Imagine walking the Civil War battlefields with Ulysses S. Grant. Imagine walking through Revolutionary War sites with George Washington. Imagine walking through Da Vinci's studio with him at your side. That's what we did
Houghton, NY (Vocus) March 17, 2010
“Imagine walking the Civil War battlefields with Ulysses S. Grant. Imagine walking through Revolutionary War sites with George Washington. Imagine walking through Da Vinci’s studio with him at your side. That’s what we did,” explained Robert Van Wicklin ’92, Senior Vice President for Advancement at Houghton College. “We walked the Civil Rights Movement trail with the people who were there.”
From March 5-7, 2010, Houghton College President Shirley A. Mullen ’76, Robert Van Wicklin and three Houghton College students – Zachary Adams ’11, Joseph Chinn ’12 and Audrey Kusasira ’11 – participated in a journey with the Faith and Politics Institute to memorialize the 45 years since Bloody Sunday – a tragic and historic event of the Civil Rights Movement. Bloody Sunday occurred on March 7, 1965, when 600 people began a peaceful walk east from Selma, Alabama, to the capital city of Montgomery to bring attention to voting rights. Six city blocks into the march down U.S. Route 80, law enforcement agents attacked the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas.
This year is the tenth Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage – a three-day passage through living history designed to demonstrate the powerful role that spirituality and courage have played in shaping the nation’s history. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who led the march on Bloody Sunday, served as the Pilgrimage Chairman. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) served as honorary co-chairs.
The Houghton students and administrators, the only institution of higher education represented, joined members of Congress and individuals involved in the Civil Rights Movement – including Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Mrs. Juanita Abernathy, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Jesse Jackson, C.T. Vivian, Dr. Dorothy Cotton, Ms. Bettie Mae Fikes, Rev. Dr. Bernard Lafayette and Dr. Bob Zellner – to study this political movement through first-hand accounts. The memorial pilgrimage began in Birmingham where participants visited the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church – a common meeting place for civil rights leaders. The church is remembered for a Sunday morning in September 1963 – when a bomb blasted the crowded church and killed four girls in their Sunday school classes.
The pilgrimage continued in Montgomery with a tour of the Rosa Parks Museum constructed on the site of the old Empire Theatre where Parks made her courageous stand in 1955. The delegation then headed to the First Baptist Church. In May 1961, after being beaten at a bus station, John Lewis made his way to the church. A mob surrounded the church trapping hundreds inside. It took federal intervention and the Alabama National Guard to secure the safety of the people inside. During the pilgrimage, many involved in the Civil Rights Movement made remarks, relayed stories and reflected. The historic journey then continued to Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church – the church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pastored from 1954-1966. At this site, civil rights figures engaged in guided dialogue with pilgrimage participants.
The entire group then traveled to Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma where marchers met 45 years ago to march to Montgomery on the Edmund Pettus Bridge – the site of Bloody Sunday. “Lewis led the Faith and Politics Institute’s delegation on an emotional commemorative march across the bridge,” explained Van Wicklin. “He made it across safely and was greeted warmly by Alabama police this time.”
After walking through history, the Houghton students had a greater appreciation and a better understanding of what the Civil Rights Movement was about. “I grew up being sensitive to the issues of race,” recalled Zachary Adams, a junior from Wellsboro, Pa., “but the trip connected me to this part of history. I’d viewed the Civil Rights Movement as something relegated to the past. It was not necessarily something that I had brought into the present. We heard and saw the conflict and conversations that the leaders of the movement had together. I’ve gained an appreciation and a connectedness from the little stories that you don’t learn in textbooks.”
It was the personalization and humanness relayed during the journey that struck junior Audrey Kusasira from Kampala, Uganda. The history was told by the people who had made it. The stories were conveyed by those who were the main characters. The sacrifice and perseverance were found etched in the faces of those heroes. “John Lewis carried a backpack,” Kusasira remembered. “He had an apple and an orange in it. If he was going to jail, he wanted something to eat. He carried a toothbrush and toothpaste. If he was going to jail, he wanted to be able to brush his teeth. He had two books with him because if he was going to jail, he wanted something to read. This trip helped me understand the personalities of the movement and that made it more real.”
The students also learned that the Civil Rights Movement was and is about more than they had thought. “The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t about black equality but about dignity and respect for all,” Joseph Chinn, a sophomore from Houston, Texas, explained. “Martin Luther King Jr. was a man who wanted all people to be equal, to have dignity and respect.”
While the experience was shaped by the individuals who were there to tell the stories, the sacrifice of many was also evident. “We often talk of the success stories of the Civil Rights Movement,” commented President Mullen. “During some of the morning reflection times, I was reminded of all of the people who had made decisions prior to the 1960s who didn’t live to see their voices come through as a success. Many of life’s greatest moments are made at times of intense risk. It made me appreciate the people who made choices, not knowing if they would succeed.”
Adams, who serves as the Student Government Association President, recognizes that the opportunity he was afforded is not to be wasted. “Having the members of Congress on the pilgrimage was a tangible expression of how they valued history and the events of the Civil Rights Movement,” Adams remarked. “It’s also recognition of the fact that the Civil Rights Movement isn’t over and understanding that there are still issues of injustice in the world. We’re now held to a level of responsibility to keep the conversation going.”
About Houghton College
Houghton College, founded in 1883, provides an academically challenging, Christ-centered education in the liberal arts and sciences to students from diverse traditions and economic backgrounds and equips them to lead and labor as scholar-servants in a changing world. The college of 1,200 students is located in western New York, just 65 miles from Rochester and Buffalo. For more information, please visit http://www.houghton.edu.