Reflecting on the Civil Rights Bus tour

June 19th, 2018

These were some my journal entries during the tour. It was a privilege to be part of this experience, and would only hope for more people to get the opportunity to participate and learn more about the civil rights movement. It has been interesting experiencing the civil rights movement from an outside perspective, and comparing it with the South African Civil Rights movement.
My reflections are split into categories. There are more categories, but I will share these for now. This is a glimpse into how I have been processing this experience. I used works and philosophies that I am already familiar with to reflect on how this experience has made me feel; beyond the surface level. The works of Desmond Tutu, in particular, have helped me process my emotions throughout this whole trip. Most of the individuals whose quotes I used are familiar and well known. If not, I hope my reflections pave way for more learning opportunities!

Movement for all.
When I think of the civil rights movement, I used to think of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis and Ralph Abernathy. The civil Rights movement has been taught in a way that ignores the other prominent figures in the movement. The movement has been reduced to the efforts of a few, forgetting the sacrifices of many: Hosea Williams, Coretta Scott King, James Bevel, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Fred Shuttlesworth, Diane Nash, freedom riders, freedom singers, the youth and many more. It was a movement for men, women, and children regardless of their age, skin color, and religious beliefs. The movement was characterized by unity, support, and hope.
Above all, it was inspiring to see college students spearheading the movement. The four students who led lunch counter sit-ins in Albany, freedom riders, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the struggle for voting rights, and many more. College students were an important driving force in the movement. They were not willing to sit in the sidelines and watch. Speaking with Dr. Rip Patton and Kwame Lillard, and watching documentaries on the bus gave me more insight on what it was like to be a college student during the civil rights movement. They put a hold on their education to be part of the movement. This was a reminder that, as a college student, I am capable of changing the world. I can be a part of something bigger. In the words H.E. Paul Kagame once said “We cannot turn the clock back nor can we undo the harm caused, but we have the power to determine the future and to ensure that what happened never happens again.”

As we spent the past few days on a bus visiting historical sites of the civil rights movement and meeting with key figures in the movement, I have found myself reflecting more on the concept of humanity; the essence of being human. Looking at the violence met with the lunch counter sit-ins, the freedom rides, Bloody Sunday, the terror of the Ku Klux Klan and more, it strikes me how evil and violent segregationists were. Desmond Tutu mentions that it’s no secret that human beings “have the most extraordinary capacity for evil. We can perpetrate some of the most horrendous atrocities.” But how does one manage to perpetrate such evil towards another human being?
If you look at different atrocities throughout human history, you see a pattern. Take for instance the 1994 genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda, apartheid in South Africa, the holocaust in Germany, and slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration of people of color in America. They all have ‘humanity’ at their core. It’s easy to hate someone whom you deem less human than you. It’s easier to strip someone of their humanity by calling them names and treating them like savages. And this is what white segregationists and the KKK did to people of color in America.
The more I reflect on this, the more I think on Desmond Tutu’s words “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together,” and the Afrikan Ubuntu philosophy “I am because we are.” These ideals mean that humanity is not embedded in a person solely as an individual, but is a quality we share. Part of being human, is realizing another person’s humanity. We owe this to one another. Once we start pushing the concept of ‘otherness’ and fail to realize our shared bond as human beings, we fail to abide by the concept of Ubuntu. We fail to be human. Therefore, I can’t help but reflect on present injustices across the globe. When have we striped others of their right to be human? Why have we become comfortable with the idea that ‘if it doesn’t affect me, it doesn’t concern me!’ What gives you pain should pain me as well.
It hit me how we, humans, have evolved to be individualistic and isolated, focusing on personal pleasures and never reflecting on how our actions affect the rest of the human race. It has been troubling, learning that I have given into this system myself. Being on this trip made me realize that I need to change a lot about myself and how I interact with others. That I need to be aware of the harms of being silent in the face of injustice. That I need to be bold.

