Remembering civil rights history, when 'words meant everything'Happy Scribe's Favorites
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- 26 Oct 2020
Finally, the power of words in the fight for civil rights. This week, we did explore the legacy of monumental moments in the country's struggle toward equality from Marian Anderson's historic performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to landmark legislation spearheaded by President Lyndon Johnson. Tonight, Jeff continues his travels with U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey to discover where poetry lives, this time to her native Mississippi, and ending with a march in Selma, Alabama, for.
Feeling guilty and I have to be so.
It was a journey of memory, including the painful one of the killing of Medgar Evers in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi, home in 1963.
To me, you're standing on hallowed ground on this day.
His widow, Myrlie Evers, Williams daughter Reena and others paid honor.
Just one man. Gave us blood. They have freedom of information. We're more than grateful. It was also a journey of language, the power of words to move a nation. Thank God I have your attention.
The annual congressional civil rights pilgrimage was founded 14 years ago by the Faith and Policy Institute and civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis to commemorate key events from the era and bring politicians from both sides of the aisle together with activists from then and now.
I mean, I write about this year poet laureate Natasha Trethewey and I joined in for what turned out to be a deeply personal experience for her. Natasha grew up in Mississippi, the daughter of a black mother and white father.
I felt like I grew up sort of in the in the intersections between civil war history, civil rights history, and then that that moment into which I was born. And it is the scaffolding that holds up all the things that I'm concerned about as a poet. I think for me, a commitment to social justice always undergirds my poems.
We're now headed to worship service. Over three days, more than 100 participants traveled by bus through the Mississippi Delta, Clarksdale, Ruleville Money onto Jackson and then into Alabama for a march in Selma.
In Jackson, they visited Tougaloo College, an historically black liberal arts school founded by Christian missionaries for freed slaves.
People gathered here after the assassination of Medgar Evers, where they heard from Reverend Edwin King Jr., one of the organizers of the 1964 Freedom Summer bill who delivered the sermon at the funeral for civil rights activist James Chaney. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered nearby that summer, and it seemed the angels had gathered.
Natasha read one of her poems titled Incident based on a childhood experience of witnessing a cross burning on her family's land. Here's an excerpt.
We tell the story every year. How we peered from the windows, shades drawn, though nothing really happened. The charred grass now green again. We peered from the windows, shades drawn at the cross, trussed like a Christmas tree, the charred grass still green. Then we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps at the cross, trussed like a Christmas tree. A few men gathered white as angels in their gowns. We darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps, the wicks trembling in their farts of oil.
Afterwards, Natasha and Reverend King talked about poetry's role in the movement. Do you think of poetry?
I think I certainly do see it as a another kind of another form of sacred language.
It's there. And in the music of the freedom songs, we could hold on to each other. We could express our fears together that we could never quite say aloud, I'm afraid. But I'll go ahead, write, but we could sing. We're not afraid because we were. So music is a form of poetic form of telling the truth.
In Jackson, down the street from the state capitol, there was a service at the Galloway United Methodist Church and one time a segregationist congregation which lost many members when it finally opened its doors to blacks in 1967.
Welcome to Jackson.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was one of the Republican representatives who'd made the trip in his case for a second time.
I think in all increases the sensitivity for all of us to never, ever again allow something like this and the hatred that produced the civil rights movement for the struggle for justice, to make sure that we continue that fight and not ever allow that hatred to come back in.
The state of Mississippi, in fact, is currently building to museums about its history with a focus on civil rights.
But at a dinner for the pilgrimage group, former Mississippi Democratic Governor William Winter spoke of more troubled times were wasted 20 years.
And I apologize to the people of Mississippi for not having asserted more leadership. We white folks always marched.
You and your Martin was one of the black folks do because you freed us to the last day of the pilgrimage was spent in Selma, Alabama, one sign of the enormous changes here. Terri Sewell, the first black valedictorian of Selma High and now the state's first black congresswoman. For her, this trip wasn't so much about memory as legacy or battles are now new again.
Progress is always elusive. So I think that, you know, it's important that we never forget what happened here on this bridge and that we are ever vigilant in fighting for the right to vote, remember?
49 years ago, the Brown Chapel served as the starting point for the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights.
John Lewis described what would become known as Bloody Sunday, when police used billy clubs and tear gas against the 600 marchers who had crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
I thought I was down. I thought I was going to die.
We talked after the service. I was listening to you inside. You talking about what happened here 49 years ago. It sounds like it's really fresh memories for you. That's not any way that I can forget what happened here 49 years ago.
It just as fresh as the morning you were, just as fresh as the air we breathe in Alabama. I grew up not too far from here. How important was language and words to what happened here in these marches? The words mean everything, words, music without words, but not the spoken word. Selma and the movement would have been like a bird without wings. You want more words and music as this year's pilgrimage concluded with a march over the bridge when we first talked about this project.
This was the event you first told me about? Well, you know, for me, it had a lot to do with my own work, my own poems. But in a larger sense, what I think about the necessity for American poetry in general, that is for a kind of recording of our cultural moment and and to record the history of a people. As the pilgrimage came to an end, we continue to walk John Lewis on a bullhorn near where he was beaten half a century ago, told the crowd the movement continues today.