Reflections: Annual tour brings 1960s rights struggle to life

I teach a course titled “The Methodist Church and Race” at Candler School of Theology, as part of my responsibility as bishop in residence. The course not only examines the history of race in the church—from the beginnings of U.S. Methodism in the American colonies to the present—but in the nation at large, as well. It explores what Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal described in his 1944 book, An American Dilemma, as “the contradiction between segregation and discrimination and the American ideal of freedom and equality.”

Bishop Woodie W. White

Bishop Woodie W. White

Several years ago, I added a dimension to the course that has proved both informative and transformative for the students. We take part in the Civil Rights Heritage Tour sponsored by SCLC/Women’s Organizational Movement for Empowerment Now. The organization was founded by Mrs. Evelyn Gibson Lowery, wife of retired United Methodist minister and “dean of the civil rights movement,” the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery.

SCLC/W.O.M.E.N., over the years, has raised funds to erect monuments throughout Alabama (where Mrs. Lowery was born and the couple spent most of their ministry) to commemorate events and persons significant in the history of the racial struggle in the state. My students and I join people from all across the country to visit those 13 sites, in what I describe as more of a pilgrimage than a tour.

We spend two days traveling to Birmingham, Marion, Selma, Montgomery and other communities that are less well-known. Each spot is remembered for what took place there nearly 50 years ago: demonstrations, rallies and in some cases, murder.

People who witnessed those times tell us the story in graphic detail, movingly and often as tears stream down their faces. The group stops at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where a woman recalls the Sunday morning in September 1963 when the church was bombed and four little girls were killed. The woman was a child at the time, and left the room moments before the bomb exploded to run an errand in another part of the building. She still lives with the memory and weeps as she shares it with us.

A visit to Montgomery—where Rosa Parks boarded a segregated bus to go to work and one day refused to give up her seat to a white man—brings the history a little closer to those who were not even born in 1955. Going to a rural community that was the childhood home of Coretta Scott King serves to humanize yet another civil rights icon.

A stop at Zion United Methodist Church in Marion transports us to a February night in 1965, when hundreds marched peacefully from the church to the city jail to protest the arrest of a young civil rights worker. Without warning they were attacked and beaten by law enforcement officers, shots rang out, and 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson later died in the hospital. A visit to his grave reveals gunshot holes in the headstone. Even death does not satisfy hate.

A wreath is placed at each site visited, and tour participants recite a litany prepared to remember the life and commitment of those who made this ordinary ground special. Something transformative happens when more than 200 people of different races, ethnicities and even nationalities spend two days riding the same buses, sharing meals and spending the night in the same hotels—experiences that would have been illegal less than 50 years ago. We are made aware of how much has changed!

The trip culminates in Selma, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was here on March 7, 1965, that a group planning to march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capitol, was stopped by state police and sheriff’s deputies and so viciously beaten that the date became known as Bloody Sunday.

Thousands come each year to mark the anniversary by walking together across the bridge. Students from my class were mesmerized last month as they saw and listened to Vice President Joe Biden address the crowd along with Congressman John Lewis, who participated in the 1965 march.

For me, the most moving part of our journey occurred along rural Highway 80, not far from Selma. A monument has been placed there to remember Viola Liuzzo, believed to be the only white woman killed in the civil rights struggle. Mrs. Liuzzo was a volunteer working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to provide rides for people who were participating in marches. On the evening of March 25, 1965, a group of Klan members sprayed the car she was driving with bullets, killing her instantly. The 19-year-old African American man she was transporting, covered with her blood, pretended to be dead as well. He survived.

At the close of the litany for Mrs. Liuzzo, as we returned to our buses, a little-noticed meeting took place. Mrs. Lowery had located the man who survived the shooting, now living in another state, and arranged for him to return to Alabama and to the very spot where he was almost killed. She introduced him to Mrs. Liuzzo’s daughter, Mary, who was 5 years old when her mother was killed and is a regular participant in the Heritage Tour. Imagine the array of emotions as they met! The two embraced in a moment of healing. Each had a tender place that was now soothed, as they stood atop the hill on Highway 80.

Thank you, Mrs. Lowery. And thanks, too, to SCLC/W.O.M.E.N.

Retired Bishop White is bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.

 

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Steve Horn

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