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Freedom Tour 2013

Today we sat in Ebenezer Baptist Church and wept as the voice of Dr. King reminded us to be drum majors of peace, righteousness, and justice.

Before that, we visited the King family home where we saw the piano that young Martin sabotaged in order to get out of music lessons as well as the bed in which he was born. I am not usually one for sightseeing and tours, but this felt different.

I felt deep sadness for a nation and world that, to paraphrase Blake, has not yet “learned to bear the beams of love.”

Rather, we kill our prophets, domesticate their warnings, and then name freeways after them.

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 The Kitchen Table

This photo of the King home in Montgomery was taken by our bus driver, Kay. After meditating on King’s “Knock at Midnight” for so many years, there are no words to describe what it felt like to stand in the very kitchen where the grace of courage was given to Dr. King over a cup of coffee in the middle of the night.

The following thoughts came to me while scribbling on the bus . . .

turquoise plates
a coffee pot
and a troubled soul.
terror surrounds on all sides.
my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
glass shatters.
a baby screams.
it’s an awful
blessed
thing to fall
into the arms of
the living God.
turquoise plates
a coffee pot
and a surrendered soul
you have set a banquet before me . . .
on a table groaning with the weight of love.

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Would I Have the Courage?

Yesterday afternoon, our students and adult mentors received certificates after completing a rigorous week-long course of study on Kingian nonviolence – the six principles of nonviolence, the six steps, identifying different types of conflict, a great deal of history and more. The students took a challenging essay test and the adults an oral exam. How good it was to combine head and heart this way.

Our time Thursday in Birmingham and Montgomery is hard to put into words. How to describe what it was like to sit in the back of the 16th Street Baptist Church. To talk with 90-year-old Mrs. Harris who harbored Freedom Riders in her spacious home. To meet Dr. King’s barber and hear stories of their back-and-forth banter, and most especially, to stand beside the very table in Dr. King’s kitchen where, tired and despairing, he heard a voice in the middle of night ordering him to march on . . . the place where faith trumped fear. The place where he said he met God in a personal way for the very first time.

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Today we are in Meridian. As our bus snaked down the dark and wooded highway late last night, I asked myself if I would dare have the courage to be a Freedom Rider myself.

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If Trees Could Talk

Far back in the woods near Philadelphia, Mississippi is the spot where the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were found after they were brutally killed for daring to work for justice.

Today we stood on this holy ground, marched through the streets of Meridian calling for justice in our own day, listened to giants like Diane Nash and John Steele talk about issues, including the school-to-prison pipeline and right-to-work, and came together for a picnic and commemoration ceremony for Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner and the long litany of others killed for the crime of being black.

We were a three-bus caravan and police cars accompanied us for much of the way. We were told that we were being watched. Until recently, previous commemorations were followed by acts of violence. Our picnic site, for example, was ringed by the rubble of a building that was flattened by dynamite after one such gathering. I have studied so much of this history, but nothing prepared me for what these country roads feel like in light of the horror that occurred there. As one of our adult mentors said, “If these trees could talk.”

107 Years of Fighting for Justice

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Yesterday we met a remarkable woman, 107-year-old Dr. Amelia Boynton Robinson. Raised in Savannah, she was a bold young woman who at age nine knocked on doors to register voters.

After moving to Selma with her husband, Mr. Samuel Boynton, she was fired for adding the subjects of voting and land ownership to the standard teaching curriculum of reading, writing, sewing, and cooking.

She and her husband were threatened night and day for their civil rights work, culminating in Dr. Boynton Robinson being beaten so severely on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday that she was left for dead.

Later, at her husband’s funeral, Sherriff Jim Clark deputized white men who recorded the license plate numbers of those in attendance. The following Monday, the mourners were fired from their jobs. Decades later, Mrs. Boynton attended Clark’s funeral as a gesture of forgiveness.

The students listened attentively to this wonderful woman as she shared stories in a strong and animated voice. The story of jail cell doors refusing to open as she sang hymns while being booked in the local jail. The story of surviving a boating accident and actually rescuing the only other survivor despite her inability to swim. The story of unwavering faith and a steadfast commitment to justice.

Hers was a message of “love over hatred.”

“God put His spirit in us,” she said. “We have a conscience. He has something for us to do. He didn’t just bring us here and say, ‘You’re a child.’ You have something to DO! And know that when God opens the door, no man can close it.”

She then went on to challenge the youth to step up to the plate and accept leadership, urging them to avoid drugs, drink, and things that come from the outside and destroy the spirit.

After listening to Mrs. Boynton Robinson, she invited each student to give her a gentle fist bump. As I listened to this strong and beautiful woman take time with each student who waited patiently to meet her, I noted that she had a unique message for each.

I was so humbled to meet a woman whose wisdom, goodness, and love shone like the Alabama sun.

The words I was given were, “Each morning ask God what your work is for the day. He will show you what you are to do.”

Amen.

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Voting Rights and Viola Liuzzo

Sick over the assault on voting rights handed down by the Supreme Court on the very day we marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and visited the roadside spot where Detroit mother of five, Viola Liuzzo, was killed. Today the white robes of the Klan have been replaced by the black robes of judges who want to resurrect Jim Crow. Evil never rests nor does the work of justice.

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 Of Farms and Freedom Songs

Despite feeling crushed this morning by the gutting of the Voting Rights Act yesterday – the very day our spirited youth crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and sat at the feet of Selma’s great foot soldiers – we had a blessed day today.

The day started with a breakfast at Carter’s in Albany, GA, a feast that featured heaping plates of scrambled eggs, grits, chicken, catfish and a surprise visit from Rutha Harris, one of the original SNCC Freedom Singers, who got us up on our feet singing and clapping.

