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Boldness Before God: Civil Rights Pilgrimage Reflections

1 John 3:16-24 and Excerpts from ​​Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope, and the Heart of a Woman Who Changed a Nation by Rosa Parks and Gregory J. Reed

April 21st, 2024

Nicole M. Lamarche


Thank you again for your support for some of us to do this first Civil Rights Pilgrimage! I said first on purpose because my sense is that this is something we should continue to do and maybe bring our youth. It feels really important. of us should go and our kids and youth should go.

Next week you will get a chance to hear from some other pilgrims. Today will be more like a series of vignettes and reflections than a sermon. 

My friend told me I was brave for going on the trip and I told her that it didn’t really take bravery. She responded with, “It’s always brave to face your pain.” Her comment made me think of that quote by Maya Angelou who said that “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” 

It seems as if collectively America is avoiding its pain. But part of why I wanted to go was to be in touch with the truth in its place, to feel it, to get outside of a book and to hear stories from people who are still alive and to have encounters that might move me and all of us beyond shame to meaningful action. 

And still there was a lot of pain. As you know, I am someone who feels, as you know, I let myself feel and I can sometimes even feel something of what others are feeling, which is a little overwhelming so there were parts of the experience where I had to stop. 

The Montgomery Legacy Museum has large text in the entrance warning visitors that they could experience emotional overwhelm. I looked at Jackie and we both laughed knowing that would absolutely be me. The story begins in the Atlantic Ocean in a room that brings one right there in spirit, with waves crashing over you and the crushing beginning in Africa where the kidnapping and human trafficking of 12 million people began. Through some of the most incredible art I have ever seen, we were guided along the sea floor, with sculptures of heads, of children and adults those 20% that wouldn’t survive the passage, from starvation, disease, and abuse. They were thrown overboard. And the sea is a gravesite for so many lost lives. That was gut wrenching and powerful, but the part that made me stop was what came after. 

That’s when I had to put myself on a bench between exhibits and weep. And weep. And weep. And weep. Because I had sort of internalized the horrific notion of just showing up somewhere and taking entire communities’ hostage and I had sort of internalized the terrible violence of chattel slavery on its own, but the part that I hadn’t yet taken in, was the family separation. As a mother, I can really just hardly imagine something more terrible. We were told that the very ground we were walking on, that very site, had once been a holding pin for slaves and there was a room filled with small jail cells and a projection with images that looked like ghosts telling stories from real accounts and in one of the cells was a mother asking if I had seen any of her children and one was two kids calling out from behind the bars, “Mama, mama is that you?” The idea that my man and my baby could be taken from me forever just reduced me. I found a bench and let the spirituals being sung in the next cell wash over me. It didn’t feel bold, but it felt right to be encountering the truth.

As we flowed to the next part and learned more of the story, I started paying attention to who else was journeying with me. I had this idea that maybe we were healing in real time, something of our ancestors’ wounds, something of this generational trauma that humans are holding and that our country is holding. And I sure wasn’t the only one crying. It was people of all races and ages journeying with me, but some of them were looking for the names of their lynched ancestors. We watched videos that shared stories of families seeking to uncover the truth of their murdered relatives- hung from trees, buried on roadsides, as if they didn’t have names. A man was murdered for passing a note to a white woman. Another was murdered for asking for a reasonable price for his cotton. Another was murdered for simply walking behind a white woman. And on and on it went. A person could be killed simply for an accusation whether or not it was true. The lies of white people were the law of the land. 

Around us in pictures and audio retellings from newspaper archives and letters, we heard account after account of lives lost from lies and the sense of superiority with which white people lived and still live. It seemed okay to discard people. That’s when I had to stop again. I couldn’t find a bench this time, so I made my way to the bathroom to weep. I didn’t think anyone else was there. But when I made my way out of the stall, an employee of the museum, a Black Woman, approached me and inquired, “Are you okay?” I told her that I was appropriately unsettled. I cried as I washed my hands and tried to get myself together. She told me to hold on and she left. She returned quickly with this small packet of tissues. I choked up all over again as I realized that even here, in this place, this kind human feels the need to tend to a white woman’s tears. 

Almost every encounter we had with a guide or a docent, they felt the need to start their talk with a sort of disclaimer, what I am now thinking of as a white fragility disclaimer and it went something like this, “Welcome, what you will hear today isn’t meant to make you feel bad, it is meant to give you the truth. And we need to know what happened. It’s our history. And we don’t want to do it again.”

At a small museum near the end of the Edmond Pettus Bridge we met Sam, who was a most enthusiastic docent, eager to share about Selma and all that happened before and after. The space is mostly devoted to non-famous people, hardworking individuals whose names we generally don’t know who marched and helped with the effort to gain voting rights. The students led the movement because their parents feared losing their jobs. We met Kirk who marched for 3 years starting when he was 14. They would march from the high school down as far as they could get. He told us about camps that were created to try and stop them. I had never learned about those in school. The local police force would pick up the kids in buses and take them to the camps and feed them very little and beat them. At one point, he was in a camp for days and his mother feared him dead. That was normal for them. And they were all just kids.