The sound of Freedom
Meeting with Rutha Harris and learning/singing freedom songs was one of the highlights of the civil rights bus tour. Rutha’s voice is a moving force! The way she sings about freedom sent chills down my spine. Holding hands and singing the most well-known freedom song ‘We shall overcome’ was one of the powerful moments during this experience. Being in Rutha’s presence and singing along with her was only a glimpse into the power of freedom singers in the civil rights movement.
Freedom songs were critical to the civil rights movement, although many of us may not have known this. Most Civil rights activists reflected on how music gave them strength. “You can break my bones, but you can’t break my spirit.” I remember hearing these words more than once. Freedom fighters would sing in jails, police cars, protests, planning meetings, freedom rides, and everywhere else. Freedom songs were the soul of the civil rights movement.
“Out of the cacophony of random suffering and chaos that can mark human life, the life artist sees or creates a symphony of meaning and order. A life of wholeness does not depend on what we experience. Wholeness depends on how we experience our lives.” Desmond Tutu
This quote puts into words how I felt being in Rutha’s presence. There is a strength in singing from the core of your soul. In choosing to sing, when everything else seems dark. There is a strength in letting your soul shine when the flesh is suffering. This is what freedom songs did; provide the fuel to take in physical suffering and transform it into a beautiful melody.
Seeing this, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the South African civil rights movement. It shares the same reliance on music to criticize apartheid, with Miriam Makeba leading the struggle for freedom through music. The most famous song out of this movement ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ (God bless Afrika) became the pan-Afrikan liberation song.

The cross and the Lynching Tree & the Theology of Liberation
Visiting the Legacy museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice was an emotional day for me. The legacy museum went through the history of African Americans in this country; from slavery to mass incarceration. They had a powerful portrayal of the atrocities of slavery and the current threat of violence against African Americans. We listened to stories, read letters, and saw documentaries detailing the prison system and the unjust system that has led to the incarceration of people of color at an alarming rate. This was followed by a tour in the peace and justice memorial for lynching victims across the nation. There was an eerie feeling associated with standing underneath these memorials. It felt like a heaviness waiting to drop on one’s shoulders. My mind raced as I read the names and carefully traced my fingers on one of the memorials that told of a public lynching in Pennsylvania. I fought back tears as I had come face to face with the horrors of lynching.
It was hard for me to understand such terror and humiliation. How, with all this racial terror greeting knocking on their doors, African Americans still found hope and the strength to keep on fighting. I spent the rest of the day thinking of lynching and racial terror through James Cone’s ‘The cross and the Lynching Tree’ and Liberation Theology. It was easier to for me to process it that way. Cone draws a comparison between the cross and the lynching tree as symbols of hope and redemption. Crucifixion was a humiliating way of dying designed by the Romans to instill terror in insurrectionists. Lynching was used by the KKK, in the same way, to terrorize and humiliate African Americans. Cone mentions that both the cross and the lynching tree “represent both death and the promise of redemption, judgment and the offer of mercy, suffering and the power of hope. Both the cross and the lynching tree represented the worst in human beings and at the same time ‘an unquenchable ontological thirst’ for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning.” Through a theology of liberation, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ speaks to the oppressed. African Americans could hold on to the story of Jesus on the cross- his suffering and a humiliating death- as a symbolism of hope for tomorrow. This attempt to make the gospel and the story of Jesus relevant to the struggles and sufferings of African Americans, is powerful in helping African Americans keep their head above the water.
There is no simpler way to explain this. But looking at Lynching through Cone’s lenses made more sense. I still cannot fully explain how one keeps hope in the face of such terror. And I can only hope that, with time, I’ll gain more understanding into this.

Love, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation
We spent a portion of the time on the bus listening to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches and sermons. His way of speaking, his ideals, and his humbleness are truly remarkable. His last speech ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop’ and his ‘Drum-major Instinct’ sermon are particularly deep, prophetic, and transcend time. They are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. It’s striking how part of the sermon was Dr. King speaking to Jesus saying “I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.” Listening to these speeches implored me to deeply consider his words and study his concepts of love and non-violence.
Further on, we had the honor of meeting Lisa McNair- the sister of Denise McNair, one of the 4 girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Lisa told a touching story about meeting Tammy, the daughter of one of the men responsible for the bombing. Lisa deciding to be friends with Tammy must have been one of the hardest decisions she has ever made in her life. But, it was a lesson to us all. Looking at someone attached to a painful memory and deciding to forgive them does not come easy. Reconciliation is not easy.
At the same time, we also had the privilege of meeting Carolyn McKinstry who was at the church the day it was bombed. Carolyn talked about forgiveness, depression, PTSD, and mental health. It was memorable to hear Dr. McKinstry say that she decided to forgive the men responsible for the bombing in order to move on with her life. She expanded this on a ministry of love, acceptance, and reconciliation.
Hearing both women and Dr. King speak on love and reconciliation was influential. Their recount of the events that heavily impacted their lives was a reminder of Desmond Tutu saying “Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering–remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.” I was reminded of the role that Truth and Reconciliation Commissions played in Rwanda, South Africa, and Canada. But it also left me wondering if we could adapt the same models in our communities, here in America, to address racial reconciliation in the context of the history of this nation. We can learn something from these commissions as they successfully addressed genocide, racism, and a history of violence perpetuated against one race/ethnicity as well as their lasting effects on these countries.

The Church and the Civil Rights movement: A Call to Action
There is a lot more that can be said about the civil rights movement. The most striking of all, however, is the role of the church in this movement. The church was at the pivotal center of the civil rights movement. It is where marches were organized, meetings were held, and actions revised. Church fundraisings were used to bail people out of jail, and the church doors were open to everyone. In its bigger role, the church had the responsibility of educating the youth. Without the church, the civil rights movement may not have been the same. It was the church that made Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and many other prominent figures in the civil Rights movement.
As a Christian, I can’t help but reflect on the church today. Where does the church stand in the face of injustices all across the globe? Can we do more? I can’t answer the question for the American church. But I know that my church in Rwanda can do more. We should take on the mantle of responsibility to continue the work of those before us. We can use the ministry of love to promote peace, unity, and reconciliation. The ministry of Jesus should set an example for us; to advocate for the oppressed and fight for justice. The teachings of Jesus should inspire us to love one another, and work together to achieve harmony.
And with that, I’ll end with Desmond Tutu’s words: “We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.”


They Deserve the World

June 17th, 2018

Rosa Parks Fence

The Rosa Parks Museum showed the courage that it takes to stand up, or sit down, for what you believe in.  Many stories depict Rosa as a frail woman who did not give up her seat because she was too tired.  The only thing Rosa was tired of was being treated as a minority, not worthy of equal treatment.  She was not a passive woman who accidentally sat down despite being told to move, she was a social activist who fought for what she deserved.  When the bus driver told her that she would be arrested, she responded, “You may do that.”  These words show that Rosa was protesting and that she was doing so in a polite and non-violent manner.  This takes true courage.  Following the museum was an art gallery that contained a collection of works entitled “Broken Glass.”  These works used art and raw materials to depict current social issues.  The thought and emotion put into each piece was astounding and I couldn’t help but tear up thinking about the people currently facing each struggle.  Above is the piece of art that struck me as the most complex and emotional, I cannot put all of its significance into words.  In the gallery there was an adorable young, African-American girl.  She sat in a stroller with a big smile on her face and stared at me as I talked to her.  Looking at her bright, cute face made me so happy and so sad all at once.  Here in front of me sat an unjaded, beautiful child who has yet to face oppression and mistreatment, she was beaming.  But she won’t have the chance to maintain this innocence.  This child deserves the world and yet she will likely face hatred that should have been eradicated long ago: hatred for being a woman, for being black, for being young, or for many other reasons.  How can we let division and politics serve as a barrier between this young girl and the perfect world she deserves?  ALL of God’s children deserve the world and I pray that some radical change would occur that allows a real equal opportunity for every single child of God.

