The Common Good

Joe Biden, John Lewis, and the Long Road to Reconciliation

This year marks a long list of anniversaries in our nation's long march for civil rights: We now mark 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation; and 50 years since the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," the March on Washington, the bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls, and the murder of Medgar Evers in his driveway.

Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners for the Faith and Politics Institute
Delegation sings 'We Shall Overcome' hand-in-hand at the Civil Rights Memorial in Birmingham, Ala. Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

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In remembrance of the sacred journey, The Faith and Politics Institute's Civil Rights Pilgrimage drew more than 250 people, including 30 members of Congress, for a three-day tour of civil rights landmarks and first-hand testimonies from the movement's leaders. Throughout the pilgrimage — moving from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham to Montgomery to Selma — the delegation learned, grew, and continued the conversation together: white and black, Republican and Democrat, man and woman, senior and child. We all returned to Washington, D.C., and to our homes across the country, with a renewed sense of responsibility for the common good.

A number of events made the term 'reconciliation' mean more than the definition I had somehow created for myself over the past 30 years. Reconciliation is calling the person who beat and humiliated you 'brother.' Reconciliation is sharing a platform, sharing a deeply intertwined story — and sharing an authentic embrace — with the offspring of your parents' enemies. 

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'Out of understanding comes tolerance and change'

The weekend began at the University of Alabama — the same place where 50 years ago James Hood and Vivian Malone enrolled as the first African-American students, facing the unknown, facing death threats. Months before, then-Gov. George Wallace delivered his inauguration speech, proclaiming, "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." But now the site — which displays its famous schoolhouse door in the entryway of the Foster Auditorium — stands as a place of reconciliation.

"For the first time since 1963, we have a member of the Wallace family, the Malone family, the Kennedy family, the Johnson family here, and we're sharing a stage," said Dr. Sharon Malone, sister of Vivian Malone Jones and wife of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Peggy Wallace Kennedy — daughter of Gov. Wallace — was 13 years old during the confrontation on June 11, 1963. Sharing a stage with Dr. Malone on Friday, Wallace Kennedy said that while her father went on a long journey and is now beloved by many, she never received an explanation for that day.

"Today I have made my own journey to Tuscaloosa to stand in the place where my father once stood," she said. "... I stand in the schoolhouse door as a testament to change. I can now give to my sons what my father never gave to me: a conversation."

She continued, in an impassioned speech: 

Today I rise and proclaim that for too many Americans the school house door of opportunity, equality, and freedom remains closed. Today I rise to condemn the politics of exclusion that runs rampant in America, for America is at her best when she embraces all of us, protects the least of us, and offers her bounty of hope and prosperity to not just some of us. We the people of America deserve a better government, not a bitter government. Today I rise to ask you not to just remember how far we have come, but to commit to the struggle that lies ahead. There will be no more stands in the school house door, but the insidious underbelly of discrimination still lies like a pall over america. Today I rise to ask each of you to stand in the school house door every day — to encourage a child, to comfort a parent, to speak, to walk, and pray for justice for all in our country in our lifetime. 

Dr. Malone summed up the historical implications of those gathered at the University of Alabama, 50 years after the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.

"It's 2013, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and 50 years after that historic confrontation at the University of Alabama. And although there are still issues of race and inequality that plague us still, I am encouraged," Malone said. "I'm encouraged by the bipartisan group that is assembled here today. Out of understanding comes tolerance and change."

'You changed the world'

Perhaps the most moving moment of the trip occurred, fittingly, at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. — the church once shepherded by civil rights leader Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Police Chief Kevin Murphy, in an act of ultimate respect and reconciliation, apologized to Congressman John Lewis on behalf of the Montgomery police force — the same police force that failed to respond as participants in the Freedom Rides were beat by a mob in 1961.

"You have friends in the Montgomery Police Department," Murphy said. "... This symbol of authority, which used to be a symbol of oppression, needs to be a symbol of reconciliation." 

After a short speech, Murphy removed the badge from his uniform and offered it to Lewis.

"You changed this city, you changed this state, you changed this country ... you changed the world," Murphy said. "For that we are truly grateful to you."

Lewis accepted the badge in front of the emotional audience amassed, embraced Murphy, and without a second thought, accepted Murphy's apology. 

The act was an external representation of the reason The Faith and Politics Institute invests in the pilgrimage each year — reconciliation.

Focus on working together

Many of the Members of Congress present on the pilgrimage departed Washington, D.C., on March 1 — the same day the sequester kicked in, the result of an ugly, bitter, and partisan budget battle that still rages. Some spoke indirectly — some not so indirectly — about the struggles Washington is facing, all calling for our elected officials to focus on the common good and to "do the right thing" for the country.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R - Va.) spoke on Saturday night from the old chambers of the Alabama State Capitol. Cantor, who brought along his college-aged son Mikey, said meeting Ruby Bridges on the trip was a particularly special moment for both of them. Cantor said his son has been moved by Bridges' story — as one of the first African-American students to attend the newly desegregated schools in New Orleans — since learning about her in school.

It was a sentiment shared by many. Hearing the stories, meeting those lives most intimately touched by the violence, hatred, and lasting effects of discrimination changes perspective. Cantor closed his talk by emphasizing the important of collaboration on both sides of the aisle.

"We'll return to Washington with a focus on what — together — we can do," Cantor said.

'One more time'

From Selma, they began the march toward Montgomery. On the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, John Lewis,  Hosea Williams, and many others, were confronted by mounted troops. When the marchers refused to stop, the troopers beat them, whipped them, and fired tear gas. Many of them — including Lewis and Williams — were severely injured, and the day became known as Bloody Sunday.

And in Selma, on March 3, 2013, our delegation gathered, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, and Martin Luther King III.

"I regret — and though it's not part of what I'm supposed to say — apologize it took me 48 years to get here. I should have been here," Biden said. "It's one of the regrets that I have and that many in my generation have."

The almost 300-member group, followed by hundreds of other local marchers, lined up arm-in-arm to cross the bridge, as Lewis puts it: "one more time." As the marchers chanted the words of Freedom Singers, 'We Shall Overcome' echoed throughout Selma.

We'll walk hand in hand ...

Black and white together ...

"Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome
Someday."

Sandi Villarreal is Web Editor and Director of Online Media for Sojourners. She attended the Civil Rights Pilgrimage in partnership with The Faith and Politics Institute. A version of this post appears on The Faith and Politics Institute website. You can follow Sandi on Twitter @Sandi.

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