This year, for the first time, Middle School history teacher Sam McCoy led a group of Middle and Upper School students and teachers on a Civil Rights History Pilgrimage over Spring Break. The Pilgrimage, inspired by the work of the Living Legacy Project created by Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Gordon Gibson, was one of two trips offered to students over break. A group of Upper School students also explored Peru and put their language skills to the test under the guidance of World Language Department Chair Montserrat Garcia.
Reflecting on the pilgrimage, McCoy said, “We sought to provide our students with direct experiences to explore the difficult history around race in the United States through visiting museums, seeing historical sites in person, and being able to spend time with veterans of the Movement. Framed around Dr. King’s Six Principles of Nonviolence, participants have been challenged to find ways to bring positive change back to their communities at home.”
Each day, the students wrote reflections on the sites they visited and the things they learned. Read about the trip from the students' perspectives below and head to our social media channels to see even more photos.
Katrina Cheng-Slater ’23
Today, we went to many impactful places and learned so much about Atlanta’s thriving community and history regarding civil rights. After slight complications at the airport (traffic), we found ourselves in Atlanta, Georgia. There, we met our tour guide, Joseph, and quickly made our way to Firehouse No.6, where we learned about how ‘colored’ people had to get their right to vote by doing such things as guessing how many marbles were in a jar. Afterward, we walked a little further down the street to find Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace and childhood home. Inside the house, you could almost feel his presence along with the rest of his family’s. Later, we visited a grandiose fountain that contained a powerful quote that read, “We will not be satisfied/until justice rolls down like water/and righteousness/like a mighty stream.” Right after the rolling streams of water is a pool, and within that pool, there lies Dr. King himself alongside his wife, Coretta Scott King. On your way out of the park, you can see the 6 principles of nonviolence on the walls.
Then, we went to Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, both junior and senior, and his grandfather preached. There, they played gospel songs and recordings of Dr. King’s sermons. Next, we went to the MLK museum where we saw so many touching stories, watched Dr. King’s funeral, and exchanged thoughtful words together. After those inspiring and saddening messages, we went to mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.
I felt that what really brought the community aspect of the day together was my church experience at Our Lady of Lourdes. We sang songs together, got bread for just being new to the church—we even held hands at one point (I don’t know about you but we don’t do that at my church)! I also learned so much about what Dr. King had to go through and what happened at his peaceful marches.
Vanessa Torres ’23
As we set out on our second day of our Civil Rights Pilgrimage, our group decided to divert our focus throughout each activity onto Dr. King’s second principle of nonviolence: the importance of the beloved community. From the first activity of the day, which was attending a mass at the Bethel Baptist Church, I was able to feel a sense of community among each citizen that we encountered, and it was evident through their caring interactions towards us, such as going out of their way after the service to introduce themselves to us and providing us with lunch, that everyone was valued, respected, and given support in their times of need.
As we continued our pilgrimage through Alabama and through the historical sites and significance of Birmingham, it offered me a new perspective on the actions taken during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s as the African American community took action against the injustices of the segregated South and the hardships they faced for their opposition. We learned that members of the community were encouraged by ministers and leaders to join the cause and contribute in any way possible, which was shown through one of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth’s documents that tasked his congregation with jobs such as typing, transporting protesters, and providing food. I could almost picture the influential figures of MLK and Reverend Shuttlesworth, along with many others, as they rallied the citizens of Birmingham to the cause of equality for all regardless of their skin tone, and as we traveled across the city, it is touching to see that their appreciation for one another has never changed.
Sarah Mickley ’22
The spirit of the entire congregation was something that I had never felt so strongly before. As we traveled to the church we went through a neighborhood which contained houses that were both boarded up and broken down. The members of the congregation, however, posed a sharp contrast to the brokenness of the homes with spirits that were vibrant and joyful. The entire church welcomed us and truly embodied Dr. King’s vision of a Blessed Community. These congregation members shared a common history and along with that, their struggles from the past to the present. We had the pleasure of hearing a firsthand account from Mrs. Marian Daniel who survived a bombing at the Bethel Baptist Church when she was a young girl. Mrs. Daniel had many wise words to share with us, but one quote that stuck with me the most was when she said something along the lines of “learn from the past, live in the moment, but prepare for the future each day.”
