After meeting our fellow pilgrims on Wed. evening and some guided discussion, Thurs. morning we all went to the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham. There was a instructional exhibit for those who had never experienced the Jim Crow laws of the South. The majority of our group had either not grown up in the South or were too young to have been confronted with many of the
degrading expectations of people of color in the 50's and 60's. It was hard for me to remember the indignity of Jim Crow.
I remember the injustice of those laws. Riding in the back of the bus, the green or worse water fountains, the smell of bathrooms that were never cleaned marked 'colored' from the time I was small. It wasn't until college that I learned of 'night riders', the rape of Black women that was not seen as a crime, and the lynchings. The Institute had exhibits that brought them all back. The recordings of
bigoted politicians and police were played that reminded me of the TV in the 60's. But standing now in a Birmingham museum the horror of those days it all returned. Judy and I did not walk together. I couldn't walk with anyone. The violence of the videos of marches, police brutality upon non-violent marching were visions I didn't want to revisit, and yet needed to. It is so easy for white folk to close their eyes. However, if my Black friends had had to endure it, I could
not in conscience close my eyes. There is such truth in "I am not free if my brother is oppressed." My own oppression came over me in waves, the kind of oppression that I allow when I fear those who would belittle others because of ethnicity, color, culture, sexual orientation, creed.
We also went to the 16th Street Baptist
Church, the church that was bombed in 1963 and where 4 tween girls were killed on their way to their Sunday School class. Many went to the Jazz museum where images of how people of color coped with the oppression and how a local musician was able to lead young people of the era into creativity rather than hatred.
While in the Institute I met the daughter of Rev. Fred
Shuttlesworth, the founder of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and a member of the NAACP, an organization that was outlawed in AL in the 50's. She was visiting the Institute while on a visit to Birmingham too. I felt humbled by her presence. She wanted Judy's name so that the whole story of the struggle for equality could be told. She too understood that White folk were oppressed by Jim Crow too. Any group that has to oppress others to feel superior is already imprisoned. And the White folk of the South were as much chained by their fear as people of color were by the law. And in many cases, still are.
When we got back on the bus, I sat with an African-American priest, younger than I, who had never lived under Jim Crow. "How could they do that to MY people?" she cried. I realized how much of a shock the exhibit had been for her. I was reliving but she was experiencing it for the first time. My heart hurt for her. It hurt for me--a White woman whose race had terrorized her people and I began to understand just how hard it is to us to talk with one another to get to any kind of healing of the racial barriers. Between the shame and the indignation it is hard to insert reconciliation.
This pilgrimage was not about what happened 50 years ago. It was
about now. It was about Ferguson, Charleston, and every other murder that we have had over the past years. It was about Rebel flags. It was about voting rights now. It was about scholarships and percentages
of minority admittance or employment. It was about anger and despair where minorities will always be minorities until America becomes brown or learns that cultures are designed to give us more than what they mean to separate in us.
A type of fatigue began to settle on me. I not only couldn't find internet connections in which I could blog or sent my impressions back to the parish or the diocese as I had planned. I was overwhelmed with what hadn't happened in the past 50 years in the South. And by the end of my first day, I knew that this trip was going to be life changing if I allowed it.