A Trip Through Living History
Last March, I began a journey to learn the history of the Movement (the Civil Rights Movement) in Alabama. Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s I had been taught about Rosa Parks in Montgomery; the March from Selma to Montgomery; and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed 4 young girls. I invite you to name them: Annie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair.
I had been taught what I thought was “the truth” of the struggles and the victories, but that didn’t being to scratch the surface of the atrocities Blacks have endured here in America for hundreds of years. After registering for the 5-day trip, I was sent a list of documentaries and books to study. The leaders of the Living Legacy Project (LLP) wanted the pilgrims to better understand what we were going to delve into. Weary Feet, Rested Souls by Townsend Davis caught my attention. It is a guidebook to places, events and people of the Movement that I referred to throughout the journey.
From the moment I landed at the Birmingham Shuttlesworth International Airport, I was transported to a place where history was living large. The airport was named after the iconic Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. On display was a pictorial testament to his life as a civil rights activist. We visited Shuttlesworth’s Bethel Baptist Church and saw where his house stood before it was bombed on Christmas Eve, 1956. Miraculously his entire family survived. This gave him the resolve to fight even harder.
Museums, monuments and historical places were a constant on our Pilgrimage and while any guidebook can help you navigate those, the LLP takes you deeper. Graced by Heroes of the Movement at every turn, we listened to firsthand accounts of what was going on then, and what is happening now. It was incredibly moving.
This Pilgrimage was blessed to have among the leaders Living Legacy Project President Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson (Congregational Life) and another one of the five original LLP co-Founders, Dr. Janice Marie Johnson (Co-Director of Ministry and Faith Development). Throughout the years, they have formed relationships with Heroes of the Movement. Those connections set the LLP apart from other Movement tours.
Martyr Viola Liuzzo’s son Anthony told us what it was like when his white Unitarian Universalist mother from Detroit drove down to Selma to register voters after Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. made a plea on national TV for people of faith to join him. Liuzzo explained his Mom’s role during the voter registration efforts in Alabama before her brutal murder. He then shared all that his family endured from the FBI and others. Later that week we paid our respect to Viola Liuzzo at the marker near where she was murdered. Having met Anthony really made the memorial to his mother that is there now come alive for me.
In Selma we met and listened to Veteran Joanne Bland who was eleven years old when her Grandmother took her to NAACP meetings. Joanne was bored and didn’t understand why her Grandmother said that they weren’t free. It was not until she wanted an ice cream cone at the local drugstore. It was when her Grandmother told her that she wasn’t allowed in there because of the color of her skin that she suddenly understood what freedom was. She marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in March of 1965. As she got to the top of the bridge she saw a “sea of blue” as Alabama State Troopers prepared to beat back the marchers—which they did. She was there for the second attempt, and also the final third successful attempt that ended in Montgomery.
It is said that each Living Legacy Pilgrimage is a different experience and I wholeheartedly believe that. Not only are the itineraries unique, but some experiences can’t be repeated. During our Q & A section with Joanne Bland, one of the men in our group told us all that this was his second time down in Selma, the first being in March 1965 with some college buddies who went down to Selma from Chicago to help register voters. He talked about staying with local families and shared what he’d experienced. Joanne started to tear up. She said, “thank you for coming down and fighting our fight—you didn’t have to.” The older man also in tears hugged Joanne, “well, it should have been everyone’s fight.” Truer words were never spoken.
I could write a thousand more words about my experience, but I’ll end my travel log here so that I can invite you go to on your own journey—one that will continue for the rest of your life. My journey is learning the struggles of the past, seeing the injustices that still exist and identifying my role in dismantling white supremacy culture. I have only begun my journey.
Event Coordinator for the Central East Region of the UUA.
The Living Legacy Project pilgrimages are open to all. To be put on the mailing list for information about the next Pilgrimage, please visit their website. http://www.uulivinglegacy.org/