Journey to Truth – Evansville Living Magazine

Journey to Truth – Evansville Living Magazine

Photo by Birmingham Civil Rights Institute provided by Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

“I used to say I wasn’t African because I was born in the United States,” says Marilyn Miller of Evansville, one of 31 pilgrims who recently visited civil rights movement sites in Alabama. “But after the pilgrimage, I changed my mind. I knew a lot had happened to the slaves, but to see so much up close and personal … and to think it might have happened to some of my former relatives.”

She came to her realization in Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, when she saw a freestanding wall of hundreds of jars at the Legacy Museum. Each one contained soil dug up by family members and others from sites where lynchings had taken place across the United States, in both the northern and southern states.

Photo of the Legacy Museum’s National Monument to Freedom by The Equal Justice Initiative/Human Picture.

The pilgrimage began in Birmingham and traveled through Alabama to Selma and Montgomery. The travelers – black, white, Catholic, Baptist and others – were organized by All Saints Parish and Mount Olive Galilee Church in Evansville. The parishioners wanted to gain insight into the racial disparities highlighted by the civil rights movement and apply what they learned at home. The group toured the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. At the city’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963, four girls died when Ku Klux Klan members detonated a bomb under a staircase during Sunday services. “I was the same age as them,” said one pilgrim.

Photo of the Legacy Museum slave sculpture by The Equal Justice Initiative/Human Picture.

From Selma, the group crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, past the site where the first march ended with batons and tear gas on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. The group reached the town of St. Jude Parish, where musicians Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary and others entertained the marchers on their last night in a tent. On the pilgrim bus during the trip, quiet conversations on the seats were interrupted by shouts. “That’s where the marchers spent a night.” “There’s another sign.” “That’s the road they took!” The conversation on the seats on the bus became more animated. “Do you remember that?” “It took them five days.”

Montgomery’s evolving downtown welcomes visitors to restaurants and shops near the town square – once the busiest slave camp and auction site in Alabama and perhaps the country. Pilgrims toured the Rosa Parks Museum, where they rode a simulated bus, and the three recently opened Legacy Sites. The museum begins with an immersive visual and audio representation of the sea voyage of slave trading ships. The hillside memorial honoring more than 4,400 lynching victims includes rusted black iron columns that hang from the rafters above visitors’ heads. Each column lists the names of victims from states and counties – including Posey County. A memorial to these southwest Indiana victims was dedicated in Mount Vernon, Indiana, in 2022.

ALONG THE WAY Participants of the Southern Justice Pilgrimage stopped at legacy sites in Alabama, including the Legacy Museum’s National Monument to Freedom, which lists the selected surnames of 120,000 African Americans registered in the 1870 census. Another stop was the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which participants like Brenda Meyer and Jane Leingang crossed on foot. Photo of the Edmund Pettus Bridge courtesy of All Saints Parish and Mount Olive Galilee Baptist Church

The irony was not lost on the pilgrims: They were enjoying lunch and lodging in a developing inner city, welcoming visitors to places where black Americans once feared for their lives and were bought and sold.

“I have participated in all three Just Faith faith and racial justice programs sponsored by All Saints Parish,” says Emma Jean Couture of Evansville. “I learned a lot about the history of the slave trade, the struggle for civil rights, and the racial inequalities in our community and country. It wasn’t until the Justice Pilgrimage to Alabama that I was able to transfer that knowledge from my head to my heart.”

The third site, the recently opened Freedom Monument Sculpture Garden, is dedicated to Native Americans and enslaved people. A railroad car that transported slaves is on display. The surnames of black Americans from the 1870 census cover a large wall, many names taken by black individuals and families from the white families who formerly owned them. For Kim and Fred Mulfinger, “perhaps the most moving experience” was “finding Kim’s surname in the painting.”hat wall.”

Pilgrims of All Saints Parish and Mount Olive Galilee Baptist Church Courtesy of All Saints Parish and Mount Olive Galilee Baptist Church

“After visiting the Legacy Museum, with its vivid depictions of the horrors of slavery, the Jim Crow era and the struggle for civil rights, it was a bitter heartbreak for her to see her family name on the wall and she wept silently for a while,” Fred recalls.

At the end of each day, Pastor Floyd Edwards of Mount Olive Galilee invited the group to process the often painful experiences of the day. “I have never seen hate so clearly and understood so little,” says Brenda Meyer, justice coordinator at All Saints.

ATTENTION After spending a day experiencing the horrors of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and racial violence, Rev. Floyd Edwards of Mount Olive Galilee Baptist Church gathered Southern Justice Pilgrimage participants for reflection. One of those experiences was the Legacy Memorial, which features 800 hanging steel monuments – one for each county where lynchings occurred – commemorating more than 4,400 Black people killed between 1877 and 1950. Legacy Memorial photo courtesy of All Saints Parish and Mount Olive Galilee Baptist Church

Personal experiences were very common in the comments after the pilgrimage. There was the city of St. Jude tour guide, who had participated in part of the march when she was 15. There was Wanda Battle, who gave the group a tour of Montgomery’s churches and “the neighborhood” where she and so many others had made their home thanks to urban renewal and highway construction. Many of The Legacy Sites’ staff were genuinely grateful for our multi-ethnic, multi-faith group.

The Legacy Sites provide an overview and report on individual tragedies. “Elizabeth Lawrence was lynched in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1933 for reprimanding white children who had thrown rocks at her.” “Grant Cole was lynched in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1925 after refusing to run an errand for a white woman.” “Elias Clayton, Isaac McGhie, and Elmer Jackson were lynched in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1920 by a mob of 10,000 people.”

Susie Hansen, who remembers wearing Buster Brown shoes like a little girl who died in the church bombing, says, “Despite all of these depressing and devastating things, I want to remember the emergence of a new hope. I pray that my most important memory of this pilgrimage is that 31 people of different races and religions came together and lived like one family for four days.”

What’s next? Maybe a return to Alabama or Memphis, Tennessee, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, or to the sites of the Underground Railroad in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Photo of the end of the day debriefing courtesy of All Saints Parish and Mount Olive Galilee Baptist Church

“My hope for our pilgrimage and our fellowship with each other is to build a better community, a better understanding between races and age groups,” says Rev. Edwards. “My desire is that there is openness and honesty and that we learn and grow together.”