From there an unforgettable visit to Koinonia Farm, the interracial community founded in 1942 by theologian-farmer Clarence Jordan. I have wanted for years to visit this community, a community that was persecuted and threatened by local churchgoing folk for sharing a common purse and living together – black and white.

It was a gift to share this experience with our Freedom Tour youth. Being outside on this breathtaking piece of farm land offered a different perspective on the work of justice – one that I hope our students will take to heart.

Being at Koinonia gave us an opportunity to discuss issues such as food security, permaculture, and intentional communities. In other words, a way of reflecting on what Gandhi would call a “constructive program,” a way of living that allows people to “build something new within the shell of the old.”

As we stood on the rich red soil underneath an old pecan tree and looked out over the deep green fields of Koinonia, my soul felt peace. As a farmer at heart, I didn’t want to leave . . . nor did many of the youth.

We were invited to join the community and their guests, including Mennonites and young seekers who are staying for a spell, for a lunch that was straight out of the garden: tomato sauce and spaghetti, cucumber salad, spinach salad, pesto, several different vegetables and homemade basil bread that was simply heavenly.

At one point during the meal, a candle was lit for peace, prayers were offered, and announcements were made. As we drank iced tea out of old Mason jars surrounded by children’s wall art in honor of Rosa Parks, Rachel Corrie and others, it felt like we were truly at home here in a place that models the beloved community despite experiencing a history of hatred.

As we prepared to leave I recalled the story of Dorothy Day visiting this community in the early days of the Catholic Worker. Dorothy offered to take guard duty, a risky assignment that involved sitting in a car on the periphery of the property in order to keep an eye out for the Klan and other haters. On that night, bullets were fired at the car and Dorothy was almost hit.

I also thought fondly of Jordan’s Cotton Patch Bible, a unique translation that sets the gospel in modern Georgia and depicts Jesus angrily confronting the Southern Baptist leadership and dying on the lynching tree.

Finally, I thought of Jordan’s words that I keep in the front of my classroom: The good news of the resurrection of Jesus is not that we shall die and go home to him, but that he has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, prisoner brothers and sisters with him.

As I pondered these words, I thought of people I know who feed the hungry in downtown parks and dingy soup kitchens. Good people who put many of us Christians to shame.

The students loved being at Koinonia today, and so did the adults. There is something very good about living simply and living well. A kind of beauty that is healthy and deeply human.

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Three Stones

Three stones that tell a story.

A jagged stone taken from a wooded backwoods spot in Philadelphia, Mississippi where the three – Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner – were slain.

A small quiet stone gathered outside the housing project in Selma where unnamed heroes gathered before marching across the Bridge on Bloody Sunday.

A heart-shaped stone picked up from the spot where Detroiter Viola Liuzzo was killed by hatred.

If people are silent, “these very stones will cry out” for justice and freedom.

20131207-183849.jpgLowndes County SNCC Freedom House

 At Freedom House in Lowndes County, Alabama where our MCHR organizer, Dorothy Aldridge, spent time. The sculpture raises the frames of cars used by civil rights workers to the heavens, a tribute to their courage and tenacity. It must have been terrifying to spend nights in this remote rural spot in the face of so much hatred.

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Economic Development and Community

Spent yesterday focusing on local economic development and rural farming. First a visit to a collaborative kitchen in Baker County housed in a formerly segregated school. The idea is to lease space to local farmers and cooks so they can produce their products in a large commercial kitchen that is in compliance with government regulations.

Then a visit to a former plantation that is now owned by the descendants of slaves who have transformed the space into a huge farm called New Community.

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We were hosted there by Shirley Sherrod, the great woman who was treated so poorly by this administration when it acquiesced to a right-wing smear campaign to vilify a woman who has given her life to working with poor rural farmers.
Today, pecans and other crops are being planted on the farm as the local community’s vision for the future begins to take shape.

Earlier in the day, we listened to her husband, renowned civil rights activist Charles Sherrod, give a challenging talk at Albany’s Civil Rights Institute.20131207-184845.jpg

Little Girls

A few scribblings from the back pew of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church:

four little girls from new mexico sit in a pew at 16th street baptist today.

the power of these young peacemakers at this hallowed place.

the place where song turned to sorrow.

where evil killed innocence on a sunday school morning.

as i ponder the cross at the front of the church, my mind turns to little girls everywhere.

little girls with rainbow barrettes and unicorn bags hopscotching down cracked city streets.

little girls in hijab singing songs beneath the hum of the drone.

little girls whose ashes hang in the japanese wind.

little girls are the mirror we avoid.

everything depends on our looking deeply at little girls dying to live.

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Connecting the Dots

Our Freedom Tour bus. What a great group of students we have on board. They are taking in a lot and connecting the dots between struggles past and present.

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Full Circle

On the ride back to Detroit today, I received a text from my husband who was with the kids at a family reunion. Come to find out, his Uncle Jack, a funeral director, handled the Viola Liuzzo funeral and recalls Martin Luther King, Jr. walking into the funeral parlor behind Jimmy Hoffa (Mrs. Liuzzo’s husband was a Teamster).

So, for me, our journey has come full circle – connecting Detroit to the South in yet another way.  It’s hard to believe that it was only six weeks ago that we had a day of service at Viola Liuzzo Park in northwest Detroit.

 What a journey this has been for 34 remarkable young people and 12 lucky (and tired) adults.  The youth, some who came from as far away as Traverse City, have been wonderful. They are smart and inquisitive and committed to peace, justice, and human rights. They have some big shoulders to stand on but I think they’re up to the task!

Late night and early morning notes written while on the road with Michigan Coalition for Human Rights Freedom Tour 2013