2013 Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama
This year’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage marks the 50th Anniversary of the Movement. More than 250 people, including 30 members of Congress, joined the delegation for the three-day tour of civil rights landmarks as we learned, grew, and continued the conversation together — white and black, Republican and Democrat, man and woman, senior and child. We all returned to Washington, D.C., and to our homes across the country, with a renewed sense of responsibility for the common good.
The weekend kicked off at the University of Alabama — the same place where 50 years ago James Hood and Vivian Malone enrolled as the first African-American students, facing uncertainty and death threats. Months before, then Gov. George Wallace made his famous speech, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” But now the site — which displays its famous schoolhouse door in the entryway of the Foster Auditorium — stands as a place of reconciliation.
“For the first time since 1963, we have a member of the Wallace family, the Malone family, the Kennedy family, the Johnson family here, and we’re sharing a stage,” said Dr. Sharon Malone, sister of Vivian Malone Jones and wife of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Peggy Wallace Kennedy — daughter of Gov. Wallace — was 13 years old during the confrontation on June 11, 1963. Sharing a stage with Dr. Malone on March 1, Wallace Kennedy said while her father went on a long journey and is now beloved by many, she never received an explanation for that day.
“Today I have made my own journey to Tuscaloosa to stand in the place where my father once stood,” she said. “… I stand in the schoolhouse door as a testament to change. I can now give to my sons what my father never gave to me: a conversation.”
Dr. Malone summed up the historical implications of those gathered at the University of Alabama, 50 years after the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.
“It’s 2013, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and 50 years after that historic confrontation at the University of Alabama. And although there are still issues of race and inequality that plague us still, I am encouraged,” Malone said. “I’m encouraged by the bipartisan group that is assembled here today. Out of understanding comes tolerance and change.”
‘I accept your apology’
Perhaps the most moving moment of the trip happened in Montgomery, Ala., at First Baptist Church. Police Chief Kevin Murphy, as an act of ultimate respect and reconciliation, apologized to Congressman John Lewis on behalf of the Montgomery police force — the same police force that failed to respond as participants in the Freedom Rides were beat by a mob in 1961.
After a short speech, Murphy removed the badge from his uniform and offered it to Lewis.
“You changed this city, you changed this state, you changed this country, … you changed the world,” Murphy said. “For that we are truly grateful to you.”
Lewis embraced Murphy, and accepted his apology. The act was an external representation of the reason The Faith and Politics Institute invests in the pilgrimage each year — reconciliation.
Focus on working together
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R – Va.) spoke on Saturday night from the old chambers of the Alabama State Capitol. Cantor, who brought along his college-aged son Mikey, said meeting Ruby Bridges on the trip was a particularly special moment for both of them. Cantor said his son has been moved by Bridges’ story — as one of the first African-American students to attend the newly desegregated schools in New Orleans — since learning about her in school.
It was a sentiment shared by many. Hearing the stories, meeting those lives most intimately touched by the violence, hatred, and lasting effects of discrimination changes perspective. Cantor closed his talk by emphasizing the important of collaboration on both sides of the aisle.
“We’ll return to Washington with a focus on what — together — we can do,” Cantor said.
‘One more time’
From Selma, they began the march toward Montgomery. On the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, John Lewis, Hosea Williams, and many others, were confronted by mounted troops. When the marchers refused to stop, the troopers beat them, whipped them, and fired tear gas. Many of them — including Lewis and Williams — were severely injured, and the day became known as Bloody Sunday.
And in Selma, on March 3, 2013, our delegation gathered, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, and Martin Luther King III.
“I regret — and though it’s not part of what I’m supposed to say — apologize it took me 48 years to get here. I should have been here,” Biden said. “It’s one of the regrets that I have and that many in my generation have.”
The almost 300-member group, followed by hundreds of other local marchers, lined up arm-in-arm to cross the bridge, as Lewis puts it: “one more time.” As the marchers chanted the words of Freedom Singers, ‘We Shall Overcome’ echoed throughout Selma.
We’ll walk hand in hand …
Black and white together …
“Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome