A Pilgrimage of Growth and Learning

“The difference between a trip and a pilgrimage is that at the end of a pilgrimage, you are a changed person. This experience has taught me things I thought I knew and opened my eyes to how our country’s history impacts every one of us every day. Now that I know better, I must do better.” 

Lee Lambert, Network Director, Washington STEM

 

In October 2017, our Network Director Lee Lambert joined 40 other travelers to take part in an interracial, intergenerational civil rights pilgrimage through Project Pilgrimage. On the journey he traveled to the American South where he visited key places in the civil rights movement and spent time with foot soldiers who participated in the movement.

 

Washington STEM is humbled to work with Project Pilgrimage as their program sponsor to honor those who have worked for civil rights and social justice in the past and examine how we can apply those lessons learned to take part in today’s social justice conversation. Washington STEM supported Lee on this experience as part of his professional development. As an organization, we are committed to embedding equity in all aspects of our work. It is essential to our mission that our team has the knowledge and understanding to put our values into action. 

 

Lee documented his journey to the South through a series of short journal posts and we are honored to cross post them here.

 

A note from Lee: “As you read the daily accounts – please understand that they were written in the moment as a way to share my experience with my family, friends and co-workers.  In compiling my posts together for this blog, I can see how my approach to the experience transitioned from academic to introspective.  On the Pilgrimage, I was aware my thinking about our country and my role in it was evolving. That is what I signed up for.  However, my thinking did not change the way I thought it would. I went expecting to learn historical facts for context – I ended getting a new set of eyes to see the world through.”

 

October 20 – Nashville

 

 

Our pilgrimage got off to a bumpy start. Our bus’s transmission failed in the in the airport parking lot. So, we all loaded into taxis and headed to our first meeting in the civil rights room of the Nashville Library. There, we heard about the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins and the freedom rides from two of the people who led the work – Dr. Bernard LaFayette and Rip Patton.

 

 

We then headed to Swett’s – a restaurant where civil rights leaders would gather in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Here, we got to experience the food of the movement and hear more from Bernard and Rip.

 

 

We met our broken down bus at the hotel to retrieve our bags and called it a night.

 

October 21 – Nashville & Birmingham

 

 

Today we got to visit Fisk University in Nashville, a historically black college founded 6 months after the civil war. Fisk is the alma mater of W.E.B. Du Bois.

 

 

We then went to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, located across the street from the 16th street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park. This was a hard place to be and if you are ever here you should make the time to visit the Institute.

 

October 22 – Birmingham & Montgomery

 

 

Today’s Pilgrimage activities began with a conversation with Carolyn Maull Mckinstry in Kelly Ingram Park. Mrs. Mckinstry was 14 and in the 16th Street Baptist Church when it was bombed. She shared her story and how that event shaped her life.

 

 

Then we went to church, attending the morning service at the 16th Baptist Church. I heard a very moving and energetic sermon on Psalm 23 about how we face many valleys in our lives but they are never the destination – just part of the journey.

 

In the afternoon we took I-65 from Birmingham to Montgomery the final leg of the freedom rides, ending at the First Baptist Church 347 North Ripley street. We were welcomed with hugs and led straight to choir practice. Then we sang in the service. I have been to more church services today than I have been in the last 20 years. They were uplifting.

 

We ended our day with dinner at Martha’s Place, a soul food buffet, with members of the First Baptist congregation sharing stories and thoughts of what we have learned on our journey. Today’s activities were a needed recharge after yesterday’s visit to the Civil Rights Institute.

 

October 23 – Montgomery

 

 

Today’s pilgrimage activities focused on policy and history.

 

The day started with a visit to the Southern Poverty Law center, we learned about the organization’s history and its current work to track and name hate groups. They provide this information to the police, media and policy makers.

 

 

We then met with the staff of the Equal Justice Initiative and organization whose mission is criminal justice reform. Their work focuses on freeing the innocent from the death penalty sentences and ending the sentencing of children as adults. At EJI we heard the story of and spoke to Anthony Ray Hinton. He challenged the group to not stand by and be complicit in state sponsored killing if we the believed the system to be unjust.

 

 

We then took a walking tour of the streets of downtown Montgomery, visiting the key landmarks of the second middle passage and the Montgomery bus boycott,many of which took place on the same grounds.

 

October 24 – Tuscaloosa

 

 

Today we drove to the University of Alabama where we got a taste of the local culture before we even parked the bus. (Check the above license plate). We received a tour of the forgotten racist history of UA, the things they don’t show to perspective students, including slave graves and former slave quarters.

 

 

We also learned about a secret group called the “Machine” that controls school politics and policy. After the first mention of the “machine” one of the UA students that was with us jokingly said “this tour is about to get shut down.” Like clockwork, within 20 minutes we received a visit from the campus police because some one had called to see if we had a permit for what we were doing. To their credit, the campus police were gracious, respectful, and apologetic.

 

 

What I learned today is that we should think about the history we don’t talk about in our public spaces. I will start asking – what are the stories we aren’t telling? when we talk about our history.

