UCC Peace & Justice Civil Rights Pilgrimage in Alabama

UCC Peace & Justice Civil Rights Pilgrimage in Alabama

July 17, 2022

Sermon for Medina UCC, written and given by Julie Gilliland

Sunday July 17, 2022 at 8:15 am, 9 am, and 10:30 am

It is a gift to be with you today, and I thank you for your time this morning. I am Julie Gilliland. I’ve been a member of this church since 2010. I currently usher at the 10:30 am service, and I have served on the Mission Team and am a past-Moderator, and currently serve on the Search Committee for the Associate Pastor for Youth & Mission.

I was blessed to accompany a group from the UCC on a Peace and Justice Civil Rights Pilgrimage in Alabama last month. I learned about it in our own weekly messenger and Sunday bulletin, I RSVPed, paid the fee, which I later learned was a greatly reduced cost because of the Heartland Conference, which is our overall conference, and Living Water Assoc of the UCC which is our regional overarching organization contributed funds for the travel expenses. I asked a very dear friend to go on this adventure with me and be my roommate. She was the perfect person to be by my side as she is a voracious reader of history and politics and her brother is currently collecting the oral history of living US Presidents. This helped me process the factual and chronological aspects of what we learned, all while she and I processed the grief and shock we experienced on this journey.

Of the group of about 25, we had a handful of pastors on the trip to lead us in prayer and understanding, gay Christian brothers and sisters, and four BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color if that is a new term to your ears). The group ranged in age from 15 to mid-70s. The logistic struggle was keeping COVID at bay. We didn’t want to bring this virus into that community in Alabama, so we were all fully vaccinated, and wore our masks everywhere. We tested regularly yet we did lose a handful of people over the course of the weeklong trip to testing positive and having to quarantine in their hotel rooms. But we shared as many photos and experiences with them as we could through a communication tool called What’s App.

A little about why I wanted to go on this journey. I was born in Texas, raised in Texas and attended Texas public schools from K through my bachelor’s degree. I was taught about “states’ rights” when we discussed the Civil War.

It did become clear on this journey, through everything we experienced and shared with one another, that no matter where you went to school, the history books were written by white men, taught by mostly white teachers, and we were never given as deep a lesson as we need to acknowledge this history and move on together, fully aware, and not repeat it.

Now, as an adult who loves life-long learning and reading everything I can get my hands on, my eyes have been opened to the fact that this country, and white comfortable society was built on the back of Africans who were stolen from their homes, brought across the seas in slave ships, many did not survive the voyage, were tossed overboard to watery graves, those who survived this wretched journey were then taken to slave auction blocks, ripped from their families and transported to some area where they worked in dire conditions before sun up to after sun down, all so white people could live in comfort and have financial success. We know Wall Street was literally built by slaves, but as I have read in The Lehman Trilogy, on which the play is based, even Lehman Brothers started in Montgomery buying and selling cotton and owning slaves.

I will not attempt to tell you the history of slavery in other cultures or ours, or historical facts about the Civil Rights era, which you may already know.  You’re all smart, well-read people who are concerned about social justice and have compassion for humanity. So I will share with you what my takeaways were. What changed MY life. And these are simply my experiences and my observations.

First let me tell you how beautiful Alabama is, in Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham (once called Bombingham because of KKK threats and acts of violence) historical tidbit – because there was so many people working in mines outside of Birmingham, dynamite was readily available with which to create bombs). How green the landscape is, the flora and flaura, and how after a week, I never saw ONE confederate flag. I see them in Medina county.

We began our trip in Montgomery, Alabama at the First White House of the Confederacy. It felt wrong even walking into this pristinely preserved perverse pillar of treason. Then a wonderful woman of color took us on a REAL tour, we walked the sidewalk of the parsonage of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr. We saw the plaque (on the porch) where his home was bombed. Imagine being at the church and getting a call that your spouse and children who were at home experienced an act of domestic terrorism. He said he didn’t breathe until he got home and checked on them and saw no one was harmed, physically.  It is now up to his church to maintain this historic home and these grounds. Alabama tax payers pay for the upkeep on the First White House of the Confederacy.

