​The Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum. Photo by Jennifer Murch.

By Ted M. Gossard
Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Ted Gossard attended Chapter 1 of Mennonite Mission Network's Racial Justice Just Peace Pilgrimage in May. This reflection was originally posted on his personal blog, June 22.

This May, I was part of a civil rights movement pilgrimage, led by Mennonite Mission Network. The trip began in Atlanta, Georgia, took us to Alabama and ended in Mississippi. A group of engaging, thoughtful people were a part of the tour. The trip was like a symphony, well-orchestrated, each part having its special contribution.

The pilgrimage began at Casa Alterna in Atlanta, where we heard from the women there, as well assists founder and director Anton Flores-Maisonet, an ordained Mennonite pastor. This stop, by itself, was worth the trip, though I could honestly say that for each part. We listened to recent refugees, some who had children and were seeking asylum in the United States. We heard a lecture from Anton, as he gave us a tour of Casa Alterna, in addition to some preaching the next day on our way to the King Center.

It was moving to see the crypt at the King Center, which was not much larger than the caskets of Corretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr. It was located outside, near a beautiful fountain with these words  inscribed on it, "We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream."

In the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr.'s father, and later King himself, pastored, we heard a lecture from an older Black man, who experienced the events and knew the people involved firsthand.  

The next day, we went to Montgomery, Alabama, to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Legacy Museum. I'm sure I could have spent three days there without getting through everything. There is so much reading to do in the museum, and remarkably, they creatively help patrons see from the perspective of Black people in America, with slaves telling their stories, among other examples. The congruence and connection of what happened hundreds of years ago and what is happening now, especially in mass incarceration and voter suppression, also comes through. The museum is a must see. If you could go to only one place to better understand systemic racism, the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Sites in Montgomery, Alabama, would be my recommendation.

Montgomery was the location of the first confederate White House, before the confederate capital moved to Richmond, Virginia. The location of the museum was the same place where Black people were caged and sold. Well into the 21st century, there were 39 monuments in Montgomery that commemorated the confederacy, but there wasn't even one monument commemorating the abolition of slavery.

Next, we took a tour of Selma, Alabama, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the U.S. Bloody Sunday occurred, in 1965, and later the march from there to Montgomery occurred. Joanne Bland, who was 11 years old on Bloody Sunday, led us. Her granddaughter works with her. Joanne is an entrepreneur and a fierce, loving spirit. We rode around Selma with her and stopped at a site which she oversees. Then, we sat with her for a lecture/talk and a questions-and-answer time. Then, we went to a nearby restaurant, where we heard from her sister, Lynda Blackmon Lowery. After that, we walked across the bridge and back.

Then, we were off to Philadelphia, Mississippi. In Philadelphia, we heard the first Black mayor there, James A. Young, who is mentoring Leroy Clemons with hopes that he will be the next mayor. Clemons is running in November. Interestingly, Clemons said that in the 1960s there was a certain space where Black people could live safely, but if they crossed that line, all bets were off.

We went to Mount Zion United Methodist Church, where they held a memorial for three young boys, one who was Black and two who were White, who were brutally murdered. The 1964 killings of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County sparked national outrage and helped spur passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They later became the subject of the film 'Mississippi Burning.'

We also went to the grave site of James Chaney and his mother. The church where they were buried, which was out in the country, accepted the danger associated with providing their burial sites. Other churches, out of fear, declined to bury his body in their cemeteries. 

Next, we visited a nearby Indigneous church, Nanih Waiya Church. This church was bombed three times in the 1960s. An emphasis on love overcoming hate took hold there. What has been done to the Indigenous Peoples was evil. It was said that, while we shouldn't feel guilty for what happened and is happening, we should take responsibility for it in the sense that we need to be listening, learning and trying to find our place in redemptive, restorative, full reconciliation. 

Next, we took a tour of Meridian, Mississippi, with Gerald Hudson, a pastor and scholar, who went to Eastern Mennonite University. He took us to the Baptist church that Martin Luther King Jr. had visited. He also took us to a spot where there are plans underway to build a center to help poor people in that area. He had much to share, but he shortened it significantly because of what we had already gone through that day.

Sunday arrived, and we went to Open Door Mennonite Church in Jackson, Mississippi. We met Pastor Hugh Hollowell, Rhoda and Warren Yoder, and others while we were there. The service was meaningful. All three of these people are sharp in their understanding and knowledge, and they all have considerable experience.

After church, we went to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. There was a lot to see and take in. The museum had a great deal of information on what happened to Black people in the past, but it didn't have much about systemic racism against Black people in the present. 

In the evening, we were hosted by the Yoders, and the conversation was as inspiring as the meal was good. 

The next day, we went on a tour of Jackson with Pastor Hollowell. Jackson has decreased in population. Though it is the capital of Mississippi, a lot of it has been neglected, with stark differences between one part of the city and the other, mostly along racial lines. Ramshackle, broken-down houses were in contrast to home after home that could be photographed for Better Homes and Gardens. There are many water issues there, also. 

Our final meal at Open Door Mennonite Church was prepared by Bobbie Jean, a member of the church. Afterward, we had a celebration of communion together — as we had done the day before during the Sunday service. We had a good conversation with Pastor Hollowell and talked about the involved, on the ground humanitarian work going on in that area. It was a most fitting ending to our pilgrimage.

Summary of the trip: It is a lot to take in and process. I'm definitely someone who takes more time than most to process things. I think one thing is for sure: Though I've always had a special interest in books on racism in America, from now on, I think it will be rare for me to go to a library or bookstore without looking for books on that subject. 

I would like to extend a special thanks to Arloa Bontrager, Joani Miller and Martin Gunawan, who wonderfully led us on this pilgrimage.

 

 

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