Day 3 – Civil Rights Tour of the South – Part 1
Today needs to be split into two posts because I could write for days about our first stop.
Last night something stuck with me after our group talk. While I found the Children’s March in Birmingham information interesting and was glad to learn more about the movement, it wasn’t my top choice for what has resonated with me so far. It was by far the most referenced idea at our meeting with our students because they could identify directly with their situation. It really had me thinking about motives and perspective. Why are we all here on this trip? How can such a diverse group of people from different backgrounds come together in hopes of achieving the same thing?
I had circled today on my calendar for this trip. We left Jackson this morning for Philadelphia, MS, the site of the Goodwin, Chaney, and Schwerner murder. We arrived at Mt. Zion Church and met with two women whose families were directly involved in the original attack and bombing of the church. The bombing is what brought the three young men back to the church to investigate, as they had been in the area trying to set up a “freedom school.” The KKK attackers that night had been looking for the trio, but they were actually in Ohio at a training at the time, so the attack took place on church members.
I am Jewish, and the grandson of Holocaust survivors. My interest in civil rights and social justice started young, when I learned about the prominence of Jewish activists in the civil rights movement. I have taught social justice in bits and pieces in my English classes, as well as through a writing program when I worked at a middle school, but I wouldn’t consider myself anywhere near the category of the people we are learning about and meeting on this trip. Learning about these three young men who died and making some personal connections really hit me this morning.
Michael Schwerner was a 24 year old Jewish man from New York who was coming south to Mississippi to help offer curriculum to black citizens to help them get registered to vote and get past the voting restrictions in place. According to a document by the Philadelphia Coalition (we heard from one of the members today in our discussion), Schwerner came to the south because he wanted to prevent the spread of hate that he had seen personally with family members killed in the Holocaust.
His reasoning is the same that drives me, and it brought me back to a few things from our discussion last night. One of our tour leaders, non-violence teacher Charles Alphin brought up the different classifications of love and kept referring back to Agape love, which is love that persists regardless of circumstance. The tenet is big in the non-violence movement, as he said you have to separate the love you have for people in general from the things they might say or do. Schwerner’s reasoning for trying to help brought me directly to that idea of Agape love. This is what motivates me. I cannot even begin to fathom groups of people committed to hating others. My grandparents’ experience shocks me, angers me, and helps guide my perspective on current events in our world. The parallels from their experience to the experience of the people we have learned about on this trip are jarring.
We heard two speakers at Mt. Zion Church, and they gave personal stories about their family during that time in history. Jewel Macdonald and Evelyn Cole-Calloway were both children when the church was burned on June 16, 1964. The Klan was looking for Schwerner, Goodwin, and Chaney, and just attacked church members and bombed the church when they couldn’t find them. The three came down to investigate and were murdered and buried deep into an earthen dam. It took 44 days before their bodies were discovered. It took 41 years before anyone was convicted of a crime for the murders.
Here are a few ideas that stuck out to me from our speakers:
Jewel McDonald –
There were crosses burned on yards and houses set on fire during that time. – I couldn’t help but think as she spoke to us about how open the Klan was, marching openly in robes and meeting publicly.
In the process of looking for the three civil rights workers, other bodies were dragged from nearby rivers, and people realized that community members they had assumed had left for other cities had actually been murdered.
Evelyn Cole Calloway
Her father was beaten in front of her mother. She was out of town at the time, and she wondered whether it was fair to ask her parents to tell her the story and relive it. She said they did, and sat down calmly and told it.
After some time had passed a Klan informant approached her parents house and asked if he could forgive and forget what happened. He told him, “Son, I forgave you a long time ago, but I can’t forget.”
There were so many powerful messages in such a short amount of time this morning. It really affected me personally. I sat there and thought, could I have done that when I was 24? Could I do that now? Two of the men were Jewish kids from New York, and Chaney was a black man from Meridian, MS. Could I have put my life at risk for the sake of others?
On day 1 of our trip, I obtained Dr. Bernard Lafayette’s book about how he helped set up the Selma campaign. I was reading it on the bus drive in the morning, and in it he said that he was 22 when he started the Selma campaign. “When I made the decision to accept the position in Selma, I gave no thought to whether I would live or die.” I read that passage on the way to Philadelphia and it reminded me of what another chaperone from the trip, Alexander Terrance, brought up in our discussion yesterday. He spoke about how we tend to mythicize people from history sometimes, but when we were in Medgar Evers’ house, Terrance realized that Evers was just a man, and put his pants on one leg at a time just like anyone else. It’s just hard not to mythicize people like the ones we have learned about, who were seemingly so sure of what they were doing that they were willing to give up everything they had.
We all have a reason for being on this bus. Each person’s reason doesn’t really matter to anyone else because we are all here just seeking knowledge and growth. I’m excited to see how all of these students are going to take what they have learned and how they connected to the places on this trip and create change in our school, or community and our world.