Next in Montgomery was The Legacy Museum. If you are at all aware of the Black attorney Bryan Stevenson, his work with The Equal Justice Initiative, or his book or the movie of the same name Just Mercy, or the documentary on HBO, True Justice, which is listed along with other reading and viewing materials in this bulletin. Many are available at our library. His famous quote is, The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice. We were given the Test to Register to Vote in Alabama that was given to Blacks. First question: How many seeds in a watermelon? Another question: How many bubbles are in a bar of soap. Does that sound like justice with the right to vote? Years ago, a play we were producing at a theater where I worked brought me in contact with the ACLU as a community partner. And I learned a lot about my privilege and how I am treated differently in different areas of our country than a person of color might be treated, with regards to the law. Mr. Stevenson’s work and research and that of his non-profit are the backbone of this museum and the next one we visited. The Legacy Museum tells the story of slavery, and how we are still using people of color in unjust ways. At this museum, we experienced spectacular interactive displays, the art, and the words of enslaved people. To witness the wall of jars of dirt from each of the sites of lynchings (which by the way autocorrect kept trying to correct the plural of lynching, but that is what happened, thousands of lynchings took place throughout the US, NOT JUST the South), because those people will not be forgotten thanks to this research and work. It digs deep in my soul and makes me question who were the people, on both sides of the rope? Much like the Nazis documenting their war crimes and killings, lynchings were well-attended gatherings, with people taking photos with the bodies and producing postcards to send to friends and family bragging about witnessing these murders. (Invitations to witness the lynchings were printed in newspapers) I wonder, because it is so hard for me to see young white men who have all the privilege on the planet committing mass shootings, did they inherit some sort of lynching witness trauma in their memory DNA? Were their ancestors at these lynchings? Could they be traumatized before they were born from sins of the generations before them? What did they tell little white children when they looked away at these horrible sights? They taught the next generations that people of color don’t matter as much as white people do.

Lunch was a fabulous southern buffet. Rev Dr Bernard Lafayette spoke to use about growing up during segregation. This man was an actual Freedom Rider, and he was with MLK the morning of the assassination. He was the real deal, and he told it like it was. I didn’t know that a Black person paid their bus fare, got OFF the bus, then went to the back of the bus and got on. I thought they walked past white people and sat at the back of the bus. So that was just an invitation for a white (of course) bus driver to just drive away. Imagine that stress on your way to work! And what would a Black person do? They would get arrested for making a peep.

As a person who works in the arts I was excited to hear about how many times they rehearsed for the first sit-in, how they planned and executed this entire movement of non-violence through thinking through every scenario, testing it, trying it out, protecting people as much as they could, making calculated risks. And as an arts marketer I was especially keen on learning about the grassroots communications, creating flyers in the cover of night, cutting them so they would be small enough to slip into someone’s hand, then distributing them throughout the Black community and to the whites who were open to the Civil Rights cause. The Montgomery Bus Boycott involved white housewives who slipped into their cars once their husbands had gone to work, drove over to Black neighborhoods and stewarded Black people to their jobs and home again. They didn’t take money—they couldn’t as they didn’t have taxi licenses and that would be illegal and they would get arrested.

In the Rosa Parks Museum I learned the importance of the Black church for change in society. In my lifetime, I saw how they got out the vote during Obama’s Presidential election, both of them. I see those roots now in the Black church of the past. During slavery “masters” would take their slaves to church, making sure the scripture included passages about slavery. To prove their point. But back on the plantation, in the woods, Black families and fellow slaves would gather and those who could read would read the Bible, pray, create songs that could tell a story of faith and hope and triumph one day. They brought some of their culture to the church, the joy, the love, the rituals and they grew the seed of Christianity that was forced upon them in their own way, flavoring it with their homeland. I was thrilled to see that Black churches were recording their services and sharing them back during Civil Rights era to help the work of the movement.

I have to pause for one moment and say, historians say that the Civil Rights era began in 1954 and ENDED…do you know when? When I was asked that question I said “uh, it hasn’t ended yet, duh.” So it officially, historically, the Civil Rights era ended when Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968. I don’t understand that.

