Location: Charlotte, NC
Alison Busch has been a member of Charlotte, North Carolina’s Dilworth United Methodist Church since 2000. Her three sons have grown up in the church and Allison and her husband have always appreciated how progressive and service-oriented Dilworth United Methodist is. “It is a very open-minded and down to earthcongregation,” Alison says. “And that is what we were looking for.”
So when Alison learned that her church was invited to participate in a Deep South Pilgrimage spearheaded by Myers Park United Methodist Church and Sanctuary Charlottechurch, she was intrigued. The trip would retrace the steps of Martin Luther King, Jr. and visit some of the cities that played a big role in the civil rights movement. Alison appreciated the fact that Myers Park was partnering with Sanctuary, which is a predominately African American congregation in Pineville, North Carolina, because, as she puts it, “I didn’t want to go with a bunch of white people trying to discuss African American history.”
The thirty-seven participants were both black and white, more women than men, and ranged in age from a high school junior to a 79-year old man. Alison met her fellow travelers in a series of pre-trip work sessions, led by James Ford (a former high school history teacher and 2014-15 North Carolina teacher of the year), that covered the history of the civil rights movement and of African Americans and racism in the United States. “There was a lot of talk about how black people have been treated throughout history,” Alison says, “which really opened my eyes and served as a great backdrop for the trip.”
The first stop on the trip, that started with an early morning bus ride to Atlanta on October 23rd, 2019, was the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. I have also visited that museum and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for something to do in Atlanta. Like me, Alison found the lunch counter exhibit incredibly powerful. You sit on a mock lunch counter and don headphones, so that you feel and hear the hatred that was spewed at the brave African American civil rights leaders who refused to give up their seats. “You knew what was coming,” Alison says, “but I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of it. You could feel the hatred.”
Another moving experience for her at the Center was the room dedicated to all of the martyrs who died during the civil rights movement. Each photo of a slain African American could be turned over to reveal his or her name and cause of death. “They all died at the hands of white people,” Alison said. “And the white people were rarely brought to justice. “It is just so wrong and unfair.”
After a lunch at The Varsity (David, who is a 1987 alum of Emory University, will appreciate their fine choice of a dining establishment), the group visited Martin Luther King’s childhood home on Auburn Avenue as well as the King Center and Ebenezer Baptist Church. “It was cool to be at the hub of the civil rights movement and see this place that was so meaningful to him,” Alison says of the church where Martin Luther King served as the pastor for eight years and where his funeral took place after he was assassinated in 1968.
Alison’s main takeaway from the King Center, which was built by Coretta Scott King after her husband’s death to honor his legacy and further his work, was the emphasis on nonviolence that was the cornerstone of Martin Luther King’s leadership. The Center was lined with pillars that proclaimed the principles of nonviolence and the one that most resonated with Alison was about defeating evil and not people. “It said that you have to focus on the injustice and not the evildoer”Alison says, “because the evildoer is alsoavictim. That blew my mind.”
The group then headed to Birmingham, Alabama and visited the 16thStreet Baptist Church, where four African American girls were killed when membersofthe KKK set off a bomb outside the church. They also walked through Kelly Ingram Park dotted with beautiful and thought-provoking sculptures depicting both the brutality and the bravery of the civil rights movement. More images of the brutality that was repeatedly used as a response to this nonviolent movement were on hand at the Civil Rights Institute, the cumulative effect of which Alison describes as “sobering reminders of the ugliness that happened during that time period…and in some ways is still happening today”
That night James Ford led the group in a debrief of what they had seen and experienced thus far. Each participant was asked to share one word to describe the trip up to that point. Some of the words that were shared were justice, shame, hopeful and overwhelmed. Alison’s word was struggle. She says it referred to both the struggle of the people who had lived through the civil rights movement and her own internal struggle. “The more you learn,” Alison says, “the angrier you get.”
The next day, the bus headed to Selma, Alabama and the group disembarked at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The bridge is a civil rights landmark (despite the fact that it is named after a confederate general and grand dragon of the KKK) because it is where they started the march from Selma to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights. A sea of blue awaited them on the other side of the bridge as they crested a hill and they were beaten back with dogs and violence. A 90-year old man who was one of the marchers and was hit in the head with a brick told the group that he comes to the site every day to pray for the man who threw the brick. Alison was again blown away by the capacity to find forgiveness. “I think I would be angry and bitter,” she says. She was also moved by the colorful signs of hope and love that dotted the park on the other side of the bridge that also serves as a lynching memorial because so many lynchings took place there. “You could feel the despair in that place,” Alison says, “but it was so powerful to also see the signs of hope.”
On their way to Montgomery, Alabama, the last stop on the tour, the group stopped at the Lowndes Interpretive Center to hear talks about the march from Selma to Montgomery. They then headed to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, where a speaker from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) lectured the group on the journey from slavery to mass incarceration. EJI has also created a memorial across the street to all of the victims of racial terror lynchings. Giant pieces of metal the size of coffins are suspended from the ceiling, each representing a county with the names of all of the people who were lynched in that county listed. “It was so distressing and powerful to see all of these names suspended from the ceiling,” Alison says.
As tough as that was to see, the next and final stop was even more devastating. The group visited The Legacy Museum in downtown Montgomery that is housed in an old slave warehouse. “It is basically a walk through our country’s history from the transatlantic slave trade to the domestic slave trade to racial terror lynchings and the civil rights movement and then to mass incarceration today,” Alison says. Among the powerful and moving images, the one that most stood out to Alison was one that showed a mother and her young son who were hanged on a bridge. Above them are the hoards of white people who came to watch the lynching. “It was a form of entertainment,” Alison says. “I couldn’t stop crying.”
The debrief that night was emotional and raw. “The emotion was so high,” Alison says. James Ford encouraged each participant to write their own emancipation proclamation. The focus was on what happens after the trip when each of the participants returns home. Alison says they were told to take what they had learned and seen and do something with it.
Alison is still working through what she will do with this experience. She is sharing snapshots of her trip, both in photos and in words, on Facebook and in person. But she wants to do more. For her, a major takeaway from the trip is a Martin Luther King quote that says, True peace is not merely the absence of tension but it is the presence of justice. To Alison, that means that she has not been doing enough to make the world a better place. “I believe I lived in a fairy taleworld focusing only on peace and ignoring the tension,” Alison says. “This trip has opened my eyes to how much suffering and injustice there is.” She now realizes that her volunteer work and her diverse social network lulled her into thinking that things are better than they are. “I still believe in the good in people,” Alison says. “But there is no peace right now.”
She is determined to do more to “stand up to what is really going on and educate others on the important parts of our history that have been glossed over,” she says. She is still processing the lessons learned on the trip and how she will be able to use them to fuel her own activism and advocacy. But she knows she is forever changed because of what she saw, heard and discussed, and for that she is grateful.