I listened to many of the veterans of the civil rights movement tell their stories recently as part of the 2014 Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage, sponsored by the Faith & Politics Institute. I was privileged to work with the institute and joined them throughout the tour, listening to their stories and participating in the observances.
The institute brought together 20 members of Congress and several others who participated in 1964 Freedom Summer. Attending were members of Congress who were key civil rights figures, such as U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and congressional leaders such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md. From Mississippi, U.S. Reps. Bennie Thompson, D-Bolton, and Gregg Harper, R-Pearl, helped host the tour in their districts and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Tupelo, and Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, joined in events. It was a positive, bipartisan endeavor rarely seen these days.
The pilgrimage in the past has focused more on Alabama, but this year it included Mississippi to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. Participants toured key sites where major events took place.
In Ruleville, we heard the stories of courage about Fannie Lou Hamer, who was beaten for attempting to register to vote and whose declaration of being “being sick and tired of being sick and tired” turned the nation’s attention on the struggle going on in rural Mississippi.
At Little Zion Church in Money, we heard about the lynching of Emmett Till from his cousin, Wheeler Parker, who was with him that horrific night when he was abducted and killed.
At Medgar Evers’ home in Jackson we listened to Myrlie Evers as she looked down at the spot where Medgar lay in the carport of his home after being shot. She choked up once again as she related the details of that horrible night. There were tears and prayers of thanks for this courageous family.
At Tougaloo College, where so many events of those times took place, we heard U.S. Rep. Holmes Norton describe her experiences of coming to Mississippi as a young Yale law school graduate and of being with Evers hours before his death.
We worshiped at the historic Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Ala., before joining the reenactment of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. With his soft, sincere voice U.S. Rep. Lewis told the story once more with vivid details of how he and the marchers were attacked when they first crossed that bridge 49 years ago.
Looking back is necessary, even when painful, and so is looking ahead. Despite much progress, too many civil rights and voting rights issues remain. Tactics change, politics change, perhaps even motivations change. But the effects can be the same. It was a poll tax 50 years ago; today it is questionable Voter ID laws that can hinder and discourage voter participation. It was denying registration to black voters 50 years ago; today it is manipulating redistricting to marginalize and control minority voter influence. It was segregated schools five decades ago; today it is social and economic segregation in underfunded public schools.
I worry that young people are not getting the lessons of the civil rights movement. There are excellent history books, documentaries and popular movies. But I wish they could hear the stories from those who were there, those who can share the vivid details.
I asked Charles McLaurin, who worked closely with Mrs. Hamer, if he gets questions from young people about the civil rights struggles. He said once they hear some of the stories, they are curious and want to hear more. “They just don’t know,” he said.
They need to know. We all need to know.
It was good for members of Congress to come to Mississippi and hear the stories, but we all need to take our civil rights “pilgrimages.” I pray that those stories endure and that they translate into action to deal with the human rights issues of today and of 50 years from now.
(David Hampton is a veteran Mississippi journalist who retired as editorial director of The Clarion-Ledger in 2012. He now teaches journalism.)