With the total cost of the trip underwritten by the Arlin M. Adams Center for Law and Society, in March 2011, I was privileged to attend the 11th Annual Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama with the Faith & Politics Institute.
As part of that event, I traveled to Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, Ala., in the company of sitting members of the U.S. Congress as well as figures who had experienced the Civil Rights Movement firsthand.
I learned about the Civil Rights Movement from people who actually lived in Alabama during that time, and also from people like Rep. John Lewis, Betty Mae Fikes, and Dorothy Cotton, who were key in making it happen. Hearing their personal stories and detailed recollections of events that took place during the height of the movement made me realize how much most of us don’t know about those times. Based on what I heard, I think there are likely multitudes of unsung heroes and untold stories related to the Civil Rights Movement that could, indeed should, be included in historical accounts of those times.
As a direct result of my experiences on the pilgrimage, today I feel a new, or at least redoubled, sense of awe about the Civil Rights Movement in general and about those who took part in it particularly. It was inspiring to hear from some of them about the many, many individuals who tirelessly fought for their rights, all the while maintaining strict adherence to a policy of non-violence.
In 2011, this very different day and age, it seems that violent behavior is everywhere—all the time. Even the most insignificant disputes seem to erupt instantly into violent conflict. It’s almost taken for granted. In this violent social context, to learn firsthand from and about a group of people who “battled” for years for something so fundamentally important—and did so peacefully—well, it was amazing.
During one of the many question-and-answer sessions we had along the way, one student asked Rep. Lewis why the marchers and freedom riders in the 1960s did not use violence. He responded, stating, “That’s not the type of people we wanted to be.”
His answer has been stuck in my mind ever since I heard him say it. We all, by our actions, choose the type of person we want to be—and, even in times of extreme turmoil, we must remember that. People who participated in the Civil Rights Movement weren’t just looking to be free people; they intended to establish themselves as good, peaceful people in the process.