Our next stop in Montgomery was The Memorial for Peace & Justice, also attributed to the Black attorney Bryan Stevenson, aka The National Lynching Memorial. As you entered a green lush outdoor space, you were drawn into a maze of giant rust colored metal slabs suspended from the roof, dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Africans, especially those murdered by lynching and the oppressed by racial segregation and Jim Crow laws. It is also dedicated to people of color who have been and continue to be overburdened by police violence and over-incarceration.  Image walking around a concrete floor starring up at 800 6 foot tall mini-monuments hanging, symbolically for lynchings, above your head. And I have to say, everywhere we went, these sites are staffed by all Black employees. As I think about how emotional these spaces were for me is as a white woman, I am so grateful for them doing this work, how kindly they treated everyone, how they answered every stupid question, how they tended to our comfort. If there is one thing I really, truly took away from my time in Alabama, it was how welcoming these Black communities were to white interlopers, how much they are reconciling the bloody past in this country, how much faith they have, and how willing they are to forgive and move on together. Of course, not that long ago a Black man in this country could have actually been killed just for looking at me, so perhaps a bit of fear is still lingering in their very cells. Back to the memorial site-these rusted steel monuments were organized by state, then county, alphabetically so you were walking around and around, and then a section of the grounds had duplicate steel slabs laid out, and they are asking each state or each county take them back, erect them in your community, and teach the next generations about what happened there. I went to the slab for Denton County Texas, where I was raised. Two men were lynched in 1922 for being ACCUSED of stealing two horses. The state of Ohio had 15 names and dates, the last being 1932. And yes, the group is looking into how to get these back to Ohio!

That afternoon concluded after a visit to the Southern Poverty Law Center. I invite you to Google them, and see their map of the organized, official hate groups in the US today. There are more in Ohio today than there are in Alabama.

We traveled to Selma and walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Pettus was a Confederate general, a senator, and a member of the KKK, and this bridge was the site of Bloody Sunday. This is the location where John Lewis, then MLK among others led groups to march for Civil Rights. My friend Lisa identified right away which was the “conflict side” of the bridge. On this strip of national highway, stretching over a quiet river, there is a high point where you can see nothing but beautiful sky from that sidewalk where we stood. It looks like you could walk right into Heaven on a sunny day. We know from our history books that once the group descended that peak, they saw a sea of blue uniforms that were there to attack with billy clubs and tear gas. We know there were two attempts before the famous march, the second of which MLK knelt down and prayed on the bridge, surrounded by Black and white religious leaders of every faith, and he felt compelled to turn them around, out of harm’s way. If you look at their footwear in photos of all three marches you will see how they learned from each walk and equipped themselves better on their last walk, 54 miles long, with boots and the right clothing for them to make it to their destination.

We had the honor of visiting the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Before the infamous bombing of that church by despicable white men, that took the lives of four little Black girls, and blinded one of their sisters, they were told, after building a beautiful church for Black Christians, to just tear it down by the white city inspector. There was some trumped up issue that they gave as the reason to this congregation of why they had to tear their new church down. Imagine if we completed our capital campaign and all our renovations, and just because of the color of our skin, had to TEAR IT DOWN AND START OVER. You will notice the architecture of those Alabama churches is unique. The front entrance is grand but so is the side entrance, which is identical to the front entrance. Because Black church goers could not enter their OWN church from the main street during segregation. They had to enter on the side, and so they held strong in their own way, and made that side entrance just as majestic as those front doors off the street.

We ended the week with a joyous Juneteenth celebration at Kelly Ingraham Park. It was so lovely that in this park full of people of color strangers came up to us and asked us where we were from, and welcomed us. My friend Lisa remarked on how lovely it was to see these adorable little boys of color zipping around on their scooters, as so many children their age had once had the firehoses turned on them while marching in the Civil Rights Movement. I had never known that children had been such a big component in those marches. But of course they had the most to gain in that movement.

I have some suggestions of reading materials if you want to learn more, that is printed in this bulletin. It was the homework we were asked to do before our pilgrimage, and I’ve added a book that is a fast and illuminating read. There is also a supplemental guide to the pilgrimage that I am happy to share with you via email as a PDF (its large and a multipage document).

I would love to see us partner with people of color in our community next Juneteenth, maybe Second Baptist, support their efforts. There is a fabulous Women of Interfaith Voting informational opportunity on July 31 in Akron that women can learn from women of color the importance of getting out the vote. I am happy to send you that info as well (or is it in the messenger or bulletin this week?)

I thank you so very much for your time and listening to my journey. It was truly a peace pilgrimage, and just one more reason why I love our denomination and our fight for social justice.

Thank you,



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