Grabbing the Rope

June 17th, 2018

Today we visited the Albany Civil Rights Institute.  This was a humbling experience as the museum depicts the names and faces of many civil rights activists and the harsh consequences of their efforts.  These people were treated deplorably simply because they fought to receive the treatment they deserved, to be treated like a human.  Our history classes only teach us so much and act as if the story is finished, but this trip has opened my eyes to the continuous struggles many Americans face today.  Following our tour of the museum, we were lead in freedom songs by the fantastic Rutha Harris.  She had a presence that was bold and courageous and when she opened her mouth and sang, the passion in her words was palpable.  Ms. Harris sang the same songs with us that she sang as she marched for her rights alongside her family and friends.  To be led in song by her was a privilege.  I could feel God in her presence and through her songs.  I have encountered few who have inspired my faith more than this amazing Christian woman.  Rutha was joined in song by our tour guide Debra Berry.  Debra had an amazing voice and a beautiful soul.  Following the tour, a few of us gathered to listen to her story in the gift shop and she told us that she has struggled to be faithful to God.  She stated that when our group entered the museum she felt a harmony among us and a peace and it restored her hope that God is reigning over the world today.  She said the rope of her faith is rising higher and she was worried that soon it would be out of her reach.  She then told us that the harmony and beauty she saw in our group today helped her to grab onto that rope, and grab onto her faith again.  A few of us Messiah students and faculty had the privilege of praying in a group with Ms. Berry and it was an emotional experience.  It is impossible to tell the struggles others face, but this day was a great reminder to be faithful and to love on others with no restrictions.  Please pray for Ms. Debra Berry and for all others who have a dwindling faith and need a revival.

Aggie Pride

June 17th, 2018

Aggie Pride

“Aggie Pride.”  These two words can be found on every bench at the historically black college we visited today, North Carolina A&T.  This college was home to the four students who staged the Greensboro lunch counter sit ins of 1960.  These four students are the epitome of Aggie Pride and Pride in general.  Looking at this bench, I took a moment to reflect on myself and realized that there are times when I cannot find pride.  I have been raised with the privileges of being a white, able-bodied, middle class, educated male.  I have received encouragement and words of support my entire life; on only a few instances have I been discouraged or torn down.  Yet, there are times when I am unable to summon self-pride.  On the other hand, the organizers of the Greensboro sit ins suffered a lifetime of oppression and were wrongfully told that they were intrinsically less.  Degradation didn’t get these four college-aged men down, they maintained their self-worth and had pride, committing courageous acts trying to escape the strangling hands of segregation.  The civil rights movement is based on this sort of exemplary pride and I am in awe of the wonderful dignity civil rights era African Americans held regarding themselves, the culture they grew up on, and the capabilities they possessed.  All of this and more led to the gaining of some equality, and the pride was certainly warranted.  Going forward I hope that current change seekers are proud of themselves and their causes and I pray that I am proud enough of myself to be courageous and walk by their sides.  I cannot have Aggie Pride or Black Pride.  I am not a minority and I cannot fully understand the struggles that past and present oppressed groups face, but I ask that God would allow me more opportunities like this trip to learn and to listen.


A Common Desire – Susan Shannon

June 17th, 2018

This tour has a full schedule. There are stories I could share from Birmingham, AL and Memphis, TN. Maybe later.

I’m learning of the many layers/stories to the civil rights movement, more names and places than I can count. Visiting with Ernest “Rip” Patton, Jr. and Kwame Pillars in Nashville, TN was amazing. They added yet two more voices to my journey. In addition to the passions and strength displayed by many others and the power of music, their stories brought me to realize the importance of the integration of churches and schools to the movement. With each stop on our journey new people emerged from these places of worship and learning, each with their own personality and strengths. All maintained a common desire and made life choices that affected their personal relationships and socio-economic status. The fact that these men continue the fight through education is inspiring.

Kwame summed it up for me, “freedom is a journey.”

Thoughts from a “Southern Girl”

June 15th, 2018

I sit here in front of my computer after the second day is complete, and the words that are swirling around in my head to write have a hard time finding their spot on the page. How could I have not known? How can my whole family be “blissfully unaware”? Why did my history class in high school talk about it like any other topic that is “information for the test”?

Well, I don’t have any really good answers… except that it was up to me. I didn’t learn, I didn’t take the time to read, interact, explore because it was outside of my normal day-to-day busy-ness with life, kids, work. I felt like I understood… enough. That’s the problem though. My understanding of racism, (while I knew it still existed and had experienced it on some level through hearing stores of personal friends and exposure at Messiah) had not permeated my existence enough to come to terms with actually looking at my country in a different way. I was very happy with my worldview. After all, it had only been informed by my middle-class upbringing in a middle-size Tennessee town, with a family that also had the same worldview. We love our country and the freedoms is has to offer – “you can grow up to be anything you want to be.” And, in fact, that was true! I could…

Here is where the realities of my worldview crashes into the realities of those that I am learning about on this tour. How could our founding fathers declare “equality and justice for all” when what they really meant equality and justice for white, religious men?

