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.”


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