History Has Its Eyes on You

by Zach Christensen, Bethany Staff

Our group funnels in the door and up the stairs to the sanctuary of Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, greeted by warm hugs at both the base and the top of the staircase. We are joined by another tour group, as Wanda Battle leads us in a soulful rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” Ms. Battle is bounding around the front of the Sanctuary conducting our groups with her booming alto voice. She begins explaining the history of Dexter Avenue Church to us, telling us that it had been the site of Dr. King’s first calling in 1955, that it was from here that he would emerge to become a Civil Rights figurehead during the Montgomery bus boycott. She then asks us if we know the date that Dr. King first orated his famous “Dream” speech. 

A man from the other group stands up and answers boldly “August 28, 1963,” and without missing a beat declares “I was there!” Another woman stands up, chiming in; “I was there too.” Dorothy, a member of our Museum Without Walls group who attends Plymouth Church, rises next to add her voice, “I was also there, as a student organizer at the march on Washington.” There is a palpable buzz in the room now–a distinct reminder that though this event occurred almost fifty-five years ago, the Civil Rights movement is far more than history. 

Museum Without Walls is a nonprofit, led by Bethany member Suzzanne Lacey, which aims to bring history, specifically traumatic pieces of history, to life. Our group, which included eight Bethany members and twenty-five others from Plymouth church and Emerald City Bible Fellowship, travelled to Atlanta and Alabama, visiting several sites central to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. 

We went to the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham. This is the site where four girls were killed in a bombing in 1963, an act of terror which further galvanized the black community to pursue more confrontational nonviolent protests in the fight for de-segregation and voting rights. We saw the Voting Rights Museum, toured Selma, and crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge (in the heavy southern rain, no less!). Selma was the starting site of the five-day march to Montgomery in 1965, a march which was initially stopped as the police violently attacked the protesters with tear gas and clubs. 

We saw dozens of historical sites and met guides that painted a visceral image of history, reminding us how the Southern states reinforced power structures and dynamics of slavery through Jim Crow laws and segregation. Whites forcibly and violently sought to defend their privilege and power through acts of terror against black people – including but not limited to the extra-judicial murder that is lynching. The narrative that arose throughout our trip was clear; as African-Americans protested for their equal rights – most notably the right to vote- white people fought tooth and nail to keep them disenfranchised.  

While the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, to say it was the culmination of the Civil Rights movement undercuts the complexity of the story. The single piece of legislation was never intended to address the persecution people of color face in America. Bryan Stevenson, lawyer and activist, writes in his book Just Mercy, “We’ve been quick to celebrate the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement and slow to recognize the damage done in that era.” Our group not only saw the Civil Rights milestones, we walked the roads where dogs mauled children, police attacked women, and innocent men were shot for being black.  

When Joanne Bland, perhaps our most dynamic tour guide, took us to the church where the Selma march began, she pointed to the placard out front. “For years that sign said Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream. What do you think those little babies that live in the housing across the street are gonna think when they see that Dr. King had a dream?” Mrs. Bland was not one to mince words. “I worked long and hard to change that sign to say that Dr. King has a dream.” 

Ms. Bland knew it is easy to close the history book on the Civil Rights Movement, just as it was easy to close the history book on slavery after the Emancipation Proclamation. It is easier for us to make racism ‘past tense.’ The easy ending does not ask us to sit with the ugly parts of America’s story. The easy ending does not ask us to confront our own privilege and racism. 

The many Civil Rights activists we met in Atlanta and Alabama are working hard to shape the narrative of America. They are preaching the truth that racism has been a cornerstone of our country, and racial disenfranchisement does not just live in our history books. Wanda Battle and Joanne Bland both told our group; “you are making history.” This was not a benign commission, but a call to be present and attentive to the injustices of today. May we have the courage to sit in the discomfort of our country’s racism, the humility to admit our complicity, and may we write a better story with our sisters and brothers of color. 

Pictures: Wanda Battle at Dexter Ave. Church (above), Selma Bridge (below).

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