Civil Rights Pilgrimage Takes Visitors To 'Sacred Ground'

March 13, 2009

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

March 11, 2009 | MONTGOMERY, Ala. (UMNS)

Hearing the personal stories told by civil rights heroes - while standing in the same churches that sheltered them from angry mobs and gave them courage to fight for equal rights - was "a profound experience" for one United Methodist leader.


Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, was one of more than 30 who joined U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) on a congressional civil rights pilgrimage to Alabama March 6-8.

"It is not very often that you actually get to hear someone like John Lewis in person telling you, 'This is spot where we were beaten,' or 'This is the spot where Dr. King preached,'" Winkler said.


The Faith and Politics Institute has sponsored trips to Alabama for the past nine years to give members of Congress and others a chance to walk in the footsteps of civil rights giants like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and United Methodist pastors Jim Lawson and Joseph Lowery.


Winkler (at left) is on the institute's board but said this was the first time his schedule allowed him to join the pilgrimage.


"It was powerful to hear (Lewis') personal testimony and also watch the profound impact he clearly has on his fellow members of Congress," Winkler said. "I could tell many of them came along on the pilgrimage because they wanted to be with John Lewis, and that was really fantastic."


The group made stops in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma. Many of the places visited were churches.

Making a contribution

At Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where King was pastor from 1954 to 1960, Lewis told the gathering, "One Sunday morning, a bare-footed boy from Troy heard the words of Rev. King, and he seemed to be saying, 'You too, John Lewis, can make a contribution.'"


"I don't know what would have happened to many of us if not for Martin Luther King. ... I don't know what would have happened to this nation," Lewis said.

Leaving Dexter Avenue, the four buses carrying the pilgrimage participants were escorted by police and flashing blue lights to another historic Baptist Church that figured heavily in the civil rights movement.


In 1961, Freedom Riders, church members and others, including Lewis and five white students from Huntington College, were held captive in First Baptist for 15 hours by an angry mob.


Lewis and Bob Zellner, one of the white students from Methodist-related Huntington, spoke to the group about that night in the church.


Zellner, the son of a United Methodist pastor, said he and the other four students were asked to leave school because they had come to Dr. King's church. "The Ku Klux Klan burned crosses at our dormitory. We had friends who were in the mob outside."


Lawson, who studied Mahatma Gandhi's principles of nonviolence while serving as a missionary in India, trained Lewis and others in nonviolent resistance. On March 7, he gave a quick lesson to six young people to demonstrate the techniques he and King used in the 1960s.


"Get into pairs of two," he instructed. "The person on your right is just somebody sitting in the park relaxing. Without warning the person on your left is going to walk up and slap you." The point of the exercise was to prepare the students for attacks and give them time to think of nonviolent ways to react.


This is something that really happened to King when he was 11 years old, Lawson told the young people. "On a corner in downtown Atlanta, an irate white woman charged across the street saying, 'You are the dirty, little n----- that stepped on my foot.' She slapped him. King never forgot that."


Turning to those in the sanctuary, Lawson said, "We live in a violent world, and from Congress must come some effort to stop the violence."

New heaven and earth

Winkler said another highlight of the trip was the sermon by Lowery on Sunday in Brown's Chapel in Selma. "The whole service was great," he said.

Preaching from Revelation 21, Lowery told the overflowing crowd that President Barack Obama's election has ushered in a new era, "a new heaven and a new earth."


He recalled the last time he was in Brown's Chapel, when Obama spoke.


Obama said his was the Joshua generation, while older people were the Moses generation. He said, 'We stand on your shoulders.' I saw in him that day someone who had reverence for the past and a sharp focus on the future," Lowery said.


Lowery also quoted singer Beyonce, who he pointed out was a United Methodist.


"At a NAACP dinner, she said when she looks at Obama she wants to be smarter. She has given us profundity. We need to turn to each other in new ways, we need a new attitude."

Full circle

Also speaking at the service was the first African-American U.S. attorney general, Eric Holder. His late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone Jones, was one of the first black students who integrated the University of Alabama. Introducing Holder at the service was Peggy Wallace Kennedy, the daughter of the late Gov. George Wallace, who stood at the schoolhouse door to block Jones from entering.

"In the spring of 1965 as clouds of hatred and violence thundered across the South, a brave band of believers walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and into history," Wallace's daughter said. "Watching from behind the gates of the Alabama governor's mansion I knew in my heart that their cause was just, but unlike them I did not let my voice be heard."


She said for many years she wandered in a world of indifference until she heard the voice of Obama calling for a refreshed America. "He inspired me to believe in myself," she said.


"I so wish Vivian had lived to see this moment," Holder said after hugging Kennedy.


Kennedy joined hands with Lewis and others as they re-enacted the March 7, 1965, Selma-Montgomery Voting Rights March. The event became known as "Bloody Sunday" after police attacked the marchers. Lewis was one of those beaten.


Speaking at the conclusion of the ninth pilgrimage, Lewis said one of the highlights this year was the presence of Wallace's daughter.


"She has a very sweet personality and did a very great job this morning introducing the attorney general," he said.


* Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn.