One of the four foundations of the Becoming Beloved Community movement is to “Tell the Truth” about the history of churches and racism. To better experience and understand that truth, four women from the central Ohio area joined 48 other “pilgrims” from seven states and the District of Columbia in late May for a pilgrimage to civil rights sites in Alabama. The group, led by the Rev. Dr. Gayle Fisher-Stewart of the DC Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians, included other denominations as well. Almost equally divided between African and white Americans, the group also included five clergy and an ELCA deacon. The group was based in Birmingham, with daily trips to sites in Selma and Montgomery as well.
Although words cannot fully express the impact of the trip on each pilgrim, our brief review of each day will, perhaps, help impart the scope and intensity of the pilgrimage.
DAY 1 – BIRMINGHAM
Like all of Alabama and throughout the South following the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation in 1867, Birmingham remained a stronghold of segregation, enforced by customs, “Jim Crow” laws, and violence. From 1950-1962, Birmingham witnessed fifty racially motivated bombings of African American homes, businesses and churches, earning the city the name of “Bombingham”. Segregation was the norm in housing, education, and all aspects of public life. In 1963, however, led by a group of local and regional pastors (most notably the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy), a series of strategically planned, non-violent marches were held that captured national attention and led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
On our first day, we began by visiting Kelly Ingram Park, the gathering site for the “Children’s Marches”. During May 1963, over 1,000 teenagers gathered to march, demanding equal rights for themselves and their parents; all were arrested and jailed. For two more days, thousands of youth gathered to repeat the march until jails were filled for a sixty-mile radius from Birmingham. Attacked by dogs, water cannons, national guardsmen, and police on horseback, the children continued to peacefully march and sing, eventually joined by adults. Finally, the city power structure began to listen, and responded by beginning the dissolution of segregation laws within the city. Consequently, today Birmingham is the most vibrant and progressive city in Alabama. Kelly Ingram Park provides a walking trail of moving statues and monuments to King, Shuttlesworth, and the African American children. At one point, we were joined by an older gentleman, a deacon from Shuttleworth’s church who had participated in the marches, who passionately explained the intensity and suffering of the 1963 marches.
Just across the street from Kelly Ingram Park is the historic 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed in September 1963, killing four young black girls. Founded in 1881, the 16th Street Baptist Church is now on the national historic registry, commemorating this tragic event. The young girls, now called “Angels of Change” by the locals, were introduced to us by a church member who knew them. He showed a film about the horrific Sunday event, then spoke eloquently to us about the impact the death of these young martyrs had in accomplishing civil rights reform in Alabama and the nation. We toured the church and left in silence, awed and disturbed by such suffering.
This first day ended with a visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where a self-guided tour of displays, videos, films and holographs and a large research library helped to deepen and reinforce all we had learned.
DAYS 2 & 3 – MONTGOMERY
The Rosa Parks Library and Museum is located in downtown Montgomery on the campus of Troy University. The museum and memorial is in homage to Rosa Parks, whose bravery in 1955 by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person, really began the civil rights political movement. Mrs. Parks’ great heroism spawned the 11-month long bus boycott in Montgomery. Once again, a well-planned strategy, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and local African American pastors finally began to break the grip of segregation in Montgomery. It was astounding to learn the detailed planning and discipline exhibited by the over 50,000 black citizens of Montgomery as they maintained this monumental example of non-violent protest.
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church and Parsonage, another historic black church established in 1877, was the first pastorate of the young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he began his ministry. Its basement held the first organizational meetings for the 1955 bus boycott response to Rosa Parks’ arrest. Here we were greeted by two church members who had participated in the Selma marches and other early protests. A visit to the nearby parsonage where Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King lived with their first child, was a moving experience. The house was furnished as it was in the 1950s, with much of the original furniture. We saw King’s study, the dining table where he held many late-night planning meetings, and the kitchen table where he prayed for guidance and heard God tell him that he would never be alone. On the porch is a plaque denoting the site of one of the many bombings he and his family experienced during the civil rights movement.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is headquartered in Montgomery – and we ended our first day by visiting the fountain, a moving memorial to heroes of the civil rights movement. We learned that when the overseas slave trade was banned by the United States Congress in 1808, Montgomery became the center of the domestic slave trade. In 1857, there were more slave auction sites in Montgomery than hotels and churches. Within a few short blocks, one can see the marker of the Confederacy White House, the church where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached, and the corner where Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the Cleveland Avenue bus.
On day two we visited two projects of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), founded in 1989 by Bryan Stevenson. The EJI is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society. In addition to securing the reversal, relief, or release of over 125 wrongly convicted people on death row, the EJI has raised consciousness nationally about the continued persecution of black Americans starting with lynchings, through Jim Crow segregation, to today’s mass incarceration.
The Legacy Museum is located on the site of one of the major warehouses used in Montgomery for the slave trade, where up to 435,000 slaves were contained. Slaves were brought from southern ports, imprisoned in these warehouses and then sold to the highest bidder. When Alabama banned free black people from living in the state in 1833, those remaining were returned to slavery and sold. A beautiful fountain now stands at the site of the major auction block; very few non-people of color know its history!
