Faith & Politics: The Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage
By Peter Storey
Editor’s note: The Rev. Peter Storey, Williams professor of the practice of Christian ministry and a national leader in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, participated in the March 4-6, 2005, Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage led by Rev. Doug Tanner D’72.
Forty years after the 1965 Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery, U.S. Senators and Representatives, Democrat and Republican, held hands and bowed heads as civil rights veteran the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth led us in a soulful prayer.
We were gathered around a circular marble memorial in Montgomery to 40 slain civil rights activists. Cleansing water flowed across the surface inscribed with the martyrs’s names. Some in the group reached out to touch the water and trace a name with their fingers.
This was the second day of the 2005 Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage. There were 170 pilgrims on this three-day trip, including 33 members of Congress, many spouses and staffers, and a small group of South African freedom struggle veterans.
The day before had been spent in Birmingham, where four children were killed in the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. Now, after paying our respects at the Rosa Parks Museum and sharing in worship at Dr. Martin Luther King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, we were here to pray.
Each year, Rev. Doug Tanner D’ 72, director of the Faith and Politics Institute in Washington D.C., offers members of Congress an invitation to a three-day pilgrimage to these sacred sites. Tanner’s ministry on the Hill is deeply respected, and he manages this group of powerful people with quiet authority.
Many of this nation’s leaders cannot remember when ordinary African-Americans sat or marched, or bled— or died—for the right to be treated with dignity. Tanner believes that an important part of their formation as leaders is to engage with this story at the places where it happened.
Most members of Congress, familiar with more sanitized and secularised versions of the civil rights struggle, are surprised that so much time is spent in churches listening to preachers. They are forcefully reminded that the movement found its life and breath in the indomitable faith of black American Christians. Many are taken aback by the unequivocal commitment to non-violence among the old veterans of that struggle.
In Selma, on the final day of the pilgrimage, we worshipped in the packed historic Brown Chapel AME, and then joined thousands outside and marched toward Selma’s notorious Edmund Pettus Bridge. When the march leaders paused at the center of the bridge to pray, a hush fell across the crowd.
In 1965, those same leaders and their followers were met and beaten by Alabama State Troopers. This time, an honor guard of State Troopers stood respectfully as we passed through to the other side. It was a moment of awe and gratitude for the witness of those brave marchers, and for the power of God to overcome entrenched wrong.
Enroute back to Washington, D.C., there was much quiet conversation. People of faith, from Capitol Hill and far away Africa, spoke together of the role of God in people’s lives, and pondered how, while faith in God motivated amazing acts of courage, non-violence and self-sacrifice, the name of God was also exploited by those who sent the troopers with their dogs and clubs to attack the marchers. Journalist Bill Press, sitting next to me, said, “I guess the real question is ‘Whose god is really God?’”
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