Nearly every year since 1998, The Faith and Politics Institute has organized The Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage through Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery, Alabama. As I witnessed earlier this month, this pilgrimage is a powerful journey for all those who attend. It is humbling to walk the path of civil rights heroes, and it is particularly powerful to take those steps alongside those who marched through Hell over 50 years ago. Democracy Fund is proud to support this opportunity for Members of Congress and other pilgrims to interact directly with past wounds in order to find common ground to build for the future.
Learning in ‘Bombingham’
Throughout the trip, we heard from people who experienced the tumult of change firsthand. During one such opportunity at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham – the sight of a bombing that killed four African-American girls in 1963, Faith and Politics President Joan Mooney hosted a panel with Carolyn McKinstry and Marian Daniel, both survivors of church bombings from an era in which these attacks were so frequent that Birmingham was known as “Bombingham”.
McKinstry and Daniel shared similar experiences of hearing loud bangs, buildings shaking, and feelings of sheer terror. They also shared a common outlook on how to move forward from tragedy. In the time since the bombing, both women have dedicated their lives to fighting for justice and reconciliation. As McKinstry has said in recent interviews, “It was the point at which I decided that I would try to do as much as I could to change the world. We could accomplish so much more with love and kindness.”
Dorothy Frazier, one of the campus organizers at Alabama State University during the Civil Rights era, has endured the longest path toward reconciliation. In his report on the pilgrimage in the Washington Post, Jonathan Capehart quoted Frazier:
“March 7th will forever stay with me,” said Dorothy Frazier, who was a student at Alabama State University in 1965, and was involved in protests in Montgomery. She revealed during the panel that she rarely talked about what happened and that she had a hard time forgiving. “How do I forgive,” Frazier asked, “how do you forgive people who want to kill you? I’m trying really, really, really, really hard.” But moments later, Frazier earned lengthy applause when she said, “Today, I think, while I’m speaking, I’m releasing the hate.”
History Comes Alive
On the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, pilgrims gathered to hear Representative John Lewis recount his experience from Bloody Sunday.
“We looked over the bridge and saw a sea of blue,” he said, referring to the Sheriff and dozens of citizens who were deputized by the sheriff’s department the evening before a march that was planned by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Following the fatal shooting of a civil rights activist by an Alabama State Trooper, they organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. When they had only made it from Brown Chapel across Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, the Sheriff ordered the marchers to stop, and they did.
However, when John Lewis, then just 25 years old, asked the Sheriff “May I have a word,” the police and posse responded with Billy clubs and tear gas, assaulting the marchers and chasing them back across the bridge.
The violence that ensued was captured on camera and projected to millions of Americans during the evening news, bearing witness to the brutality that the attackers let loose on peaceful protesters.
“I thought I was going to die on this bridge,” John Lewis told us, the scars from 1965 visible on his head as he spoke. “I was not afraid. But I thought I was going to die.”
Lewis challenged those on the bridge to find a way to work together to further the cause of equality.
“Do not give up hope! Do not give up hope,” he told the crowd. “It’s going to be hard. But do not give up.”
As Dr. McKinstry closed the programming on the bridge with a prayer, the enormity of what we had all just witnessed became ever clearer to those of us on the bridge. Some people dropped to their knees, others broke into tears. Some looked out into the distance over the water. But every person was amazed at the opportunity to stand on the bridge with John Lewis, and to hear his words about building a better future – even when the challenge is hard. Dr. McKinstry referred to the bridge as “sacred ground.” She was right.
Healing Divides, Bridging Differences
After dinner that evening, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, the daughter of former Alabama Governor George Wallace, delivered remarks at the Alabama Archives. She spoke about growing up in Governor’s Mansion and not understanding what her father was doing. Years later, she said, her son asked her why her father had supported such treatment toward African-Americans.
“I realized at that moment that I was at a crossroad in my life and the life of my son. The mantle had passed. And it was up to me to do for Burns what my father never did for me. It was the first step in my journey of building a legacy of my own. Maybe it will be up to you and me to make things right.”
In this critical time for our democracy, Members of Congress and the American people face this very same challenge: to make things right. Doing so will require members of Congress to work together and to find common ground, in the way that members of both parties did during the pilgrimage to Alabama. Speaking only for myself, I was haunted by the ways in which the lessons of Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham are relevant today. The words of John Lewis, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, and many others showed the importance of learning these lessons from our past and working together to build a stronger future for our republic.
On the bridge that day, many of the Alabama pilgrims were moved to tears as they faced the brutality and scars of our past. In listening to Peggy Wallace Kennedy at the Alabama Archives, they realized the enormity of the challenge to “make things right.”
She challenged the Members of Congress and all others on the trip to “Stand up rather than stand by when justice for all is at stake.”
During a question-and-answer period after her speech, John Lewis began by thanking Kennedy.
He spoke slowly.
“Thank you for being you. You are my sister. I love you.”