On October 17, 2023, Bishop Mark Stevenson arrived at 4:00 a.m. to bless 38 people from across the Diocese of Virginia as they boarded a bus to embark on a racial justice pilgrimage visiting historic and sacred sites in Memphis, Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery. The Diocesan Ministry for Racial Justice and Healing sponsored the pilgrimage.
At the end of the first day, the pilgrims were welcomed to Memphis and the Diocese of West Tennessee by the team of the St. Columba Episcopal Conference Center, whose “anticipatory hospitality” was of great relief to the weary travelers. The first site visit of the pilgrimage was The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. It was deeply moving as several pilgrims recounted where they were when they heard the news of Dr. King’s murder. Maurice and Marion Spraggins, long-time members of Trinity Arlington, were a young married couple living on a US Air Force base in Spain. Ernestine Gilpin, a member of St. Philip’s Richmond recalled her workplace being closed and employees sent home before rioting started in Washington, DC. Following the Civil Rights Museum, the group moved on to visit the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, a 19th-century home that once served as a refuge within the vast network that helped enslaved people escape to freedom. This home is located two blocks from the Mississippi River. The owners of Jacob Burkle’s house have kept the home largely intact so that visitors can understand and experience how the enslaved entered the cellar through a small crawl space and hid from captors. The docents shared vivid descriptions of the Middle Passage as well as how quilts, music, and lighting all played significant roles in sending messages about safe stops along the route to freedom.
Moving from Memphis to Birmingham, Alabama, the group visited the 16th Street Baptist Church, where, in 1963, four young Black girls named Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair were murdered on Sunday, September 15th Youth Sunday by a bomb planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Often forgotten are two Black boys named Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware who were killed in the aftermath of the bombing that day. 16th Street remains an active and vibrant church. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, during the 60th Anniversary commemoration last month, spoke of its significance. Across from the church is Kelly Ingram Park which offers a “freedom walk” path through artistic representations of the Civil Rights Movement and includes a sculptural tribute to the young girls. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute also offered a walk through history and fortuitously, was hosting an exhibition from the Smithsonian entitled “Men of Change” a look at various African American men and their contributions as told in a variety of media.
At the next stop in Selma, Alabama, silence took over the bus as it approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge – the site of Bloody Sunday. On March 7, 1965, police attacked Civil Rights Movement demonstrators as they were attempting to march to Montgomery in support of voting rights. Most people are aware of Congressman John Lewis’ story but at the Voting Rights Museum and Institute, pilgrims heard first-hand about the history of voting rights from a man who was a Foot Soldier in the movement. He then led the group to Brown Chapel AME Church where much of the planning occurred and the march from Selma to Montgomery began. Following that stop, the pilgrims were able to walk the Pettus Bridge themselves. To honor the sacred ground and to pay tribute to leaders and heroes who had preceded them, several pilgrims walked barefoot, many held hands, and many tears were shed.
The trip wrapped up in Montgomery, Alabama, with a visit to The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, both part of the Equal Justice Initiative; and the Civil Rights Memorial Center, sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Legacy Museum hosts interactive exhibits covering 400 years of history from “enslavement, to racial terrorism, to codified segregation, to mass incarceration.” The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a large-scale outdoor memorial dedicated to the victims of racial terror lynching. By walking among the memorials arranged by state and county and stamped with names, the pilgrims experienced the enormity of the taking of life that still happens today. Many counties in Virginia were represented. Sojourners found themselves searching for the communities they currently live in and the states and counties they were raised in. For some, there was momentary relief to not see hometowns represented but it was replaced by the realization that it is more likely that the crime was unreported rather than it did not occur. Stringent security protocols at The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center reminded the pilgrims that the work of freedom continues and those who would stop it are relentless and dangerous.
The group used the time traveling on the bus and between sites to learn through documentaries and movies, listening and sharing stories, and reflecting and worshiping. Along the way, pilgrims encountered historical figures both familiar and unfamiliar, and carried them with intention and in prayer. Each pilgrim in their own way hopes to move from this experience to make changes in their context. As the travel ends, the work in the world continues.
“Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.” 2 Corinthians 5:20