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An EPFP Coordinator's Reflection: Civil Rights Bus Tour Themes

Posted By Sarah McCann, Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Written by MA EPFP Coordinator Laura Dziorny, based on her participation in the Civil Rights Bus Tour in 2016.
To attend the EPFP Alumni Bus Tour on January 21-24, 2018, learn more and register here: http://epfp.iel.org/page/civilrightstour

As a co-coordinator of the Massachusetts Education Policy Fellowship Program for the past few years, I’ve been interested in thinking more critically about how we can integrate a focus on civil rights into our program. As a result—and because of my deep interest in experiencing first-hand historical sites I had only read about—I was eager to participate in the Civil Rights Bus Tour last year. Going into the experience, I felt myself quite far removed (by age, race, and geography) from the key moments that unfolded during the civil rights movement. But one of the major takeaways for me was to realize that there are no distant observers when it comes to the movement for civil rights. It is not just for heroes, for other communities, or merely a part of our history. We all have a role to play.

            For me, one major theme of the tour was courage. Namely, I realized that the civil rights movement was made of ordinary people. This isn’t to say that the people involved don’t deserve our admiration and respect. Of course they do. But when we label people as “heroes” we shouldn’t forget that these were people just like us. In particular, two memories from the tour have stuck with me because of the way they demonstrate the courage of those involved with the movement.

            On the first day of our tour, we heard from a woman named Jewel at the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Her mother and brother were brutally beaten by Klansmen as they left a church meeting during the summer of 1964, the same summer that Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were killed in Philadelphia for their involvement in efforts to register black voters. Hearing Jewel talk about the Klan activity and the constant threat of violence that black residents faced, it was impossible not to reflect on the deep, abiding, resilient spirit and courage of Jewel, her family, and so many others like them. Sometimes the most courageous thing is daring to live your life the way you want to. I was so impressed by the quiet courage of all those who lived under the threat of violence during these fraught times, when just carrying out basic day-to-day tasks like going to school or church was a dangerous act.

            Another striking moment—for me and the whole group—came as we toured the Dexter Avenue Parsonage, where Martin Luther King lived with his young family when he was pastor of the Dexter Ave. Church in Montgomery from 1954-1960. The contents of the parsonage are well-preserved, reflecting the daily life of a family in the 1950s. It’s incredible to think that as you walk next to the couch and coffee table, the beds and dressers, that such a great hero of our history lived and worked here. We have a tendency to deify King and other leaders of the movement, to put them on a pedestal. The truth is that he was a human who faced doubts and fear and crises of confidence, who ate at that kitchen table and slept in that bed. He became one of our heroes by rising to the occasion in an extraordinary moment in time, but it’s important to remember that any of us could call upon the same sources of courage in our lives if we choose.

            A second major theme I took away from my experience is the incredible power of community—that is, people pulling together in support of a larger movement. A prime example came at the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, when we learned about the Montgomery bus boycott that lasted 382 days from 1955-56. We saw pictures and learned about the measures that community members took to continue on with their lives despite the disruption, including organizing covert carpool pick-up points. It’s incredible to think about the unity and sense of purpose that inspired those participating in the boycott, and to reflect on how they pulled together and used their creativity to reinforce community bonds.

            On the first night of the bus tour, we heard from a fascinating and inspirational speaker, Flonzie Brown Wright, who told us a number of stories about her past. She shared her attempts to register to vote and her later successful campaign to win elected office, supervising the Registrar of Voters. During the march from Selma to Montgomery in the summer of 1965, she received a call from Martin Luther King, Jr., asking her to feed and house the marchers as they passed. With no time to waste, she mobilized her neighbors, utilized every available pair of hands, every nook and cranny in the town, and managed to provide for thousands of marchers. It’s hard to imagine this level of community engagement, unity, and mobilization in today’s fractured times—and it offers a powerful opportunity to reflect on whether we’ve lost some of that spirit of community even as we continually encounter new methods of “connecting.”

            Along with courage and community, the Civil Rights Bus Tour caused me to reflect on the theme of continuity—how the civil rights movement and the events we learned about on the bus tour are connected to all of our lives and experiences to this day. I saw this in a couple of ways, first by contemplating the role of allies to the movement. I was especially struck to learn about James Reeb, a White Unitarian Universalist preacher who joined the marchers in Selma, where he was beaten and killed by segregationists. James Reeb came to Selma from the same city where I live today, Boston. Hearing his story, I felt surprised that I hadn’t heard anything about him before the trip—but also proud to know that he had joined the march for a cause he believed in. His example made me think about how I can be an ally to movements for justice, especially those that are taking place far away from my own lived experiences.

            Finally, the trip helped me reflect on how struggles for justice have impacted every part of the country, including my own. Boston has certainly faced—and continues to face—significant challenges with racial inequity, particularly during the 1970s when protests over busing led to violence and simmering racial tensions. Coming out of this trip, I’m interested in thinking about how we can engage our Policy Fellows in discussions about the history of the struggle for equal rights in Massachusetts. We must not ignore challenges or accept the status quo in our own communities by focusing on problems elsewhere.

            Throughout the tour (which took place at the end of November 2016), it was impossible not to contemplate the impact of the recent presidential election, given the divisive and nasty rhetoric that emerged during that campaign. It made clear that the issues we were discussing are not just in the past, but that ignorance and fear of others persists in very real ways to this day, all across our country. The Civil Rights Bus Tour emphasized to me that there are no bystanders in the movement for equality and justice, but that this is all of our fight, and it continues to this day. It’s possible for all of us to seek the courage to participate, play our part in community efforts for justice, and recognize the continuity with what’s gone on before.

            I’ll close by sharing the inspirational words from the tombstone of James Chaney, one of the three young activists killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi in the summer of 1964: “There are those who are alive yet who will never live. There are those who are dead yet who will live forever. Great deeds inspire and encourage the living.” Participating in the Civil Rights bus tour to learn about Mr. Chaney and others like him was truly an honor and an inspiration, and I hope everyone has the chance to participate in this experience.

Tags:  alumni  civil rights  equity 

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