Last Thursday, my college freshman and I gathered in the dining commons of the university he attends to have breakfast with 35 people who were mostly strangers to us. We were asked to grab a marker and a piece of posterboard and write in large letters a word that would represent what we hoped to learn during the next five days together.
I wrote the word, “awareness.”
Just as we didn’t know much about the people we would soon board a bus with, we also didn’t know a lot about what we would encounter during the next five days. We were part of a Civil Rights Bus Tour for alumni, students, parents and staff of Taylor University. Our trip included the president of the university, the special assistant to the president for intercultural initiatives, the dean of students and half a dozen faculty and staff.
We were joined by recent alumni, people who had graduated several decades earlier, current students and parents. We were a mix of ages, stages of life, race and ethnicity.
For the next five days, we traveled on a double decker bus to Memphis, Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, Atlanta and Louisville. While I had been to most of these cities before, I had never traveled there with a focus on examining the shame of our nation’s history.
We stood in front of the spot at the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. We walked through the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, learning about slavery, segregation, and the intense fight for African Americans to gain basic rights to education, transportation and voting.
We visited the 16th Street Church in Birmingham where four young girls were killed while they were in the basement changing into their choir robes. White people full of hate placed a bomb at the back door of the church, not deterred by the fact that the building was full of families, including young children.
We walked across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, which was where police beat nonviolent protestors with clubs and threatened them with raging dogs to attempt to silence their march for Civil Rights.
We visited the Voting Rights Museum and then the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, which is a memorial for more than 4,000 people who were killed by lynching between 1877 and 1950.
I was struck in so many ways by how my awareness grew. Like many of the other trip participants who were around my age, we were shocked by how little of this history we had ever been taught in school. We were struck by just how recently all of this had taken place. Our hearts were broken as we absorbed so many stories of hatred, violence and terror. For many of the white people on the trip, we struggled with our shame of trying to reconcile the evil hearts of our ancestors. We questioned our own culpability for the heinous crimes of previous generations who believed they had a right to inflict violence on people whose only misdeed in life was being born.
The unique part about this trip, which was the first one of its kind organized by the university, was that we probably spent as many daytime hours on the bus as we did visiting these sites. We started each day with an early breakfast in the previous night’s hotel, then boarded the bus for several hours to that day’s destination.
We rode on a double decker bus in which the long bench seats faced each other. Some sections of the bus had large tables that could be used for playing games. I had taken along a library of audio books, a journal and a knitting project, anticipating that I would be facing forward the entire trip in my own private seat. But because of the arrangement of the bus, we spent long hours talking, debating, laughing or asking questions.
Most of us moved from seat to seat each day to try to get to know as many people as possible. Whether you were a university president, a freshman in college, a working parent or a recent college grad, you were equally invited into heavy and difficult conversations. We had moments of loud laughter, tearful mourning, and intense conversation. Whatever our differences or backgrounds, we were committed to gain a better understanding, not only of this devastating part of our history, but also of each other.
The part of the trip that impacted me most heavily was at the lynching memorial. Most of us were overcome with emotion at the weight of seeing more than 800 large metal boxes, about the size and shape of coffins hanging in neat rows at the memorial. Each box represented a county of the United States where white supremacists had murdered someone by lynching.
The boxes were engraved with the names and dates of those who had been killed. On some of the boxes, the designers had decreased the font to a tiny size to make room for all of the names. Others were simply embossed with the word “unknown” to represent the son, brother, father, friend, mother, wife or daughter who had been killed.
After we had walked around for about an hour, we sat in small groups, trying to express the feelings we were all processing. We listened and prayed. It was clear that we were all wrecked with emotion, and unsure how to even communicate across our diverse backgrounds. I felt so ashamed and horrified by the terror that white people had inflicted on innocent people, but I had no idea what I could say or do, so I sat quietly.
As we walked out, Mr. Dyson, the special assistant to the president for intercultural initiatives, wrapped his arm around my son. Andrew, wrapped his arm around him as well and they exited the memorial together. A black man and a young white student. They could have walked alone, heads down, not sure how to process. They could have been filled with anger and disagreement. But they walked out of this traumatic, emotional experience with arms wrapped around each other. Together.
On the final full day of the trip, we attended church in Atlanta. The pastor was an 88-year-old African American man who led our own hour-long private Sunday School class, during which he told us his personal experience growing up during the era of segregation and the fight for civil rights. We were encouraged by the gospel choir and the meet and greet time during service, during which it seemed every regular attender made his or her way around the sanctuary to personally greet each one of us. Our beloved Mr. Dyson, whose sister attended the church, delivered the morning message.
As I entered the church that morning, knowing it would soon be time to transition back into my normal day-to-day life, I struggled with how to process all we had encountered the previous few days.
One word from Mr. Dyson’s message answered that question for me: Together. This was the same word he had displayed so generously to my son at the lynching memorial.
As we drove back to campus early the next morning, which was Martin Luther King Day, we were asked to write a new word on the opposite side of the poster board to describe how we were feeling at the end of our journey.
I was overwhelmed with all of the information and emotions that I still have to process from the past few days. I don’t know the best way to move forward. I have a better understanding of what it was like and is still like to be judged by society on the basis of your skin color. I know that it’s not possible for me to truly comprehend or appreciate the day-to-day struggle. I am certain that I have messed this up countless times and that I will continue to do it wrong on so many occasions.
But spending those five days on a bus with total strangers from different backgrounds was an example to me of one way we can be better. It was what I experienced during countless hours of conversation on the bus. During a long journey across the southern states. Through the black and white arms of my son and a college official wrapped around each other. Through the welcoming handshakes of those attending an African Amercian church. In the words of an 88-year-old pastor patiently telling us his story.
Where do we go from here? What’s next for us in the coming days when our morning doesn’t start by boarding a bus? How do we take what we’ve learned and live it out in our day-to-day life? These are all hard questions that bounced in my mind as I tried to come up with the word for the opposite side of my poster board. I realized I don’t have answers.
And so I chose the word that had been lived out for me on the trip. It was my attempt to express the only way I can think to move forward: Together.