Kristin Morrow ’23
At the Edmund Pettus bridge, I was constantly thinking about what it was like for those who marched on it during Bloody Sunday. Did those people look down off of the bridge and see the same things that I did? We walked across the bridge silently, in pairs, which is the same way that the marchers did on Bloody Sunday. I remembered how peaceful they were as they walked, and how the state troopers saw them as such a threat. Would they have seen our group as a threat if we were walking across the bridge in that time period? One thing that kept coming to my mind today was principle 3, which was the principle we were focusing on today. That nonviolence wants to defeat injustice, not people.
Isabella Stewart ’22
When we first arrived at Zion UMC we learned about Jimmie Lee Jackson’s story and the story of many other other foot soldiers. Jackson tried to protect his mother from getting beaten by the police and as a result, was shot. Other foot soldiers talked about their experience at a secret meeting that was held at dusk and the events that happened after. After the meeting was held, the police proceeded to beat those who exited the church. The foot soldiers also told their stories on many other occasions. Another person we met was Joanne Bland, who participated in the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Bland mentioned the possibility of the bridge being renamed. Why would the bridge be renamed? Because Edmund Pettus was active in the Ku Klux Klan. She then proceeded to ask us our opinion on whether the bridge should be renamed. Many of us muttered yes. Bland proceeded to tell us that she agreed with those who didn’t say yes. She said how changing the name would also change history. By changing the name we would be ignoring the fact that when they marched, were beaten and they didn’t gain their freedom immediately. It also makes us remember that at one point of time someone who was in the Senate was also part of the Ku Klux Klan. At one point in time, someone who was in the Senate and served in our army helped kill many innocent African Americans.
Ludnie Rene’ 18 and Zada Brown ’19
The fourth day of our Civil Rights Pilgrimage was reflective, meaningful, and, as always, extremely educational. Our first stop for the morning was to visit Jimmie Lee Jackson’s grave. We learned that Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered trying to protect his mother. As we stood in front of his grave in silence, we reflected on the injustice that cut his life so short. Earlier on the bus ride, we discussed Dr. Martin Luther King’s fourth principle of nonviolence that would set the tone for this fourth day: Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. We certainly recognized that although Jackson’s life was savagely taken from him, his death paved the way for the transformation of the country and the inspiration of millions of students and educators. Indeed, learning from the past, especially about the many ways that federal officials suppressed and terrorized black voters, inspired all of us to use our voices and our votes in a meaningful way.
the change that we want to see in the world, and we cannot stop dreaming. Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, James Reeb and thousands of other brave Americans did not march, shout, sit, stand and fight for the inherent dignity and rights of all human beings for us not to learn from their legacy. Today, and every day, we have to dream bigger and seek the long-sought-after freedom that so many died to achieve. On this fourth day of our journey, we saw the painful history of a people who transformed their suffering into courage, bravery, strength, and unity. They were the true beloved community that Dr. King so passionately dreamed of and we seek to bring this dream to life in our school, our community, and the world.
DJ Green '21 & Yvestlana Lafontant '21
Today we visited the Equal Justice Initiative Memorial for Peace and Justice and the experience was both moving and surprising. We discovered how many Africans Americans were lynched for unjustifiable reasons. For example, one plaque said that a black man was lynched because he refused to give a white man his shovel. Another example, was a black woman who was lynched because a white woman said she stole ham. When you look at principle five, it says, “Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate” and that was not what was demonstrated today at the memorial or the museum. Instead, they chose to act with hate, not love.
Meeting James Chaney’s daughter, Angela Lewis, made this principle come to life. She forgave her father’s murderer, and even prayed for their family when they were in times of trouble. She had something so godly and gracious about her that made me feel as though every time that she looked at me, she was injecting some of her godliness into me. She’s at a place of security and peacefulness that I would like to be in. The memorial was so powerful—it was a visual representation, all at once, at the lives that had been stolen because of cruel and unjust hangings. Seeing the large boxes hanging was so moving that it acknowledged the idea that we don’t know every single person hanged; but that doesn’t stop the unknown from being in our mind.
