It’s not every day you get to walk in the footsteps of giants. Rarer still is being able to do so with them. Thanks to the Faith and Politics Institute’s pilgrimage to Alabama last weekend, that’s exactly what I got to do.
Hearing their remembrances, talking to those giants on the eve of the 52nd anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, was to be reminded that they emerged from the ranks of ordinary people who stood up for their collective dignity. Not only did they change history, they provided a road map that would be replicated in movements around the world.
During a panel at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Marian Jones Daniel and Carolyn McKinstry shared church-bombing survival stories. On Dec. 13, 1962, Daniel was in the basement of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham when an explosion trapped her and several friends. Daniel crawled through glass to get to safety. Bethel had been the home base for the Freedom Rides of 1961 organized by then-pastor Fred Shuttlesworth, considered among the so-called Big Three with Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy.
McKinstry was at 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963. That’s the day a bomb there killed four of her friends, little girls in their Sunday school class. “While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age During the Civil Rights Movement” is her memoir of that seminal event. In discussing the importance of that church, McKinstry said, “When the world told us we couldn’t, this church told us we could.”
Sephira Bailey Shuttlesworth’s late husband was Fred Shuttlesworth. His civil rights activism made him an early and frequent target of bombs and physical attacks. According to his 2011 obituary in The Post, he told the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “I believe I was almost at death’s door at least 20 times. But when the first bomb went off, it took all fear from my mind.”
That first bomb came in the form of 16 sticks of dynamite thrown through his bedroom window one night in December 1956. As our tour bus rounded the corner from Bethel, the widow Shuttlesworth pointed out where the house used to be.
Shuttlesworth, King and Ralph Abernathy might have been the “Big Three” of the civil rights movement, but King and Abernathy were best friends. They were pastors together in Montgomery. King at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and Abernathy at First Baptist Church. And when King went home to Atlanta to helm the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Abernathy soon followed by taking over the pulpit of West Hunter Baptist Church. And when King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Abernathy was just steps away.
Juanita Abernathy and Coretta Scott King were best friends, too. Abernathy brought pin-drop silence to the theater at Alabama State University when she recounted what happened that day during a panel on our final day. She told us that when she got the call from Coretta Scott King that Martin Luther King had been shot, she grabbed her omnipresent go-bag and drove to the airport to meet Coretta for a flight to Memphis. News of Martin Luther King’s death crackled over the radio before Juanita Abernathy reached the airfield. Abernathy said she drove the Coretta back to her home and “slept on Martin’s side of the bed.”
When I asked Joan Campbell whether she had been on the pilgrimage before, she said no, but added she had been to all the places we were about to see. The former general secretary of the National Council of Churches first met King in the 1960s.
Campbell told the Religion News Service last year that King said to her, “You know I’ve been to every black church in Cleveland but I’ve never been invited to a white church.” She invited him to hers. Campbell and her family received numerous bomb threats. Parishioners objected. King did preach at Campbell’s church — on the steps. “There were at least 3,000 people there to hear him,” she told the RMS, “and that would have never been true had it been inside the church.”
If you read my first post on this pilgrimage you will recall the photo and the stories of the three women above. At 9 years old, Sheyann Webb was the youngest marcher on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. As they escaped the violent chaos that greeted them, she famously told the man carrying her to safety to put her down because “you’re not running fast enough.”
Dorothy Frazier took part in protests in Montgomery, Ala., when she was a student at Alabama State University. And Peggy Wallace Kennedy, the daughter of former governor George Wallace, is a strong voice of reconciliation. Her father asked for forgiveness for his segregationist past. Wallace Kennedy has spent her life trying to “make things right.”
In a weekend filled with extraordinary moments, none was more powerful than walking the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). As an organizer of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, he was at the front of the line and was beaten by police when he and 600 others refused to disperse.
That would be one of many of Lewis’s leadership moments throughout his career in civil rights. His lifelong pursuit of equality compelled him to oppose — vocally and often — the so-called Defense of Marriage Act that banned same-sex marriage. “You cannot tell people they cannot fall in love,” Lewis said in his 1996 floor speech against the legislation.
As President Obama placed the Medal of Freedom around his neck during a White House ceremony in 2011, the announcer said, “John Lewis has earned our lasting gratitude for a lifetime dedicated to the pursuit of equality and justice for all.” My husband and I could not be more grateful to him. His voice helped make our marriage possible. All the giants we walked with that weekend helped make our nation that more just, free and fair.
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