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Civil Rights Pilgrimage Reflections

Civil Rights Pilgrimage Reflections Shared During the 10:30 am Service on April 28, 2024

Rev. Jackie Civil Rights Pilgrimage Reflection

Be Thankful, Be Kind, Listen, Serve, Affirm, Be polite - These words and phrases were affirmations surrounding an artist rendition of a car that was used to provide carpools for Black workers to get to and from their workplaces during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts

Perseverance, Hope, Strength, Faith - these affirmations surround the National Monument to Freedom honoring the kidnapped, trafficked, enslaved and abused black people brought to this country against their will and those who were “bred” here to keep the trafficking going. The monument itself is engraved with over 100,000 chosen names of formerly enslaved people who participated in the 1870 census.

Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge where men, women and children marched across to start walking for their voting rights were brutally attacked, I noticed the birds singing in the trees, heard the water rushing beneath us and saw the trees on the banks with their strong limbs and green leaves. I found myself wondering if those marchers in 1965 heard and saw these too. Birds, trees, water as witnesses that persevere and keep on keeping on - just like those marchers. I am reminded about the endurance of nature.

It became clear to me during the pilgrimage that this work for justice and freedom and dignity and equality is a calling. In our language it’s a calling from God. Everyone we met who told us their story shared from a deep place within themselves. It was evident that they felt a need to do the hard work of truth-telling and continue the work for justice. And that amidst the horrific things they experience, witness and live with and through, person after person expressed some hope. And they did all of this in community. One person with another and another. It is not a movement to do on your own.

What is striking to me about all those words of affirmation and the birds, trees and water, and all the stories it could be easy and understandable to feel despair and hopelessness. But what we witnessed is that amidst such tragedy and injustice - there is still goodness and hope.

And now I’m reflecting about our calling in the 21st century. Near the end of our pilgrimage we visited the Southern Poverty Law Center and we entered a room with an electronic Wall of Justice featuring scrolling names of thousands of people who took a pledge that read - “I pledge to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance. I will work in my daily life for justice, equality and human rights - the ideals for which the Civil Rights martyrs died.” I’m pretty sure that all of our pilgrims signed the pledge. It feels important as a person of faith. We feel called to sign the pledge and honor the commitment to continue working to dismantle white supremacy everywhere.

The lectionary reading today from 1 John is striking as we reflect about our Civil Rights Pilgrimage and all that we learned. Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.The commandment we have is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

To love God means we love one another and to love one another, we seek justice, equality, dignity and human rights for all. To quote Maya Angelou - “Now that we know better, we must do better.” And to quote Fannie Lee Hamer - “No one is free until everyone is free.”

You have heard from 4 of us today and Nicole last week. Now it is your turn to reflect.

Some of what we learned on the pilgrimage is about the importance of language and words. We recognize that language evolves and ask that we respect that. Words like Negroe and the N word are no longer reflective of how our Black friends wish to be named and regarded.

What is our calling as White Allies and people of faith in a struggle that is still both very present and being erased?

What does loving God and loving one another look like in light of what you have heard the last 2 weeks?

John Woods Civil Rights Pilgrimage Reflection

The Trip

14 of us took a Pilgrimage trip to Alabama to broaden and deepen our understanding of what happened before and during the Civil Rights movement. I think we would all say we did that and so much more was learned. We visited many museums and visited several churches. Here are a few.

In Selma, we visited the Tabernacle Baptist Church, one of three churches that facilitated the planning and launching of the March to Montgomery, where talked with Kirk who marched for 3 years as a student. We also walked the Edmond Pettis bridge, where the 54 mile walk to Montgomery began, and violence occurred against the marchers.

In Montgomery we visited the absolutely first-class Legacy Museum, part of the three amazing museums of the Equal Justice Initiative, started by Bryan Stevenson. Being one of the best museums I have ever been to, it tells the story from the slave trade beginning to the issues still present today. We then went to the second of these museums, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, often called the lynching museum, which honors all those killed in the documented lynchings with dramatic and impactful outdoor exhibits.

We visited the third museum of the Equal Justice Initiative, a new and still being constructed 6 acre Freedom Monument Sculpture Park with amazing sculptures and panels discussing the slavery era with human stories.

We also visited the Mothers of Gynecology exhibit and Civil Rights Memorial in the Southern Poverty Law Center, where we interacted with several staff members.

As we traveled back to Birmingham and visited the 16th Street Baptist Church, where the 4 young girls were killed by a bomb planted by the KKK.

My thoughts

As you can tell, this was a full four days of seeing the amazing work of so many Civil Rights advocates to help us understand the legacy of slavery in America. There is so much to unpack, I will give you some of my impressions from this very intense trip.

There have been over 6500 documented lynchings occurring after the Civil War, and undoubtedly thousands more. Colorado has had lynchings as late as the early 1900s. Lynchings were frequently a community event, with large crowds, including men, women and children, numbering in the 100’s to the 1000’s all being in a festive mood, essentially celebrating the lynching.

The economic legacy of slavery is enormous, even to this day. There was significant slave trade into the northeast of America, not only in the South, and major economic gain by whites in the northeast due to the free labor of slavery – like building much of what is now Wall St. – was enormous. After emancipation, many slaves became landowners. In the first part of the 20th century, 6 million blacks left the south and fled to the North of the US, many leaving their land, and their wealth, behind. This was because society and the government did not protect them from the actions and laws of the Jim Crow era.

While the museums we visited were excellent, it seems clear that more needs to be done to make this story be told, and not less as is the trend in some parts of America. We need to have a similar approach to the way the Holocaust story is told, with many venues to keep the whole story visible and make it so everyone truly sees and learns our full history.

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