 

October 25 – University, Mississippi to the Delta

 

Pro tip: If you are ever lost in the deep South just find a Confederate monument. The direction the Confederate solider is facing is north. But what if you can’t find a Confederate monument? Trust me, you will be able to find one, they are everywhere.

 

 

Today we visited the University of Mississippi. The University is also known as Ole Miss  – but if you don’t call the NFL football team from Washington DC by its name – you should also stop using the the college Ole Miss. That said, this school is decades ahead in dealing with its racist past compared to the University of Alabama. Through student and alumni activism, UM no longer flies the state flag of Mississippi, and they have a prominent monument to James Meredith the first black man to attend the school in 1962. The school still has a long way to go, but it was refreshing to see after yesterday’s experience at UA.

 

 

We then went to the Mississippi Delta and visited the towns of Greenwood, Money and Sumner. In Greenwood, we visited the site of the Black Power march. In Money and Sumner, we stopped at the key sites of the of the Emmett Till story including Bryant’s grocery, the Court House in Sumner and the Little Tallahatchie River where Emmett’s body was found.

 

 

 

My traveling companions and I held a ceremony of remembrance and reflection at the rivers edge. It’s impossible for me to not see the similarities between Emmett’s experience and young black men killed by modern day vigilantes.

 

October 26 – Jackson, Mississippi

 

Today’s pilgrimage was a history lesson of the cost paid by some that worked to advance the civil rights movement.

 

 

The day started with a visit to the home of Medgar Evers. The home was restored to period condition for the filming of the Ghost of Mississippi and is now maintained by Tougaloo college. The College is waiting for the federal government to sign the order making this home part of the National Parks Service.

 

 

The group then journeyed to Philadelphia, Mississippi to visit the sights of the Freedom Summer Murders of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. This story is in the movie Mississippi Burning.

 

 

The highlight of the day was hearing a first person account, from or traveling companion Bob Zellner, about the days following the abduction in Philadelphia and how the civil rights workers responded.

 

October 27 – Selma

 

 

Today we began the pilgrimage activities with a journey into ourselves. At the By the River Center for Humanity in Selma our group was led through a workshop to help us process and understand the experiences and sights of the past few days. There was drumming, singing, crying, laughing and hugs. It was a spiritual experience.

 

 

We then traveled to Gee’s Bend a very rural all black community that served as a refuge from the Klan for white and black civil rights workers in the 60’s. It is also home to a quilting co-op who’s art work has been shown in art museums from New York to Tacoma.

 

 

Our day ended with a walking tour of downtown Selma then on to dinner at the Center for Nonviolence, Truth and Reconciliation where we heard an oral history from Annie Pearl Avery who was the youngest person on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. She has remained an activist her entire life and proudly told us they last time she was arrested was in 2015 protesting for access to healthcare and women’s rights.

 

October 29 – Selma

 

Yesterday we focused on the role of women in the Civil Rights movement. In doing so we got to meeting a MacArthur Fellow and a recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal.

 

The day started with a short drive to Marion, MS. Marion is the city where Jimmy Lee Jackson was killed by a state trooper in February 1965. His death was part of the inspiration for the Selma to Montgomery March later that year. Like the other small towns in Mississippi, Marion is struggling economically, but is embracing its historic role in the civil rights movement with murals on Main Street of civil rights leaders. According to our tour guide, it is the first and only town in the U.S. to celebrate Obama Day

 

 

We then went to the campus of Judson College to see a one women play about the life of Fanny Lou Hamer written and preformed by MacArthur Fellow, Billie Jean Young. Mrs. Hamer’s story is not as well known as other women from the civil rights movement, but is a great example of how people from all stations in life came to be leaders in the movement.

 

 

It was then on to Greensboro to the Safe House Museum. The museum is in the home that served as a refuge for Martin Luther King, just two weeks prior to his assignation, because Klan had blocked all the roads leaving the City after a Mass meeting. At the museum we heard from Mrs. Theresa Burroughs who was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 2015.

After Greensboro we returned to Selma to visit the Brown Chapel the place where the March on Bloody Sunday and the March that made it to Montgomery began.

 

 

We then had dinner, reflection and celebration at the Coffee Shop, a black owned business in downtown Selma.

 

October 29 – Selma

 

 

The difference between a trip and a pilgrimage is that at the end of a pilgrimage, you are a changed person. This experience has taught me things I thought I knew and opened my eyes to how our country’s history impacts every one of us every day. Now that I know better, I must do better.

 

 

Our trip home began with a silent march two by two across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

 

 

If you have read my posts for the past 10 days and think you too might want to take a journey like this, you should definitely consider.

 

 

Applications for future pilgrimages can be found on at projectpilgrimage.org.

 

The organization intentionally builds a groups that is interracial, intergenerational and socioeconomically diverse. On this journey we ranged in age from 21 to 78, we are students, police officers, corporate professionals, philanthropist, CNA’s, doctors and retirees. The mix is an essential part of the journey, there is a place for everyone on the bus. 

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