Today (or rather yesterday I suppose) is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. After the hustle and bustle of reuniting with my friends, I took a minute today to reflect on one of the most extraordinary experiences in my life. In January of 2009, I, along with 50+ students and faculty from Carroll and Cardinal Stritch Universities, embarked on what was called a “Civil Rights Pilgrimage” (CRP).
The journey took us to five sites related to the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s, during the reign of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We bussed to three cities in Alabama, Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham, as well as Memphis and Atlanta. Each city offered many different experiences, some joyous, some sad, all momentous, and while I’m not going to delve into details here, I wanted to share some reflections on that journey and how, even now, MLK resonates among us today.
You know, it’s one thing to read about a famous person and try to follow their footsteps through either primary accounts, autobiographies, documentaries, etc. It’s another to actually tread in the same footsteps they did. This is what the CRP aimed to do. We visited most of the haunts associated with MLK Jr., from the above church to his birthplace to his grave in Atlanta to his parsonage in Montgomery to the site of his assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. In between this, we ventured over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the site of “Bloody Sunday” where policemen forcibly put down an intended march from Selma to Montgomery to advocate for civil rights. It took three attempts, with MLK in attendance at the final one, for them to make the 51 march to the state capitol. (see pictures below)
As I said before, we crossed the bridge. Prior to this, our guide in Selma, Ms. Joanne Black, a prominent activist who participated in the marches as a girl, told us her story. There is no way possible to convey the emotion in her voice as she talked about her encounters with the police, the fear, the passion, the conviction that she, as a young girl, was caught up in something bigger than her. At the end of the bridge, some of us cried because we ourselves were overwhelmed.
For me, the most heart-wrenching experience was seeing the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where MLK was shot in 1968. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in the National Civil Rights Museum, but the images have been stamped into my mind. The one thing I will never forget was standing just behind the balcony where James Earl Ray allegedly shot MLK. Most of the original concrete has been replaced but for a small patch with a smudge of what the tour guide called it, “evidence”. That evidence was blood.
Room 306 had been remodeled to look as it might have been after the assassination. Nothing had prepared me for the onslaught of emotions that hit me that day, as I’m sure those who were with me that day could attest.
These were just small bits of history I encountered while on this pilgrimage. Probably the biggest thing I learned on this journey was more appreciation for the civil rights movement, something I knew little about. Furthermore, I gained a new respect for the struggle African Americans had and have endured in this country over the last 400 years. I learned a lot about myself as well and realized that the only thing that holds people back from forming friendships with people of a different race is our own minds. The only thing we have to lose from such encounters is the opportunity to learn something new, whether about ourselves, another person or culture, or a little bit of both.