“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I am reminded of William Faulkner’s famous words when I reflect on a remarkable pilgrimage I made a couple of months ago through the cradle of the American civil rights movement – an amazing weeklong bus trip through Alabama and Mississippi. I was one of about 40 participants in the Living Legacy Pilgrimage led by the Living Legacy Project, an initiative of the Unitarian Universalist church, in partnership with Coming to the Table, a nonprofit dedicated to racial healing and reconciliation.
Day after day, we pilgrims vicariously relived the pivotal events of that tumultuous era a half-century ago when courageous Americans, black and white alike, literally put their lives on the line to challenge the nation’s shameful, centuries-long oppression of its African-American minority.
It was a vivid reminder of the hatred and violence that bubbled to the surface of American life during that time, often perpetrated by agents of the state itself. But I was all too painfully aware that the ugliness of that period wasn’t stamped out forever – not when we have neo-Nazis marching in the streets and a president who got elected by appealing to Americans’ basest impulses of racism and xenophobia.
We began our pilgrimage with a visit to the historic Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, whose pastor Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth drew the wrath of local racists as a pioneering early leader of the civil rights movement. The church and adjacent parsonage were bombed three times between 1956 and 1962. In the sanctuary, we lifted our voices with Bethel parishioners in a rousing chorus of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the unofficial black national anthem.
Bethel’s current pastor, Rev. Thomas Wilder, told us a haunting story I had never heard before, a reminder of the many foot soldiers of the movement who never made it into the history books but often paid a heavy personal price for their involvement. Rev. Lamar Weaver, a white pastor who befriended Shuttlesworth, joined him in an effort to desegregate the whites-only waiting room at the Birmingham train depot. For his trouble, Weaver was ejected by police and attacked by a mob of 100 whites. When he fled to the police station for protection, he was arrested and charged with reckless driving, fined $25 and told to get out of town. He next fled to a black-owned funeral home, whose owners hid him in a coffin as the mob searched for him. Ultimately Weaver’s wife, afraid for the safety of their two daughters, divorced him and changed their last name. Weaver left Birmingham never to return.
As I listened to that story, I wondered for the first of many times that week: Would I have had the courage to take a similar stand for freedom and justice?
That evening at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham, we were treated to an evening of freedom songs by the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir, formed in 1959 to provide an inspirational sound track for the movement. Two of the singers, both women, told us of being attacked with fire hoses and police dogs and arrested on orders of police commissioner “Bull” Connor during protests in 1963 – images of brutality that shocked the nation and helped push President John Kennedy to propose what became the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“President Kennedy was a great president,” said one of the women, drawing a sharp contrast to the current occupant of the White House. “We’re in a mess now,” she said. “But I don’t want to talk about that.”
Neither do I, but I’m afraid we must.
Watch this space for further installments.