Journey for Truth

Evansville congregants visit The Legacy Sites in Alabama.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute photo provided by Birmingham Civil Right Institute

“I used to say I wasn’t African because I was born in the U.S.A.,” says Marilyn Miller of Evansville, among 31 pilgrims who visited Alabama civil rights locations recently. “But after the pilgrimage, I have changed my mind. I knew a lot of things had happened to the slaves, but to see so much up close and personal … and to think it could have happened to some of my long ago family.”

Her insight came in Alabama’s capital city, Montgomery, seeing the Legacy Museum’s free-standing wall of jars – hundreds of them – each holding earth dug up by family members and others at the sites of lynchings all across the U.S., northern states as well as southern.

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

The pilgrimage began in Birmingham and continued through Alabama to Selma and Montgomery. The travelers – Black, white, Catholic, Baptist, and others – were organized by Evansville’s All Saints Parish and Mount Olive Galilee Church. Congregants wanted to gain insight into racial disparity highlighted by the Civil Rights Movement and apply what they learned back home. The group toured the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. At the city’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, four girls died when Ku Klux Klan members set off a bomb under a stairway during Sunday service on Sept. 15, 1963. “I was the same age as they were,” said one pilgrim.

The Legacy Museum slave sculpture photo by The Equal Justice Initiative/Human Picture.

From Selma, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge past the site where the first march ended with billy clubs and tear gas on Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, the tour arrived at the City of St. Jude Parish, where recording artists Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, and others entertained the marchers on their last night of camping. In the pilgrimage tour bus along the way, quiet discussions in the seats were interrupted by shouts. “There’s where the marchers stayed one night.” “There’s another sign.” “This is the road they took!” Conversation in the bus seats grew more animated. “Do you remember this?” “It took them five days.”

Montgomery’s developing city center welcomes visitors to restaurants and shops near the city square – once the busiest slave warehouse and auction site in Alabama and possibly in 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 sight and sound display of the ocean voyage of slave-trading ships. The hillside memorial honoring more than 4,400 lynching victims includes rusted black iron columns suspended from the rafters above visitors’ heads, each column listing the names of the victims from states and counties – including Posey County. A memorial to those Southwestern Indiana victims was dedicated in 2022 in Mount Vernon, Indiana.

ALONG THE WAY Participants of the Southern Justice Pilgrimage made stops at Legacy Sites in Alabama, which includes The Legacy Museum’s National Monument to Freedom, listing the chosen surnames of 120,000 Black Americans registered on the 1870 census. Another stop included the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which participants including Brenda Meyer and Jane Leingang walked across. Edmund Pettus Bridge photo courtesy of All saints Parish and Mount Olive Galilee Baptist Church

The irony was not lost among pilgrims: They were enjoying lunch and lodging in a developing Downtown, welcoming visitors to places where Black Americans have feared for their lives and once were bought and sold.

“I have participated in all three of the Just Faith programs on Faith and Racial Justice that were sponsored by All Saints Parish,” says Emma Jean Couture of Evansville. “I learned much about the history of the slave trade, the fight for civil rights, the racial inequities in our community and country. It was not until the Justice Pilgrimage to Alabama that I was able to move this learning from my head to my heart.”

The third site, the recently unveiled Freedom Monument Sculpture Garden, honors Indigenous Americans and enslaved people. A rail 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 used to own them. For Kim and Fred Mulfinger, “perhaps the most moving experience” was “finding Kim’s family name on that wall.”

Pilgrims from 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 fight for Civil Rights, finding her family name on the wall made it bitterly personal, and she quietly wept for some time,” Fred reflects.

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

OBSERVANCE After a day of witnessing the horrors of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and racial violence, Rev. Floyd Edwards of Mount Olive Galilee Baptist Church would gather Southern Justice Pilgrimage participants together to reflect. One such experience included The Legacy Memorial which has 800 hanging steel monuments — one for each county where lynchings occurred — memorializing more than 4,400 Black people killed from 1877 till 1950. The Legacy Memorial photo courtesy of All Saints Parish and Mount Olive Galilee Baptist Church

Personal experiences were high among post-pilgrimage comments. There was the tour guide at the City of St. Jude who had participated in part of the march when she was 15. There was Wanda Battle, who gave the group a tour of Montgomery churches and “the hood” where urban renewal and highway construction had taken her home and so many others. Many staffers at The Legacy Sites were genuinely thankful for our multi-racial, mixed religion group.

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

Susie Hansen, who recalls wearing Buster Brown shoes like a little girl who died in the church bombing, says, “In spite of all this distressful and damning material, I choose to remember the rising of a new hope. I pray that my main memory from this pilgrimage is that 31 people of different races and religions came together and lived as a family for four days.”

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

Day-end Debrief photo courtesy of All Saints Parish and Mount Olive Galilee Baptist Church

“My hope for our pilgrimage and our fellowship with one another is to build a better community, better understanding between races as well as age groups,” Rev. Edwards says. “My desire is that there be openness and honesty and for us to learn and grow together.”

Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti joined Tucker Publishing Group in September 2022 as a staff writer. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelors degree in English. A Connecticut native, Maggie has ridden horses for 15 years and has hunt seat competition experience on the East Coast.

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