Alabama Pilgrimage; Civil Rights Journey by Bob Andrews
Justice as Dharma Practice. The group is facilitated by Chris Fortin of Everyday Zen and Dharma Heart Zen sanghas and Doralee Grindler Katonah, a priest with Valley Stream Zen in Sacramento. The group is committed to study, investigate, explore and embody bodhisattva practice. The seed for this Pilgrimage came from my participation in the group along with a conversation with Doralee in which we each expressed our desire to travel to the South to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement and the struggles of the African American people.
We spent five days in Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery. The journey was sometimes difficult, uncomfortable, raw, and definitely emotional. The emotions ran from deep sadness to anger. We were bearing witness to the history of evil and suffering. And we had each other, our little sangha, for support. Each day began with a sitting practice together as well as setting our intentions for the day. Most days ended with some reflection time together. The container we created as sangha, was filled with love and a shared respect for individual as well as collective experiences.
We began the Pilgrimage in Birmingham where we visited landmarks like the Bethel Baptist Church, where the civil rights movement took hold in the 1950’s and 60’s, and the 16th Street Baptist Church where four girls were murdered when a bomb exploded. That event brought national attention to Birmingham. Our journey continued to Selma, where we were led through the history by a local guide and activist, JoAnne Bland. JoAnne and her sister marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge as young girls, on Bloody Sunday. That was JoAnne’s first involvement with civil disobedience. (She was arrested 11 times by age 13). She marched across the bridge again on the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday holding the hand of President Obama on one side and Representative John Lewis on the other. JoAnne was and is an incredible person - and inspiration.
Our journey continued from Selma to Montgomery via a small bus. Our driver’s name was Jake Williams. He was part of the Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. Martin Luther King that took place in the 1960s. It’s impossible to describe how incredible it was to re-live the march through Jake’s experience as a teenager during that time. We were really blessed to have JoAnne and Jake guide us through the civil rights movement history via their own personal life experience. They remain activists today.
In Montgomery, my emotions were pushed to the edge. The experience of bearing witness at the National Memorial for Peace & Justice, often referred to as The Lynching Memorial, was deep. The Memorial stands on a hilltop where iron slabs hang from the ceiling - each representing a County in the U.S where lynchings took place. Each slab had the name of who was lynched and the date the lynching took place. It became very personal as I found the iron slab for a lynching that happened in my mom’s hometown when she was a child. Every cell and bone in my body had a reaction. I was comforted by an African American man who came to me with the question, “as a White man, I’m curious what you hope to learn here today?”. We had a long and heart opening conversation.
Also in Montgomery, is The Legacy Museum. You must put this on your list to visit. It takes you through the history of African Americans from the time they were put on ships in Africa, to slavery in the U.S., to the modern-day struggles for freedom. The experience was profound. Imagine walking by a prison cell from the 1700s and having a hologram appear with a slave telling you their story. Then an hour later walking by another prison cell from the 2000’s where you pick up the phone as if you were visiting the prison - and hear an innocent man tell you his story. The museum was transformative.
When I came home, I wanted to re-live and remember the experience. That’s impossible. But I hope the attached slideshow provides a humble attempt to share this extraordinary experience with you.
[here is a link to the slideshow]