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Spectrum Civil Rights Tour Examines History, Facilitates Conversations

On February 4 and 5, the Spectrum Civil Rights Tour II brought friends and supporters of Spectrum together in Alabama at the epicenter of the American civil rights movement. Traveling as a group through the cities of Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, the tour visited key sites from the struggle against segregation in the 20th century.

“Reflecting on what these memorials mean to us as a society and as a church will help us understand one another better,” Carmen Lau, Adventist Forum board chair, told the participants. A longtime resident of Birmingham, Lau helped organize and lead the trip along with Alexander Carpenter, Adventist Forum executive director.

I joined the group as the tour traveled together by bus on February 4, which allowed faculty members from Oakwood University and Southern Adventist University to make presentations on the move. As rocky hills covered with Loblolly pines flashed past on the way from Birmingham to Montgomery, Ramona Hyman, professor of English at Oakwood University, shared about her years of research into the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott through a mix of prose and poetry. Hyman is the author of two collections of poetry and is working on a book of essays titled Montgomery 55 on My Mind: Lessons from the Boycott.

Dr. Ramona Hyman presents to participants (photo by Raquel Mentor).

“The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 was a Christian boycott,” Hyman said. “It was a boycott that was stewed and centered with Jesus.” During the protest, which followed the arrest of Rosa Parks and other activists who refused to give up their seats on segregated buses, thousands met for evening meetings at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery. A young Martin Luther King Jr. was key in organizing the boycott, which would extend for 382 days and end after a court order abolished bus segregation.

Upon reaching Montgomery, our first stop was the Legacy Museum. Built by the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization founded by lawyer and advocate Bryan Stevenson—author of the book Just Mercythe museum sets out to tell the story of racial injustice “from enslavement to mass incarceration.”

Instead of being centered around artifacts or artwork, the museum, which was only fully completed in 2021, focuses on storytelling through visuals and interactive exhibits. The experience is intense, emotional, and haunting. By beginning with the transatlantic slave trade and extending to the present injustices of mass incarceration, the museum also does not allow the impact and horror of racism to be relegated to a past moment in history.

(photo courtesy of the Legacy Museum)

A few blocks from the museum, the Equal Justice Initiative has also built the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Dedicated to remembering the victims of lynching and racial terror, the site grew out of the organization’s work to document the thousands of killings throughout the United States from 1877 to 1950 that often went unrecorded. Opened in 2018, the Washington Post has called it “one of the most powerful and effective new memorials created in a generation.”

In contrast with the enveloping and maze-like museum, the memorial is spare and beautiful. A perfect and sunny February day certainly helped encourage us to walk slowly and take in the site’s sculpture; hundreds of steel box-like shapes—one for each American county with a recorded lynching and inscribed with the names of victims—are suspended among and above a walkway, shapes that are both formless and evocative.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice (photos by Raquel Mentor).

Leaving Montgomery for Selma, Gilbert Okuro Ojwang, chair of the Religion Department and professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages at Oakwood University, reflected on the spiritual implications of racism—not only in North America but also in his home continent of Africa. “The people of God, the church folk, have had their share in perpetuating these evils,” he said.

“Racism, tribalism, and all of this evil are forms of idolatry. They are a religion in themselves.”

In Selma, at the By the River Center for Humanity, local resident Joyce O’Neal told her first-hand experience of living in Selma during the civil rights movement. O’Neal was 16 years old in 1965 when the infamous “Bloody Sunday” saw state police brutally attack protesters marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The marchers had begun at the Brown Chapel AME Church in a protest against the lack of voting rights, and O’Neal was still there when the violence broke out. “What we saw was pure carnage,” she said. “The marchers were being beaten back from the bridge.”

“They were running back from the bridge because they were being chased by deputies on horseback. I saw the horses ride up the steps of the church, as marchers were trying to go inside.”

Students were a significant driver of the protests. O’Neal avoided arrest while participating in marches, but her sister, who was one year older, was arrested and held with over 100 other young people. “The deputies came around with cattle prods and Billy clubs. They hit the boys with the Billy clubs and they stung the females with the cattle prods.” O’Neal says that to this day, her sister is reluctant to talk about what happened due to the lasting trauma.

The images of violence inflicted on the peaceful protesters are credited with helping galvanize the rest of the country against the atrocities. Following Bloody Sunday, marchers eventually walked 54 miles to Montgomery under the protection of federal troops.

Dr. Ramona Hyman (left) and Joyce O’Neal (right) (photo by Raquel Mentor).

On the way back to Birmingham, Michael Weismeyer, associate professor and chair of the History and Political Studies Department at Southern Adventist University, presented about the legal cases at the end of Reconstruction and the differing philosophies of W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.

The final stop of the tour came the next day on February 5, with a visit to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. It’s often remembered for the 1963 bombing by the Ku Klux Klan that killed four girls. But beyond that tragic piece of history, the church is still an active congregation. In a reminder of how our present is still connected to the past, the pastor addressed the congregation about how the state of Florida has recently forced the advanced placement curriculum to drop parts of its teaching about African American studies.

Beyond the sites of the tour, I was perhaps most struck by the conversations it facilitated—to be able to hear from the perspectives of leading Adventist academics from the region, students from Oakwood, and participants from around the country.

Evening over Birmingham (photo by Raquel Mentor).

I also thought of how Joyce O’Neal had described the complicated reality of what has happened in Selma since her childhood. The Civil Rights Movement ultimately succeeded, at least in the terms of broad integration and voting rights. But as one local tour participant noted, the perception in the area is that Selma has deteriorated over the years.

O’Neal said she remembers how close-knit the Black community was in Selma when she was young, how it felt like everyone was looking out for one another—and how that changed over time after integration. “We were able to attain more,” she said. “But we lost something.”

As Adventism continues its own reckoning with racism, history can help guide conversations about righting past wrongs—while also celebrating what was built along the way.

Alex Aamodt is the managing digital editor of Spectrum.

Title image: Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Photo by Raquel Mentor.

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