As I sat down to write this piece about the “We March for Justice! Race & Oppression” research study tour that I participated in this past March, I hesitated and came to the realization that I couldn’t. For far too long, U.S. history has been dominated by white narratives. I didn’t want to write a piece that asserted that my white narrative was inherently the only one that mattered, or that it represented all of the adverse experiences, or that it was a comprehensive representation of what the group I traveled with encountered. I simply didn’t want to contribute to the collection of white narratives that have appropriated the experiences of marginalized people, displacing their stories.
I expressed my concerns to my English professor. He asked me why I felt this way. I told him that I was concerned about writing another white narrative about the experiences of marginalized people, and that’s when he told me that my experience mattered too.
It reminded me of when I first heard someone say that black history is taught as an elective. I understood that African-American history is taught as if it isn’t a part of U.S. history, as if they’re two separate entities.
I was reminded that both African-Americans and whites were affected by slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, post-reconstruction, and eventually the Civil Rights Movement. White activists, moderates, and oppressors alike experienced these histories too. These are all collective histories.
So, the life-changing experience I had studying and traveling for a week in the South matters too.
My experience isn’t disassociated from everyone else’s simply because I’m white. It’s a part of something bigger; it’s a part of things felt and things changed. This trip ultimately changed my life and I’m going to share why.
Coming into this trip, I had a lot of expectations. I assumed that studying something so intentionally closeted like the reality of racism would be sensitive and intensely emotional. The reality of what the trip would be was surreal until we had our first class session following our arrival in Memphis.
We sat in chairs that bordered the union of two round tables. We gathered closely, as if the discussion topic was confidential, and happily agonized over the intricate details of post-reconstruction laws and court cases. We deconstructed the laws that perpetuated the enslavement of African-Americans. Beyond the surface, we critically analyzed every aspect of the rhetoric presented and it was utterly unnerving.
I slowly came to realize that the laws that inherently protect my white privilege, which are strangely identified as just, equal, and blind, were and are utilized as a tool of oppression to degrade the humanity of African-Americans. This realization was hard to swallow, even a bit nauseating.
I don’t know what’s worse; understanding the horrific reality of enslavement or recognizing that I can walk away from reading about it while the ones who suffered and continue to suffer can’t.
The following day, we were given a tour of the Mississippi delta by Mayor Thomas, the first African-American mayor of Glendora. I have very few words beyond “strength,” “integrity,” and “resilience” to define this gentleman.
Glendora, Mississippi is home to some two-hundred people, visible manifestations of neo-Jim Crow, and the murder of Emmett Till.
Emmett Till was a fourteen year-old boy who was murdered by two white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, for allegedly whistling at a white woman in the summer of 1955. He was kidnapped in the middle of the night and driven around Sunflower County for hours on the back of a pick-up truck. He was beaten, shot dead, tied to a cotton gin with barbed wire, and thrown into the Black Bayou, which feeds into the Tallahatchie River, bright and early on a Sunday morning. Bryant and Milam were acquitted of kidnapping and murder charges by an all-white jury. Two months later, they sold their confessions of the brutal murder to Look magazine for four thousand dollars. They were never tried again in a court of law.
Retracing the case and Till’s last moments was haunting. We visited the area where Till’s swollen, dead body was pulled out of the Tallahatchie three days after his disappearance. As we pulled up to the marker designating the spot, the sign that commemorated Till’s discovery was riven with bullet holes. The bullet holes that traced the words memorializing Till vividly illustrate past and current animosity towards the Till case within the surrounding community.
We visited the church where Till’s body was allegedly buried after his discovery. The church, previously owned by the relative that Till was staying with at the time of his death, is currently decrepit. The roof collapsed what appears like decades ago, as foliage is coiling over the opening. The pews are strewn across the floor. Cob webs cover the ceiling panels that still remain. Beyond the pews stands the pulpit, from where you can carefully trace the red carpet towards the front entrance. To the left of the front door, bullet holes pierce through the white cement walls. Standing under the canopy of a split roof left me with the eerie feeling that pure hatred had subdued this place that once housed unbridled faith and worship. I could almost envision the antipathy oozing out of the bullet holes.
We visited the Sumner court house where Bryant and Milam were tried for Till’s murder a few towns down the road. A Confederate statue and the Mississippi flag that bears the Confederate emblem stand in front of the court house. Just a few steps away, a marker stands that memorializes Till’s case. This arrangement is painfully ironic.
Sumner is largely populated by whites while Glendora is entirely African-American. Can you guess which town is prospering and which one lies in ruin and is rife with poverty? Do I even have to say it?