I guess I will just need to stay comfortable with the uncomfortableness as I learn more in the next week. But then what? Then what…


It is now Thursday morning and I have learned and experienced so much. There is profound emotional response to “standing where they stood”, “walking where they walked”, reenacting a march across the bridge in Selma for voting rights. But here’s the thing…I never had to drink out of a fountain with a “colored only” sign on it, enter a public building through a side entrance or be beaten because I decided to walk across that bridge.

It has been incredible to hear from people who have shared their experiences about being involved with the Civil Rights Movement. Last night we were in Birmingham, AL and heard from two women – both associated with the bombing at the 16thStreet Church. Rev. Dr. Carolyn McKinstry was a young teenager that was excited about participating in youth Sunday. As she was coming up the back and entering the sanctuary, her four friends (around the same age) were in the bathroom preparing to come into church too. Dr. McKinstry heard a loud blast and soon found out that all four of her friends had been killed by a bomb set by the Ku Klux Klan. The second woman we heard from, Lisa McNair, was the sister of Denise McNair – one of the girls that died. Some of the stories they told were unbelievable. One of the quotes that was shared that was really impactful was, “Civil Rights is black people’s pain and white people’s shame.” They both need healing. But they encouraged us to love. You can’t make change without love. The whole Civil Rights Movement was built on nonviolence and prayer.

How, then, can we move on from this experience? How can we share about their stories as well as our own? For me, it is a process of stepping out of my comfort zone and being willing to love… really love. Having a heart that is open and then putting it on the line. Pushing to do things that are uncomfortable.  That’s quite a challenge for me, but NOTHING compared to the challenges I have been hearing about this week. Now I am thinking and praying about how this experience will make a difference in my life. I cannot go back to “business as usual”. Help me Lord to see in a new way so that it will begin the process of a “new normal”.

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) – Susan Shannon

June 14th, 2018

In Albany, GA I learned about the work of Charles Sherrod, Cordell Reagon, and Charles Jones with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I’m including their names so I don’t forget them. Each played a role in supporting efforts that included registering people to vote and training students in non-violence.

Cordell was a freedom singer along with Rutha Harris. Songs gave members of the freedom movement strength when marching, when being arrested and when in jail. We were introduced to Rutha as she sang and marched with a freedom sign into the church we visited. It was all I could do to not jump out of the pew and march behind her. Rutha was amazing! She taught us songs and we ended our visit singing This Little Light of Mine together.

I’ve been offered opportunities to participate in direct non-violent action in the past few years and have not been brave enough to participate. I see a strength in the individuals we are meeting and learning about and wonder what will happen given my next opportunity.


June 14th, 2018

Sharing this experience with colleagues has been wonderful, and I am learning from them as well as from our guides and experts. Here Jim LaGrand gets up close and personal with public history.  I commend his enthusiastic engagement!


Albany, Georgia (Brian Smith)

June 14th, 2018

Two days ago I was feeling lost in a whirlwind of sights and stories. My mental plate was as full as my dinner plate, and the buffet of southern food and history seemed endless.

But it is suddenly Thursday, and we have a bit of a ride this morning to Memphis. I find myself thinking back about the cities we’ve visited, and the way each city’s story has its own distinctive flavor and character.

Albany, Georgia was particularly poignant for me. I don’t know how much people know about it; if my experience is typical, most of us haven’t heard of it. Apparently, some in the movement considered the work there unsuccessful. But anyone who has heard Rutha Harris sing would agree that Albany provided the movement with one of its most powerful voices.

Our host Debra moved me with her passion, her honesty, and her commitment to telling the story of Albany (which is pronounced al-BIN-ee, by the way). As I walked in and around those two little churches, I was struck by the David-and-Goliath nature of the struggle, and by what must have seemed impossible odds. But I was more struck by the deep, inner resources of the young people of the movement, grounded in faith and voiced in irrepressible song.