Pilgrims Return from Challenging Trip

by | Aug 27, 2015

The 12 pilgrims from the Diocese of Washington who travelled to Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, the Episcopal seminarian and civil rights activist who was shot to death by a white “special deputy” in Haynesville, Alabama, while shielding his young black colleague, Ruby Sales, have been home for almost two weeks now.

While they were gone, Sales preached and spoke at a forum at St. Alban’s Church. Since their return, the Rev. Paula Clark, canon for clergy development and multicultural ministries, has written an essay about their experiences; Washington National Cathedral has continued work on a carving of Daniels on its human rights porch and fleeting impressions have begun to coalesce into settled opinions, leaving some of the pilgrims with a deep sense of unease and a desire to re-energize the work of racial reconciliation in the Diocese of Washington.

“What I was struck by was the enduring vigor of racism in Alabama,” says Maurice White, a retired lawyer and member of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church. “I’ve been all over the south and for some reason I just felt more of it in Alabama. It wasn’t anything overt. People were pleasant in the street. …  There was an undercurrent and I know it’s not just me because I had a chance to talk with other African Americans on the trip.”

White, a former senior executive in the Administrative Office of the U. S. Courts, noted that very few people in the town of Haynesville took part in the commemoration, and that the store in front of which Daniels was killed had been torn down just last year, despite the impending anniversary.

“There was a sense that this has all been swept under the rug,” White says. “And that is scary because if we don’t learn from the past we repeat it.”

Enid LaGesse, a retired professor of African-American and multicultural studies who attends the Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring, agreed. “I bring home even more passion about doing anti-racism work because although I am old enough to have seen many of the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, they are not readily apparent in the places we visited. There are still some people who are upset now as they were 50 years ago. It’s almost as if people long for the good old days.”

The pilgrims’ most difficult experience came when they visited a Stuckey’s in Hope Hull, Alabama, selling t-shirts emblazoned with the confederate flag, and the motto: “If this flag offends you, you need a history lesson.” As Clark wrote in her essay: To my dismay, the Stuckey’s cashier, flanked with actual Confederate battle flags on the counter, glared and nodded at me. In that moment, I knew that I and all the pilgrims of African descent were not welcome. So, the whole group, all 40+ pilgrims, about-faced and kept our money in our pockets.”

There were moments of great inspiration on the trip, including Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry’s sermon, delivered in the courthouse where Daniels’ murderer was acquitted of manslaughter, and remarks by Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, delivered at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Montgomery. White was surprised by the emotional impact of walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where law enforcement officers beat marches on Bloody Sunday; the bridge was smaller than he thought it would be. Visiting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s former office in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, LaGesse noticed that he kept an Underwood typewriter. “And I said ‘I learned how to type on one of these!’ That for me was really moving.”

Yet both White and LaGesse came home feeling that the work of racial reconciliation was far from complete. “We can shake hands. We can walk across bridges together but when it comes to hiring or moving to bigger houses or having trust funds, it’s a different story,” White says.

“I think those of us who were on the pilgrimages have become more fired up and more resolute,” Clark says. “In terms of the work we do within the diocese, we talked in terms of just sensitizing folks to what our history of race is in this country— the facts and not the mythology—and what institutionalized and systemic issues still remain. We are talking about really going all out within the diocese to do that within individual parishes.”

She noted that St. Patrick’s, whose rector, the Rev. Kurt Gerhard was among the pilgrims, conducted a five-session series on racism that included viewing the film “I’m Not a Racist … Am I?”  and developed suggestions and recommendations for further action. Ascension in Silver Spring, meanwhile, had sponsored book studies on “The Warmth of Other Suns”, Isabel Wilkerson’sPulitzer Prize winning book on the Great Migration, and “The New Jim Crow”, Michelle Alexander’sscorching indictment of the mass incarceration of black men in the United States.

“I think we need a variety of entry points to these issues,” LaGesse says. “If the arts are your entry point and you need to learn about music on these shores as well as the rest of the world, that’s one way.”

The task before the diocese and the country, she acknowledges, is not an easy one. “To hear some of the history can trigger for some people that they are being blamed,” LaGesse says.  “I think the way we keep going is to ask how do you do it? What have you tried? Let’s just brainstorm together.”

Jim Naughton is a partner at Canticle Communications and a communications consultant for the Diocese of Washington.