ann Svennungsen, Janet Thompson, Terrie Thompson, Sonja Salveson, Warren Salveson, Peggy Soden, Becky von Fisher, and Thomas von Fisher.

Saturday, April 23

Today was a full day.  We arrived in Atlanta at 9:30am and drove in two vehicles to Anniston, Alabama.  In Anniston we saw murals devoted to the freedom riders bus attack in 1961.  Driving to Birmingham we went to Rickwood Field, the oldest baseball park in America established in 1908. The site of racially segregated baseball.  It was used on alternate days for black players and white players. We next went to Kelly Ingram park in Birmingham, where fire hoses and dogs were used top recent children from protesting in 1963.  We were led through the park by Bishop Calvin Woods, a veteran of the civil rights movement.  He told stories and together we sang freedom songs. He is an icon of the movement working with Martin Luther King.  Next we visited dynamite hill, named for the numerous bombings that occurred when blacks attempted to integrate white neighborhoods. This evening we met with Charles Avery.  As an 18 year old student he led more than 500 students ranging from elementary age to high school age on a twelve mile march leaving school to be part of the protests in downtown Birmingham. His insight and stories were amazing.