Churches were absolutely essential to the Voting Rights and the Civil Rights Movements, for many reasons, but one of the most practical is that they offered a place where it was legal for African Americans to assemble in large groups. But even then, their meetings would be surrounded by members of law enforcement, often mounted on horses. At many mass meetings, the police and others would smash out the headlights of the cars parked outside so they could stop and harass and ticket them on their drive home for not having working headlights, sometimes this would land a person in jail. 

In one of the displays, there was a Ku Klux Klan uniform that had clearly been used many times and it had been inherited by the person who donated it to the museum. Imagine inheriting such a thing from a grandparent… Jean pointed out the cowardice of covering their faces and trying to hide their horrors, when all those kids were marching openly for their hopes of a better life, putting their faces out in the open bravely daily. We all noticed some KKK recruiting materials that were on display. I didn’t think much of it and thought it was from the time of the white hooded uniform, but when we got back into the van, Vicky pointed out that it was from a rally in 2015.

For some ridiculous reason I had imagined Selma to be cared for like an American treasure, like an honored place that began the next iteration of our truly democratic dream, but most of it looks like a country long forgotten, with dilapidated buildings, including a large old hospital with broken out windows and cardboard doors. The architecture was spectacular, large white columns, porches that wrap around and around, but still much of it crumbling. Glorious, forgotten facades. 

We inquired about why a most historic and significant town was in such bad shape and we were told it was mostly left that way on purpose. There wasn’t a desire on the part of those in power to send resources to such a place, to let the stories be told. That is until last year. 

Verdell, our gracious tour guide, who went to school and got Ph.D. in education when she realized that what was needed were African American teachers, she told us in her words, “God is the great equalizer!” She said that in January of 2023, a tornado hit the town of Selma and those mighty winds hit the White side of town and the Black side of town equally. And winds of 130 miles per hour tore off roofs and took down entire blocks. She said that now there are funds for renewal. And we saw many construction workers. I hope to see a day where Selma is given the attention it deserves.

He was the first Black chaplain in the prison system of the state of Alabama. When he learned that those who were done serving time were held in prison unless they had a physical address, he opened a home for them. He gave them an address and a new start. His daughter is Michelle Browder and she is the rock star and the artist behind the “Mothers of Gynecology” exhibit, monument that honors the sacrifice of Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey, the enslaved experimental subjects of the so-called “father of gynecology,” J. Marion Sims. Sims’s was involved in dastardly experiments and this artistic glory of Browder’s is in her words, a “first step toward teaching and reimagining the true story of the nation, facing the injustice of the past and honoring the courage of overlooked heroes.” She moved to Oakland, California for a time to learn to weld and she came back to give this gift to the city of Montgomery and they have now bought the building where J. Marion Sims did his work and it will be devoted to Black maternal health.


Downtown Montgomery is a bit of a ghost town, literally and figuratively. There was a time it was bustling and there was a even a Black Wall Street, although that has mostly been erased. The Alabama Retirement System owns much of the property downtown and seems to be purchasing historic properties, to knock them down to build parking structures, in part to intentionally erase the history. There is a theater across the street from the Rosa Parks Museum, but I saw one blessed soul there the entire time. We sat on a bus and got to experience a reenactment. After a long day, Rosa finds a place to sit, which was tolerated, that was until a white person needed a seat. I knew that part of the story about her bold “No!” that led to a strategy that offered an avenue for something winnable. But the part I didn’t internalize was what it took for the Montgomery Bus Boycotts to really be effective, and it was carpools. For their efforts to bear fruit they all had to find a way to get to work still. They couldn’t lose their jobs and their livelihoods, so they created an underground taxi service to support each other, and they did that for an entire year. It was a collective effort of sacrifice, mutual aid and holding the long view. I will start to wrap up right there- holding the long view, that was one of the most important takeaways for me from the trip and maybe part of our call as people of faith, and giving ourselves to the cause that is right and true, drawing on the power of something that is beyond us. 

As you heard from Rosa in her book, she drew on the strength of something bigger. She wrote, “I felt the Lord would give me the strength to endure whatever I had to face. God did away with all my fear.”


We are going to take two minutes or so to reflect: Were you taught these parts of American history when you were growing up? Do you relate to the idea that it takes bravery to face our pain? What do you think is the most important thing we can do as people of faith and conscience to help bring about true equality? Listen with open hearts and share as you are moved.


COMMUNAL REFLECTION

Beloved of God, let us be bold, let us not be afraid of facing our individual and collective pain, knowing we can’t undo history, but we can try to heal some of the wounds it has left. May it be so. Amen.


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