Mimi Greco '22
Today was the last full day of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage. Though busy, it was filled with many moving encounters and experiences. Some of the people we met today such as Hezekiah Watkins (a Freedom Rider), Dr. Daphne Chamberlain (Dean of Social Sciences at Tougaloo College), Hollis Watkins (a Civil Rights Activist), and Reena Evers-Everette (daughter of Medgar Evers) told us many eye-opening stories about their struggles and triumphs and how they managed to keep going during some of the darkest times in their lives. In addition to the people we met, we visited Medgar Evers’s home, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, and Tougaloo College which changed our views on the past and the way we approach the future.
Today’s focus was on Dr. Martin Luther King’s sixth Principle of Nonviolence: “Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win. Nonviolence believes that God is a God of justice.” We were able to see this principle embodied through meeting Reena Evers-Everett. When listening to her stories not only of the night of her father’s assassination but of their many happy memories together, we began to understand that these people are more than just names in a textbook. They are fighters filled with courage and resilience. Even though Medgar Evers did not live to see the days where his hard work began to pay off, his story was able to inspire a movement to finish his work showing that justice will always prevail.
Dr. Bill Mottolese
Last night after dinner, we met Reena Evers-Everette, the daughter of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers who was assassinated getting out of his car in his driveway. Eight years old at the time, Reena recalled that moment in 1963 vividly and shared it with us. Earlier that day, we had been at the Evers’s home in a modest neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi. I knelt on the concrete surface under the carport, just about where I imagined Mr. Evers lay in blood many years ago, and I prayed. It was a powerful moment when the past and present collided in the timeless now. In a similar fashion, Reena brought her father’s warmth, passion, and sense of humor alive to us in ways that made many of us cry. Mrs. Evers-Everette’s storytelling gave us a profound gift, perhaps the most intense and personal version of a gift we had received many times this past week.
We met dozens of ordinary people like Hollis Watkins, who was jailed for over forty days multiple times for small acts of civil disobedience, or Marion Jones Daniel who as a teenager crawled through broken glass and splintered masonry after Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s Bethel Baptist Church was bombed in 1960. Whether it was Mr. Watkins, who claimed never to have felt fear or resentment, or Mrs. Evers-Everette, who turned her pain into love, or James Chaney’s daughter, Angela Lewis, who hugged and forgave the daughter of her father’s killer and wished that her father and his murderer could walk hand in hand in heaven, none of these survivors of racist hatred expressed any bitterness. In fact, miraculously, the opposite was true -- these survivors embodied, in ways I never expected, a radiant love that emerged out of and surmounted massive suffering. It is the love of Dr. King’s soaring arc of justice along which the universe runs. It is the nonviolent love that defeats injustice, not people. It is suffering transformed into the beloved community. This week we have been a part of that beloved community. We have been woven into it by walking in prayerful pilgrimage on the path of our American mothers and fathers who were beaten and abused, abducted and murdered. These were not just the extraordinary men and women like Dr. King and Medgar Evers but the 4,400 lynched human beings memorialized in the United States Peace and Justice Memorial, the many thousands of common folk terrorized by the KKK and denied the right to vote, and the so-called almost-forgotten martyrs like Jimmy Lee Jackson and Viola Liuzzo, whose monuments and gravestones line the roads of the South. “The wound is the place where the light enters you,” says Rumi. Light entered us this week.
If you had asked most of our fifteen students and five faculty members at the start of the week, we probably would have said that this trip was about Goal Three -- justice -- but as the week progressed, that awareness evolved. Goal Three shifted to Goal Two as we were advised to study the past, to inform ourselves, to see all sides of an issue, and to confront ignorance. We encountered the searing generational poverty of the redlined black residents of Selma, Alabama and the disenfranchisement of St. Jude Catholic hospital by white Alabamans after St. Jude’s role in the March to Montgomery. By the end of the week, we came to understand that our pilgrimage was even more about Goal One. At the start of our trip, along the way, and at the end was God -- something that we encountered not just in the African-American church communities of Our Lady of Lourdes and Bethel Baptist Church, but in every person’s story of bearing a cross for others, and in the message of love that we heard all week. As we moved through the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis this morning, we had become a small embodiment of Goal Four, a beloved community moving reverently through a sacred space.
In Jackson, Mississippi almost sixty years ago, a great human being was murdered under his carport while his wife and children watched. In Memphis, another great man was assassinated on a motel balcony. The ripples from those events and thousands of others large and small are still expanding outward through a troubled nation craving community. Our young women of the Sacred Heart are riding those ripples home and, I suspect, will be riding them for the rest of their lives.