Since, I was first introduced to the concept of making a pilgrimage to the South following in the footsteps of the Freedom Riders and Voting Registration activists, I have been incredibly excited to go to the very places where our liberties and freedoms were fought for and won. I fully understand that racial and political climate is not the same today as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, but to feel the same weather, to walk some of the same streets, to see some of the same buildings and landscapes will help to make the stories more tangible to me. I have also just received notification that voting for all equally is still being challenged in Alabama: According to “Raw Story,” in the counties where 75% or greater of the registered voters are non-white citizens they will stop issuing driver’s licenses. This is a problem because photo identification is required to vote in Alabama and this will potentially bar people in those counties from voting. So, although the situation is different there are also more than remnants of the Civil Rights Era for us to learn from and participate.
Without question, the component of this adventure that I am most apprehensive about is all the cushy, emotional, touchy, feely stuff that has become such a norm at all of our meetings; and we are going to be on a bus together for over a week where I am sure this will be an expectation. I do believe that these types of experiences have their place, but because I have been so active in fighting an unjust system and in reactive modes of operation wherein I have had to silence or hide my emotions, this is somewhat difficult for me. On the one hand, it often feels like a waste of time to me, especially, since there are battles that I believe need to be fought. For example, while we will be on this pilgrimage the budget hearings for the City of Seattle will be going on and will be determining how much money is allocated for alternatives to incarcerating youth; a struggle that we have been waging for quite some time. Or in other cases, such as, people dying from police brutality, when responses to the unprovoked and unjust violence are necessary.
In my brain and the way that I have been thinking for so long, getting mushy and emotional has not been a high priority. However, I have also been coming to realize the importance of building community and that requires a deeper and more personal characteristic to our and my relationships. This is something that I have been watching emerge in the pilgrimage group. So, although, it is uncomfortable, I am beginning to see that it has advantages and is something that I have needed for much longer than I would care to admit. That however, does not change the fact that the emotional stuff on the bus is what I am least looking forward to during our pilgrimage.
I have never been to the South and as a result, I have never had an opportunity to experience being immersed in the Southern culture I have heard so much about. I mostly hear negative opinions about the South, but here and there brilliance has shined through the reports I have received. I am hoping that our short time will broaden my perspective about a people and a place I have never experienced firsthand. I do so loath forming opinions about subjects based on other people’s perspectives; it feels too much like rumors too me to fully trust.
With a host of friends, I will have the opportunity to meet some of the people who fought and won some of the rights we have today, and that many take for granted. I will get to listen to their stories firsthand, be able to feel their emotions, see their expressions, and share new and old experiences with people that I look up to and will stand with if the opportunity ever arises. We will be exploring the South for a little more than a week, getting a crash course in challenging the government and culture, seemingly against all odds. The harsh reality is that many were lost during the struggle and so that will be part of the learning as well, as some of those horrible stories are relived. But, we cannot forget the stories and the lives of those who gave so much to ensure a brighter future. All of this will inform and shape how I make decisions in the future and I am going down there with space prepared in both my mind and heart, so that I can carry as much back with me as is humanly possible.
Today we are confronted with a form of segregation and apartheid that is similar, but at the same time vastly different from Jim Crow because in the mid-20th century, the segregation was up-front and in people’s faces, but today it is behind fences and cement walls. The language that is used to justify the system of oppression has also evolved, but the feelings that gird them have remained somewhat consistent, however hidden them may seem to be. Challenging the system and the ideologies also seems to have changed because as the people have learned from the Civil Rights Era, so has the government and the people in power who wish for the system to remain the way it is; who protect the status quo. Our identities are much easier to track down and our relations much easier to flesh out today than in the 1960s because of the advent of social media so, it is not as easy to remain off the radar of programs or organizations like the COINTELPRO or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.), respectively. However, the risks do not seem very much different than what the people we are going to meet were faced with, namely, restrictions on their life, liberty, and quality of life. I am hoping to learn how they managed to keep up their strength and dedication in light of the omnipresent, impending doom that always loomed right around the corner. I would love to learn just how they were able to motivate people and how they were able to overcome the petty difference that arose between the people. I especially want to learn how they addressed the class issues both within and without the Black communities they engaged with and how they were able to reconcile those differences.
To accomplish learning these things it will require that I neither, climb into my social shell, nor that I cling to it, but instead that I set it aside and expose myself to the uncomfortable emotional and intellectual experiences on the bus and at our stops along the way. Otherwise, I will not be able to engage in the conversations where such questions may be asked and lessons learned. It is a small price to invest to gain access to a wellspring of knowledge and wisdom. Who knows, I may even make a few life-long friends along the way and stretch my conception of community all the way to Alabama after this trip.