On a layover in Atlanta this fall, my hurried walk through terminal E was interrupted when I noticed a few display cases. I paused and stared at the ordinary objects that now evoke the extraordinary life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. His eyeglasses. His wristwatch. The suit he wore when he met Lyndon B. Johnson. The transistor radio he used during marches. His copy of Ghandi’s autobiography.
Today as we honor MLK Jr.’s life and legacy, I am remembering the ordinary elements and extraordinary impact of the three day bus journey I participated in along with a few dozen others in April 2009. It was the RCA’s first Sankofa journey, a learning experience on wheels that invites dialogue and reflection. Participants travel in pairs composed of one person of color and one white person, and along the way (with two of three nights spent on the bus!) partners engage in honest conversation about race, racism, and their own experiences of visiting the stops along the way related to the civil rights struggle. We watched documentaries on the bus, we stopped at non-profit organizations addressing social inequalities in urban settings, we stood together in places marked with the fingerprints of so many who brought about tremendous change in our nation. We ate grits and drank sweet tea.
Some of us white northerners were repeatedly humbled by what we heard as our partners of color shared stories of past generations living in the south. I myself was honored to share the journey with Sandra Hardy; though we are both professional women who grew up in Grand Rapids, we continually discovered ways in which our life experiences and perspectives were shaped by race and by the systemic racism that endures in our society.
As a group we journeyed to Chicago, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, Atlanta, and Chattanooga. We crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge, site of the “bloody Sunday” march. We toured the Southern Poverty Law Center, we walked through parks where adults and children alike were sprayed with fire hoses and arrested. We visited Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and Coretta Scott King’s final resting places. We heard about ways that Rev. King’s vision is being carried out by the current leaders at Ebenezer Baptist Church. At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute we heard portions of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” read by an actor seated in coveralls behind the actual prison bars that confined King. We stopped at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist church, and we had the honor of meeting Carolyn Maull McKinstry, a lifelong member of that church who was 14 years old on that Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, when a bomb exploded in the church and killed four of her young friends. I suspect I am not the only one from our group who would say that hearing her story was the most profound moment of the journey.
I will end with something that can speak better than any of my words: some images from our Sankofa journey, and some accompanying words from the Belhar Confession.