Written by Inspire Senior, Maya Klein
For the last 13 years, Inspire has had the honor of attending the Sojourn Project — a unique, moving classroom immersive history program, through the lens and lessons of the Civil Rights Movement. With this program, students have the incredible opportunity to literally walk in the footsteps of and even meet Civil Rights leaders, transforming their understanding of our collective history, and their place within it. The following article was written by Inspire Senior, Maya Klein, regarding their experience of the Sojourn Project trip they took back in March, alongside 8 other Inspire students, their Teacher, and the Inspire Outreach Coordinator.
“You’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
JoAnn Bland’s eyes, witnesses to an eon of social change, were deadly serious. Her mouth, however, conveyed a youthful smirk. In that little room around the corner from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, she stared out over the faces of students who were nearly as old as she was when she attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery with John Lewis and Hosea Williams. Within that smile, I detected the recognition that we were the continuation of a line of hope: she once was the one that John Lewis had waited for. Now we had the opportunity to walk in her footsteps. Bland, who as an 11-year-old girl experienced the brutality of “Bloody Sunday” during the Selma to Montgomery March, understands the importance of passing the torch to the next generation.
The Selma to Montgomery March was intended to be a peaceful protest against the denial of voting rights to African Americans in March of 1965. It was also supposed to be an outcry against the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who had been shot by police in another peaceful protest just a few days prior. Reverends John Lewis and Hosea Williams organized 600 individuals to march, two of which were eleven-year-old Ms. Bland and her sister. This first march, despite its peaceful and nonviolent nature, was halted by state troopers who brutalized the marchers and drove them back into Selma through force.
It took three separate marches to finally reach Montgomery; the first devolved into brutal violence, the second (which Martin Luther King Jr. attended) turned around at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in order to avoid a repeat of Bloody Sunday, and the third finally reached the Alabama State Capitol building. Within just a few subsequent months, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. So it was that 58 years later, JoAnn Bland sat with a group of star-struck Sojourn to the Past students and recounted the events that had led to the affirmation of her right to political participation. She, like so many other leaders who we had the honor to meet and speak with, is a living testament to the recency of the movement. The violence which occurred during Bloody Sunday is echoed and indelible today. Likewise, so are the strides that have been made.
Our small, yet significant, Inspire Sojourn team trekked through the states where this history was written. Before walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge just as JoAnn Bland did, we visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A stoic building with high-arching windows which overlooks Kelly Ingram Park, 16th Street Baptist was subject to the tragic bombing in 1963 by the Ku Klux Klan which killed four little girls. We had the honor of speaking to a survivor of the bombing (Sarah Collins Rudolph), as well as Lisa Mcnair, the sister of one of the murdered girls, Denise. The theme of these conversations which struck all of us was this: the two women who stood before us had experienced the most pure and vile form of hatred known to humankind. Yet, they spoke to us on the importance of love and forgiveness. They had absolved themselves of ill will towards those who had murdered the four little girls, and they preached the importance of nonviolence and amnesty instead.
This lesson of love and compassion followed us throughout all nine days of our trip. In Jackson, Mississippi, we visited the home of Medgar Evers, champion of voting rights in the movement. Medgar organized countless registration drives, spurred enrollment opportunities for black youth, and was responsible for the investigation into the murder of Emmitt Till and others. In 1963, Medgar was assassinated by a white supremacist in the driveway of his home while holding shirts that said: “Jim Crow Must Go”. As we sat in the very spot where Evers was killed, his daughter Reena also spoke to us about the importance of love. Witness to her father’s death as an eight-year-old, Reena has become an activist in her own right. As she looked into each of our faces one by one, she implored us to vote in her father’s name: “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.” Just as Sarah and Lisa had done, she entreated us to fill the grief we held for her father with immense love and direct action: to walk in his footsteps as an active participant in our political system, we would honor his legacy.
From that driveway, we traveled to Memphis, Tennessee. Tucked between historic blues bars and parks commemorating civil rights events is the Lorraine Hotel, the location where Dr. King was assassinated. Gazing upon the window of his hotel room, it was difficult not to imagine his silhouette passing in and out of view. Later, we had the opportunity to view its interior; Dr. King’s suitcase lay open where it was left, and a neat stack of breakfast dishes sat on his bedside. The night before Martin Luther King was shot, he delivered his famously prophetic “Mountaintop” speech. With eerie foreshadowing of his own death, King delivered the line which perhaps best defined his prowess and desire: “It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” With this final guidance, Sojourn departed from the deep South.
The impact of this trip can not be understated. As a group, we bore witness to some of the most abominable acts of humankind. Yet, each event was punctuated by the incredible impact of those left in its wake. The love and hope of family and friends propelled the Civil Rights Movement onwards. Through these nine days, we discovered that the true death of character occurs when one does not stand up for justice, for truth, and for love. One of the practices that occurred during Sojourn was at the end of each speaker’s time with us. We would step up, take a microphone, and make a promise to the individual that we would carry on their legacy. Or, we would commit to making a societal change once we returned home. Or, we would promise to never forget the memory of Medgar Evers, Addie Mae Collins, Denise Mcnair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Rosamund Robinson, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Shwerner, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Dr. King, Vernon Dahmer, and too many others. Nonviolence, the sword that heals, followed us back across the nation and will never leave. Our strongest hope is that we may impart this principle onto others just as those we met did to us.
Photos by Audra Gray of Perple Mudd Design & Photography