By the Rev. Maggie Zellar, rector, St. Christopher’s, Kingsport
On August 9, I joined a group of people traveling from St. Timothy’s Signal Mountain to Montgomery, Selma, and Hayneville, Alabama. The main focus of our journey was the Jonathan Myrick Daniels Pilgrimage in Hayneville the second day. In Montgomery, we planned to visit the Peace and Justice Memorial and the Legacy Museum.
We arrived in Montgomery at about 2:00 Friday and our first stop was the Memorial which is also called the lynching museum. From 1877 to 1950, there were more than 4400 lynchings in twelve states. The design of the Memorial is such that each county in which those lynchings took place is represented by a steel column. The names of the victims and the date they were lynched is inscribed on those columns.
When I was reading about the Memorial, I saw pictures showing how the columns begin at ground level and, as one walks through, the floor drops down and pretty soon the columns are hanging in the air. Frankly, I expected this sense of being surrounded by lynching to be the key experience for me. It was not, though, perhaps because I was expecting it. What slowed me down, and sometimes stopped me moving at all, was the need to read all of the names, to acknowledge these persons and the date and place when their lives were taken. Sometimes, there was only one name and the print was large; sometimes, the names were many and the print had to be smaller to fit them all on the column. More than once, there were as many as six people lynched on a single day. I found myself praying, nothing profound or worthy of the Book of Common Prayer but one-line prayers of sorrow and pain.
I will confess that I did not give the Legacy Museum the attention it deserved. You see, by the time we arrived there, I was acutely aware that the heat of the day was a large part of the whole experience. I was grouchy, having spent time without the creature comforts we take for granted. I wanted a bottle of water and a cool room. And then I realized that neither of those was available to the people we had come to honor. Daniels and others who came South to help with voter registration did their work without air conditioning and probably didn’t always have water available. For me, the heat and humidity – over 90° and 100% – became part of the reason I was there.
At the end of the afternoon, we joined others on pilgrimage for a Eucharist at the Church of the Good Shepherd, a historically Black church. Again, the heat was oppressive, our clothes stuck to the pews and everyone was perspiring even as we sang and prayed. And I remembered that even in my own parish church in Delaware, that was how worship in summer was. Hot.
Saturday, we traveled to Hayneville to retrace the steps of Daniels, Ruby Sales, Richard Morrisroe and another woman. They were arrested for joining a picket line and jailed in Hayneville. On August 14, they were suddenly released, realizing that they were still in danger. They walked to a nearby store to find something to drink. As they approached the building, Tom Coleman came out of the store cursing them. He was holding a shotgun and, as Daniels pushed Ruby out of the way, Coleman shot him. Morrisroe and the other woman started to run away and Morrisroe was shot in the back. He was taken to a Birmingham hospital for several months of treatment and was there with us on our walk.
We ended the pilgrimage at the Courthouse where Coleman was tried and acquitted in thirty minutes. The current judge invited us to use the courtroom for our closing Eucharist. A place of justice turned into a place of worship! The judges bench became the altar, the choir sat in the jury box and the podium from which an attorney addresses the court became the pulpit. It was a truly moving service during which several people rose to speak, many people martyred for civil rights in Alabama were remembered and we sang hymns of freedom and justice.
And what moved me that day wasn’t so much the walk or the service as it was the fact that the town of Hayneville and Lowndes County were two of the sponsors of our pilgrimage. Police blocked off the streets so we could make the walk, two local families offered lunch – the only place to eat was a gas station lunch counter – and the schools and the judge made breakfast for children from New York who were there for the pilgrimage.
We tend to keep places like Hayneville and Selma and even Montgomery in a kind of historical stasis, always remembering the terrible events that happened there and never thinking about what those towns are like now. Both in Hayneville and in Selma where we visited St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, we learned that the people who live there have changed. The events we remember are also remembered there but they have had to face some hard truths about how they came about and then make changes.
Jesus calls us to love who we are now. I bought a t-shirt with the following quote on it: “We are better than the worst thing we have ever done.” We will never manage to change our own hearts if we won’t accept forgiveness for our wrongs. We can never forgive our neighbor if we continuously think of them only in terms of what they have done wrong.
But forgetting, wiping the memory clean, may well lead us to commit the same wrongs again. Hayneville hasn’t forgotten Jonathan Myrick Daniels and his companions but they have worked to make sure something like that won’t happen again. They strive to change their hearts not their history.