May 16, 2019, Montgomery, Alabama – Eight representatives of the Adrian Dominican Congregation, along with a contingent from First Presbyterian Church in Tecumseh, Michigan, took a 15-hour bus ride to Montgomery, Alabama, to immerse themselves in the racist violence of the late 19th century to the civil rights efforts of the mid-20th century.
The eight people representing the Adrian Dominican Sisters were Sisters Attracta Kelly, OP, Virginia (Ginny) King, OP, Carleen Maly, OP, Patricia McDonald, OP, Kathleen Nolan, OP, and Suzanne (Sue) Schreiber, OP; Associate Deb Carter; and Co-Worker Robyn Wellman, a nursing assistant. The First Presbyterian Church of Tecumseh had invited members of the Congregation to join them in the bus trip to Selma and Montgomery, Alabama.
“It really was like a religious experience every place we went,” said Sister Kathleen, Director of the Adrian Dominican Sisters Office of Peace, Justice and Integrity of Creation.
The April 26-28, 2019, tour included visits to the Selma Interpretive Center, the welcome center for the National Historic Trail: Selma to Montgomery, following the 54-mile route of the three civil rights marches that took place in 1965; the Edmund Pettus Bridge across the Alabama River in Selma, the site of the March 7 Bloody Sunday in which civil rights demonstrators were attacked by police; and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the first church at which Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. served.
The group also visited the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Justice and Peace, which features about 800 monuments on which are engraved the names of the 4,400 people who were lynched in various counties in the South. Both the Museum and the Memorial were opened in April 2018 by Equal Justice Initiative, founded by attorney Bryan Stevenson, who focuses on “fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.”
Many of the participants were particularly moved by the display of coffin-sized monuments of the people who were lynched in each county. “The steel monuments for each county hung at eye level at first but progressively became higher and higher off the walking platform,” Sister Suzanne explained. “I felt the power of that design in space as we gradually walked under the steel panels that were lifted up, dramatizing the hangings.”
Sister Kathleen said it was difficult to fathom. “You’re looking at thousands of people who lost their lives, whole families.” She added that the National Museum for Justice and Peace also has duplicates of each memorial so that the counties involved can take their monument home and memorialize the people who were killed there.
Sister Ginny was shocked by the lynching of entire families. “I had no idea they grouped families and children,” she said. She was also saddened by the reasons given for the lynchings: as harmless as walking too closely behind a white woman.
Deb was surprised by photos she saw in the Legacy Museum of white people celebrating at lynchings, and the famous photo of Hazel Bryan Massey, then about 15 years old, screaming in anger as Elizabeth Eckford, a black student, walked into the Little Rock School after the Court had ordered it to be integrated.
Sister Attracta was also moved by the Legacy Museum and its history of racism in the United States – and the continuation of racism even today. “There’s a whole section on discrimination against people of color,” she said. But people of color “are still stopped and pulled over while driving with no reason other than their color. Young men are convicted of crimes and put in jail – and it goes on and on.”
The Civil Rights efforts, especially the Selma to Montgomery Marches and the Edmund Pettus Bridge were also highlights for many participants. “Walking across the bridge brought back the experience of Bloody Sunday – just being in that environment,” Sister Ginny recalled.
Sister Carleen was moved by an encounter at a park across the bridge with Charles, an African American veteran of the Korean War who had been on the front line during one of the marches and been struck on the head by police. “Charles showed a huge scar on his head,” she recalled. “He was surprised at how much hatred there was.” Sister Carleen also recalled Charles’ sense of urgency about speaking to younger people, making sure that they are aware of the bigotry in our nation’s history.
Overall, the participants were overwhelmed by the intense experience, and all the more determined to work for a world in which hatred no longer exists.
Sister Kathleen, who participated in the trip to Alabama after working with people seeking asylum in El Paso, Texas, drew connections between the bigotry and racial discrimination experienced in the South and continued instances of injustice and hatred.
“I couldn’t get [the experience in El Paso] out of my head,” she said. “A group of people is being terrorized and victimized because of the color of their skin, because of where they’re from, because they’re different. ... You’re confronted with the sin of racism.”
Sister Sue was inspired by the clear language used at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. “The words give us ways to think and talk about the horrors of that time, the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” For example, the National Memorial spoke of the discrimination as “reinforcement of racial dominance over political and economic resources.”
This clear language “helps us feel the stories of terror, name the injustices, and work toward awareness,” Sister Sue said. “I want to be part of that process, and visiting the Memorial helps me to internalize our history and see how it has affected our current social climate.”
Feature photo (top): Sister Patricia McDonald, OP, explores an exhibit at the interpretive center of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Photo by Sister Suzanne Schreiber, OP
Representatives of the Adrian Dominican Sisters and their hosts, members of the First Presbyterian Church of Tecumseh, pose in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the first church at which Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. served.
Thank you for representing us. Painful then and more painful now as racism continues.
Correction: I was not “surprised” by the hate filled groups of white people terrorizing black children as they walked to school. I was overwhelmed, shocked and horrified but not “surprised.” I did wonder if any of the hateful white people had a change of heart later. It is hard not to equate the terror we witnessed in the museums with the terror being perpetrated as families are separated at the southern border.