We concluded our tour of Sunflower County by ordering lunch at Glendora’s tiny grocery store. Outside, the store appeared battered and dilapidated, but inside it was glistening with fresh stocks of snack foods, beverages, and cigarettes. We eagerly collected our feasts of burgers, fries, and beverages. We hadn’t eaten all day because intense concentration and learning, as we all know, makes you incredibly hungry. This grocery store is the first in Glendora in more than fifty years. For most of Mayor Thomas’s life, he drove sixty miles, there and back, to purchase necessities in another town. The establishment of this grocery store was led by Mayor Thomas’s efforts just a few months ago.
I sat on our bus eating my burger, looking out the window at the little rundown grocery store. I could eat and enjoy my burger and leave, but the people of Glendora couldn’t. They can’t escape the poverty of their little town in a big black bus like we did; this little rundown grocery store is emblematic of their lives.
As the sun was at its highest point over Beale Street the following evening, we entered the Ernest Withers Museum where we met three sanitation workers who protested for equal rights and wages in 1968. The three men, now in their eighties, walked in and we momentarily stood in awe, out of respect, before politely greeting them.
In hushed and rusty voices, they recalled their own personal reasons for striking. In 1968, a sanitation worker, which was a position solely held by African-Americans, could work a forty hour week and make so little money that he would still qualify for government assistance. Immediately after hearing this, my cheeks were swollen with red hot anger and shame. I was furious thinking about the white people, like me, who had enabled this form of degradation.
They told about times of chaos and violence. They recited memories of batons cracking their heads open like yoke in an egg shell. However, it wasn’t the details of their sufferings that scared me the most; rather, it was the realization that these men had to protest for their own humanity, as if they weren’t inherently born with it.
The following day we toured the Lorraine Motel, which has been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum.
The museum is composed of some twenty-plus exhibits. Not only was it an overload of information, with every inch of wall space covered by bold contemporary style lettering, graphics, and technologically advanced displays, but it was emotionally overwhelming too.
I particularly remember stopping at the exhibit that vividly displayed words like “Bombingham” and “Children’s Crusade”.
“Bombingham” referred to the more than fifty racially motivated bombings in 1963 when absolutely zero leads were followed, zero suspects arrested, zero trials held, and zero convictions ruled.
“Children’s Crusade” commemorated the thousands of children, younger than Emmett Till, who marched in the streets of Birmingham in 1963. The children assembled at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church the Sunday following it’s bombing by a Klan member, a bombing that killed four adolescent girls. Martin Luther King Jr. led their funerals with Isaiah 11:6; “A little child shall lead them.” The statistics regarding the crusade read, “10 children arrested per minute – 2,500 total.”
The children who heroically led the march were met with high-pressure hoses and attack dogs. The assault was relentless. The photographs and footage of the violence in Birmingham were circulated and broadcasted throughout the entire nation. The brutality provoked a national outcry for justice. Every inch of barbarity was displayed in the exhibit; it brought me to tears.
On the last day, we convened for one last time as a group to fully debrief our experiences.
We asked questions regarding the promotion of the ideologies of the movement and the importance of studying it. The answers came flowing out in forms of tears, raspy voices, and determined rhetoric.
I said something along the lines of being fortunate enough to receive help from my community in the many struggles of my young life and that I want to do the same for others by utilizing my talents and abilities. It was quaint, but incredibly sincere and coming from a genuine place.
With regard to studying the movement, does that question even need to be asked? Slavery, racism, oppression – all part of the movement – are my history, your history, our history. We can no longer exclude African-American history, as if it is an elective disconnected from U.S. history.
As I began to write this piece, it transformed from a single white narrative into an important collective experience. As I began to write this piece, it was also April 4th, the forty-eighth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Over three thousand people assembled in the crowded Mason Temple where Martin delivered his last speech.
When I first saw footage of him delivering the Mountaintop speech, his elocution rung through my entire body. It rung so intensely that it was almost nauseating, bringing warm tears streaming down my cheeks.
Martin concluded his brief speech with,
“And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
Like Martin, I’ve seen the Promised Land, where humanity, equity, and equality is directly ingrained in the young, diverse minds of this nation.
With that being said, there’s an extensive and exhaustive amount of work to be done to advocate and promote equity and equality at structural levels within our society. African-Americans continue to be systemically criminalized, disenfranchised, and so on. African-Americans ultimately lack the equal opportunity to access higher education and learn how to change the system that perpetually oppresses them. Martin’s fight, the movement’s fight, our fight, is far from over.
Like Martin, I may not get there with you, I may not see structural change in my lifetime.
But like Martin, I want you to know that we as a people, we as a nation, will get to the Promised Land, where equity and equality thoroughly prosper as one, where the humanity of every single being is valued, and where we will flourish and thrive with the knowledge of our history.
Grace Maruska is freshman intending to major in English and minor in American Culture and Difference. Her years spent in college and beyond will be directed towards helping the community of St. Paul, her beloved hometown. Her passions—and the focus of her higher education—include social justice, which is what she intends to promote and advocate for in the near future.