The Common Good

What Does the Civil Rights Movement Have to Do With Me?

This weekend I have the privilege of representing Sojourners magazine at the annual Faith and Politics Institute's civil rights pilgrimage led by Congressman John Lewis. The delegation came to Alabama and has visited many landmarks of the civil rights movement, taking time to reflect on the significance of these places and to learn about the people and stories that made them so important. (You can follow me here on Twitter for the rest of the trip).

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When I received the invitation to attend, I began to wonder: What does the civil rights movement have to do with me? When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery on December 1, 1955, my parents were children growing up in South Korea. And when my parents immigrated to the United States in the mid-to-late '70s, the height of the civil rights movement had already passed. By the time I was born, the civil rights movement had already become a part of United States history -- and I studied that history throughout my education, from memorizing lines from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech in elementary school, to studying the rhetorical strength of Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail in a college literature class. And yet, here I was about to embark on a pilgrimage, a journey, with the very folks who lived this part of history, who dedicated their young lives to the fight for civil rights in America, and who had the scars and stories to prove it. What could I possibly bring to this delegation?

During our first day of the pilgrimage, however, it became clear to me that there is something universal to this African-American struggle, and that it is nearly impossible to remain unaffected by these stories. The delegation this year is a motley crew of politicians (both Republicans and Democrats), film stars, singers, activists, corporate executives, university professors, and regular folks like myself. On a regular day, any two given people from this delegation might be standing at opposite ends of a rancorous debate. And yet when we walked into the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four young girls ages 10 to 14 were killed by a bombing just 18 days after the March on Washington, we all felt the heavy burden of loss and sorrow. We all mourned their deaths. We all felt the sovereignty of that holy ground where four innocent martyrs are commemorated. And we were all united with thankfulness for the ultimate sacrifice these four girls made.

The civil rights movement can have everything to do with me, and with us, if we would simply listen to the stories of the people of the movement and learn from them. Dr. Vincent Harding puts it best in his book, Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement:

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