Editor's Note: The author took part in the Interfaith Freedom and Justice Ride 2019, a delegation of 37 Christians and Jews from Hartford who traveled together to Alabama. Other reflections and coverage can be found here.
Two short weeks ago our group gathered at Bradley Airport. We didn’t all know each other. We didn’t really know what was in store for this group in the four days that would unfold before us. What we knew was that we were about to embark on a civil rights trip to Alabama and to experience the ongoing impact of racism in our country. We were from Faith Congregational, Immanuel Congregational Church and the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. Young and old, Jewish and Christian, Old and young and in-between, different races and ethnicities, extroverts and introverts, social justice advocates and those who are interested in action to make an impact and to find ways to confront the sin of racism.
We traveled to Montgomery and Selma and Birmingham. We stepped off the bus in Montgomery and were immediately impacted by what we saw and felt at the newly built National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This memorial of the Equal Justice Initiative is intended to be a public place where we can come to grips with the horror of lynching and domestic terrorism in our nation’s history. Bryan Stevenson, the author of “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” formed the Equal Justice Initiative whose mission is: “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.” (museumandmemorial.eji.org/about)
The memorial is a place of recognition and in many ways a place to publicly acknowledge a part of our nation’s history that many choose to ignore. It is as important as any other memorial that I have ever been to in this country and in any country I have visited. You cannot go to this memorial and not be moved. You cannot go to this memorial and ignore the violence fueled by hatred and racism. I could not go to this memorial without recognizing my own racism and complicity and white privilege. It is a sacred place and a troubling place and a place to honor those whose lives were taken by violence at the hands of those who more than likely were church-going people.
The second Equal Justice Initiative site we visited was the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, a museum dedicated to the history of lynching and providing education and information about the continued issues around racial justice. As Stevenson has said, “We have never honestly confronted the legacy of racial inequality. We are still burdened by the history of slavery, lynching and segregation and it compromises our ability to have a just system. We need to find ways to overcome this history of racial bias.” (Bryan Stevenson on What We Should Know And Can Do to Fight for Racial Justice - Relevant Magazine, Feb. 13, 2018)
Stevenson has said that “slavery hasn’t ended, it has just evolved.” He makes his point about Mass Incarceration and the ways in which the criminal justice system is one example of institutionalized racism.
The Legacy Museum could stand alone as an important place not only to learn about this part of our nation’s history that receives very little attention in our children’s education but also as a place that reinforces the fact that racism is an ever present reality which is like an open wound that never heals.
We visited the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery where Dr. King served as its pastor from 1954-1960. The church was built on the location of a former slave trading pen. At this church there were gatherings and meetings where it served as a significant planning hub for the civil rights movement. From the church you can see Alabama State Capitol. In 1861, the Confederate States of America was born in the Senate Chamber, where delegates from Southern states voted to establish a new nation. It is where Jefferson Davis began the only Presidency of the Confederate States of American.
We then traveled to Selma where we walked over the Edmund Pettus bridge, the site of the walk from Selma to Montgomery to demand the right to vote for African Americans. On March 7th 1965, 17 people were injured by the police as they walked over the bridge and the day has been known since as “Bloody Sunday”. What I didn’t know was who Edmund Pettus was until this trip. Pettus was regarded as a hero in Alabama and he adopted Selma as his hometown; he was a lawyer and statesman who served as a U.S. senator. But he was also a decorated Confederate general and a leader in the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. There have been several attempts to rename this bridge but all have failed.
In Birmingham we heard from two civil rights activists who were members of the First Congregational Church in Birmingham. One, Ms. Barbara Shores, whose father (Attorney Arthur Shores) brought ground-breaking lawsuits alongside Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley, described their house being bombed...twice. The second bombing occurred two weeks before the KKK bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where the four African American girls were murdered. Ms. Shores has written a book titled, “The Gentle Giant of Dynamite Hill” about her father’s work for civil rights.
It was in a Birmingham jail that Dr. King wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and he wrote these words, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
We attended a Shabbat Service at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham which began in 1881.
At Kelly Ingram Park we were immersed in the history of the park, which was a gathering place for civil rights activists to gather and to demonstrate for voting rights. The park is filled with statues and memorials and history of what happened there during the movement. Across the street is the 16th Street Baptist Church where four young girls were killed by a bomb on September 15, 1963. 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair lost their lives and others were injured in this horrific attack that brought the world’s awareness to the struggle for equality.
We closed out our trip on Sunday morning as we worshiped at Unity Christian Center UCC, which is pastored by the Rev. Bennie Liggins. The Rev. Kari Nicewander and the The Rev. Stephen Camp of our delegation offered deep and moving reflections on where we find ourselves today in regards to the struggle for civil and human rights.
So what did this trip accomplish? It brought a group of people together from Connecticut to experience the civil rights struggle in a place where lives were lost and where we were reminded that there is still much work to do. It brought us into proximity with the stories and the memories of those who worked to change the hearts and minds of others. We were painfully reminded of the ongoing struggle to work to eradicate racism in our personal lives and in the many ways racism is structurally embedded in institutions including the church. One of the most impactful statements made by a member of our group were summarized in two points, “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge” and “White folk need to handle your business”. I couldn’t agree more.
This trip will continue to unfold in the days to come. Some in our group will be studying the book, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism” by Robin DeAngelo. Others in our group have committed to finding actions and to having conversations with people about what we saw and heard on this trip.
One other thing I need to say. As I posted a bunch of pictures there were some comments about how wonderful it was that this trip took place. I didn’t post the pictures for that reason. There was absolutely nothing wonderful about my going on this trip. I became more convinced that I have much more listening to do, much more confession to make and a renewed commitment to making racial justice ministries a central part that we as people of faith must attend to or ignore at our peril.
The Rev. Kent Siladi is Connecticut Conference Minister
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