EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is the second in a 3-part “On Pilgrimage” series following 21st-Century Freedom Rides. The Forum for Theological Exploration has partnered with School for Conversion to explore 21st-Century Freedom Rides as a practice for discerning vocation in today’s freedom movements.
Click here to read first post in the series.
En route to Nashville, Tennessee—that fertile soil from which so many young leaders of the civil rights movement sprang—another group of freedom riders stop over at the Highlander Research and Education Center on a cold December evening. After being warmed and well fed in the common dining room downstairs, we ascend the stairs to a large circle of rocking chairs. Each person receives a card that bears the story of someone who came to Highlander before us. For 20 minutes, we each become the keepers of those stories, introducing one another to the great cloud of witnesses who have gathered in the this space. I meet people I’ve read about: Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and John Lewis. But I’m fascinated by the names and stories I’ve never heard: Larry and Candy, Jim and Claudia. “If you’ve been here before, ” I recall our leader saying, “just introduce yourself.”
When I was in seminary, I read John Dittmer and Charles Payne—historians who tried to shift the narrative of the civil rights movement from a story about great leaders—Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act—to one about local people who took daily risks to build up a movement whose power could not be denied. Still, I convinced my son to come on that first freedom ride by appealing to the great leader narrative. “Vincent Harding was a good friend of Martin Luther King, ” I told him. “He even helped him write some of his speeches.”
Uncle Vincent was a gift, and we may have never started making these pilgrimages without him. But an essential piece of his wisdom was the way he embodied what Highlander taught: that each of us has a story to keep and a gift to share on the road to freedom. This is the truth that makes people’s movements possible—the revolutionary principle at the heart of God’s story: “the stone that the builder rejected / has become the keystone” (Ps. 118). In a kingdom where the last shall be first, there is in fact room for everyone. Each story matters, and we cannot understand our place in God’s movement without paying attention to the stories of everyday people who made the freedom movement possible.
Wherever we’ve gone throughout the South—from Nashville to Selma to Atlanta to New Bern—the work of historians has been important. We read the books and watch the documentaries that help us understand the context of the struggle for freedom in each place. But the essential piece of planning—what makes each freedom ride work—is finding the local people who are the keepers of the story because it has shaped their lives. In Nashville it is brother Rip, who joined the sit-ins while a student at Tennessee A&M and ended up in Parchman Prison at the end of his freedom ride. In Greensboro it is sister Joyce, who registered voters with Ella Baker when she was an undergrad helping to integrate Duke University. The movement did not make these people celebrities, but it did usher them into the beloved community. In the language of the church, each has a testimony. They are keeping freedom’s stories in the truest sense—tending them with their very lives so they can pass them along to the next generation.
Continue “On Pilgrimage” with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove here.