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My Civil Rights Pilgrimage: Seeing Montgomery Up Close

(Editor’s Note: Dr. Arturo Rodriguez, principal of the Newcomer Program within Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) traveled to Alabama April 21-24 to tour the heart of the Civil Rights movement. Rodriguez participated in the 2022 St. Luke’s United Methodist Church pilgrimage to Montgomery as the recipient of this year’s Indiana Remembrance Coalition Scholarship. Here is his story.)

My initial thoughts when the Indiana Remembrance Coalition and St. Luke UMC announced that I was the recipient of this year’s Indiana Remembrance Coalition Scholarship was one of honor and great anticipation. I decided to write a journal to create a personal space of reflection – capturing my thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

I wanted to revisit this journey over and over in my head to see if my impressions deepened or shifted. And, to challenge myself on a plan of action after the result of the experience. More than anything, I wanted to do my own processing on my personal pursue of social justice.

Day One:

On the first day, I boarded a bus full of people I have never met. The people were from all walks of life – church goers, lawyers, activists, retired teachers, professionals, and pastors – getting ready for the long ride to Montgomery, Alabama.

Montgomery is considered the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movements. I used the time on the bus to be intentional. I met with others who shared the same anticipations as I. Midway through the trip, we watched the two movies – “Just Mercy” and “Selma.”

We had great discussions about each film along the ride. On the evening of our arrival to Montgomery, we prepared our hearts and eyes to feel and see where we land in your work for social justice. The norm of the next couple of days was to be “okay with being uncomfortable” founded with the hope of being empowered and transformative.

Two Day:

The second day began with a very powerful theme – “The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that allows judgement to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We followed the National Historic Selma-to-Montgomery Trail where the famous Selma to Montgomery march occurred. Our guide explained the events that lead to “Bloody Sunday” and we saw some of the “Tent City” artifacts. The visit took us to the historical Brown Chapel AME Church where a small community of activists began the national movement for voters’ rights in the 1960s. At this point we were on sacred grounds. We even had the privilege to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge together.

For the elders of our group this was a very emotional experience.

That same afternoon, the group toured the Freedom Rides Museum. The museum is the original Greyhound Bus Terminal, where on May 20, 1961, Freedom Riders traveled by bus throughout the South to challenge segregation laws. These activists were brutally attacked by a white mob at the Greyhound Station in downtown Montgomery, Alabama.

The highlight of the day ended at the Harris House, which was the home of Dr. Richard Harris, Jr. and his wife, Vera. They opened their home to a group of 33 students, including the late U.S. House of Representative John Lewis, from Nashville, Tennessee who were challenging the bus segregation.

About three doors down, is the Dexter Ave. King Parsonage Museum where Dr. King and his family lived during his charge at Dexter. A marker on the doorsteps of Dr. King’s home tells the story of the bombing. His wife and children where in the home when the bomb blasted. Dr. King was just a few blocks away that night conducting a meeting on plans to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

A friend of Dr. King, Howard Davis, took some time to speak to us. Mr. Davis was assigned to pick up Dr. King from the airport during the stand-off inside First Baptist Church when Klansmen gathered outside the church to thwart the Freedom Riders from continuing to Jackson, Mississippi.

My final reflection of day: “The past is full of people who participated in disruptions…Dr. King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, and so many others. They witnessed things that were not right, and their faith compelled them to work for something better. The day was all about honoring our history.”

Day Three:

The next day was about the “restorative power of truth-telling.” This day was perhaps the most emotional leg of the pilgrimage. The tour took us to The Legacy Museum/The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I was in this museum for 10 minutes before my first tears began to run down my face. It was emotionally overwhelming for me, but I did not regret it. I needed to see this, and I wish I could spend all day in this museum. I would have stayed longer. I had so many emotions walking through this space. I was sad, angry, proud, inspired, angry again, and then hopeful. You walk through a timeline where you are kidnapped and placed on the Trans-Atlantic Trade. The memorial captures the brutality and the scale of lynching throughout the South, where more than 4,000 black men, women, and children, died at the hands of white mobs between 1877 and 1950.

On this day realized that I’m not required to have all the answers. However, I was encouraged into truth-telling which simply requires us to be open to what is righteous.

Final Day:

On the final day, I attended Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for an interfaith worship service to celebrate the church’s 149th anniversary. The church was the site of the infamous terror bombing. On September 15, 1963, the congregation greeted each other before the start of Sunday service. In the basement of the church, five young girls gathered in the ladies’ room. It was Youth Day at the church, they were going to take part in the service.

Just before 11 a.m., the congregation was knocked to the ground as a bomb exploded under the steps of the church. The church members sought safety under the pews and shielded each other from falling debris. Unfortunately, four beautiful little Black girls (Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley) were killed. A marker can be found at the site where the victims lost their lives.

After the service we reboarded the bus and headed back to Indianapolis.

Final Thoughts 

Tired but still processing the experience, I summed up the pilgrimage with Bryan Stevenson’s quote, There is power in those who endured slavery. There is a strength in those who found a way to survive in these spaces, despite the threat of violence, despite the threat of terror and violence.”