The Legacy Museum contains alarming panoramas of the civil rights struggle through the 1970s. The holographs of slaves telling the stories of their separation from members of their family were heart-wrenching. Videos and testaments of wrongly-convicted prisoners are equally disturbing, not to mention the soil collected from the grounds of hundreds of documented lynching sites in America.
Further down the street near the river docks where thousands of Africans were unloaded from ships for sale stands the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the Lynching Memorial, dedicated in 2018. Veiled in silence, this awe-inspiring monument cannot help but leave one feeling anguished and guilty about what white supremacists perpetuated on our African American brothers and sisters for over 400 years. Hanging obelisks are displayed by county and display the names of those African Americans who were lynched there from 1857 through 1950. The verified count is over 4,400 men, women and children. What is not taught in Ohio history is that 18 African Americans were lynched in Ohio!
DAY 4 – SELMA
On our final day we traveled to Selma, site of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the historic march for voting rights in 1965. We visited the Brown Chapel AME Church, which was instrumental as a meeting place for the protests that finally culminated in the Civil Rights Act. A gathering place for many young protestors, these students would skip school to participate in non-violent protests. We were fortunate to have guides at the church who were children at the time and participated in these marches.
They reminded us that there were three marches protesting restrictions on voting in 1965, making the 54-mile trek from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. Since the Birmingham marches in 1963, there had been renewed efforts to register African American voters, resulting in clashes with Southern white supremacists and Alabama law enforcement. By January 1965, over 3,000 people had been arrested. In early February Jimmie Lee Jackson died after being shot by a state trooper and this lit the powder keg.
On March 7, 1965, 600 protesters crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were attacked by state troopers and vigilante men with Billy clubs and tear gas. This day will be forever known as “Bloody Sunday”. The violence at the bridge and subsequent murders resulted in a national outcry. Protest officials issued a call for clergy and citizens from across the country to join them. Awakened to issues of civil and voting rights by years of civil rights movement activities, and shocked by the television images of “Bloody Sunday,” hundreds of people responded to the Southern Christian Liberty Conference‘s call. One of the men who traveled from Massachusetts was Johnathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian, who was later killed while trying to register voters. The second march was March 9, 1965; Martin Luther King, Jr. took the people to the end of the bridge, and when the state troopers did not stop them, he and the marchers returned to the church.
As a result of the violence and confrontations, President Lyndon Johnson sent 1,900 National Guard troops, federal agents and marshals to ensure the safety of the marchers. A final march left Selma on March 21, making 10 miles a day, along the Jefferson Davis Highway (U.S. Route 80), and arriving on the steps of the capitol on March 25, 1965. Over 25,000 people entered Montgomery supporting voting rights. The Voting Rights Act became law on August 6, 1965.
At the end of each day, our pilgrimage group met to share thoughts and experiences from what we had seen and heard. These sessions brought even more understanding to the white pilgrims of the challenges and heartaches every person of color in our society faces daily – as well as the role our white privilege plays in perpetuating their sorrow and struggle. We grew to know one another better, relationships were formed, and the beginnings of a Blessed Community were truly sown.
The pilgrimage to Alabama proved to be a life-changing experience for its participants, and each left determined to continue the work of cleansing our society of racism, and of unifying all of our citizens in love and community. We gained a new appreciation for the civil rights movement as a major force for human freedom in our country and the world, and we came to admire anew the courage and spiritual strength exhibited by those thousands of African American citizens who comprised the movement.
We made several observations about the movement and the work ahead that will drive our future endeavors if we are to be “ambassadors of healing”.
1. It is imperative that we fight against the return to stringent voter restrictions at the state and federal level. Write letters, call your senators and representatives at the state and federal level.
2. We must actively participate in registration of potential voters and participate in our election process by voting, serving as poll workers, and assisting people getting to the polls.
3. Each of us needs to learn the history of the subjugation of African Americans and all people of color that our schools have often deliberately chosen to exclude.
4. We need to build personal relationships with African Americans, building bridges of understanding experiences for all.
5. We need to fully participate in Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s Becoming Beloved Community as a means to reach racial reconciliation, and finally, the healing of our society.
Birmingham is a vibrant city, attracting new industry and growing, partially because they chose to do away with the old Jim Crow legislation and grant African Americans the rights of white Alabamians. Montgomery and Selma appear to be dying cities, probably because of the refusal of their white citizens and leaders to embrace change and work for the good of over half of their population. And so it is with our nation. We can flourish fully as a society only if we work for the common good of all of our people; when any are suffering and deprived, so are we all, and we can only become a truly good and prosperous nation and world when we care for the freedom and welfare of all of God’s children. To do this work will be to become a Beloved Community.
The Rev. Deniray Mueller is a deacon in the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Dr. Karen Peeler is a member of St. John’s, Worthington.