On our cross country drive to Resurrection Catholic Missions in Montgomery, Alabama, our group of eight stopped in Memphis, Tennessee to observe the National Civil Rights Museum. As we entered the main lobby, we were greeted by a 7,000 pound, bronze statue that stretched all the way to the second floor. The statue was called “The Movement to Overcome” and depicted hundreds of nameless figures climbing and crawling their way to the top. They were on each other’s shoulders, pushing each other through tight spaces, and hanging on for dear life as the made their way upwards. There was no finish line, and the path to the top was not a straight vertical line, but those who were near the top needed the support of all those behind them.
Throughout our week in Alabama, those “nameless figures” were given an identity. We met people who had sacrificed everything in their fight to be seen as a human being, and learned about those who lost their lives in the process. As we stood on the steps of the Alabama state courthouse, I asked our tour guide Aroine Irby, who had marched on Bloody Sunday, if he ever doubted his decision to march (and therefore risk his life). I will never forget his response. “There was never a doubt in my mind. I wasn’t ready to die, I’m still not ready to die… but I was willing to die that day.” We received similar sentiments from other Civil Rights heroes throughout the week, some of which we met completely by chance. In Selma, we stood outside of Brown Chapel AME, where the 54 mile march to Montgomery began, when a woman stopped her car in the middle of the road to talk to us. “I’m on that memorial statue you’re looking at,” Rosie Melton, grandmother of Selma mayor Darrio Melton cried out to us, “but they spelled my name wrong!” She got out of her car and chatted with us for a good fifteen minutes about her involvement in the struggle and her friends who, now gone, had also marched and whose names were scrawled on that same memorial.
We only get one chance on this Earth, and throughout my week in Alabama I heard the stories of countless people who were willing, or actually did give their one life for the betterment of civilization. I can’t think of a greater sacrifice than that. I think I can speak for the entire group when I say we all returned to Omaha with a renewed sense of strength within us. This strength came from the women and men who gave their lives in the pursuit of justice; holding us up and supporting us on their shoulders. Their moral ideals live in each of us, and their spirit energy remains on the planet even when their physical bodies have passed.
With the rise of white nationalism and Donald Trump in office, there are plenty of people trying to undo the progress made by these soldiers for justice. But Emmett Till, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, Virgil Ware, James Reeb, and thousands of unnamed victims of slavery and lynching did not die in vain. Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice did not die in vain either. They are there, on that “Movement to Overcome” statue, lifting us up even when it seems that for every 2 steps forward we take 1 step back. Like it or not, history is a part of us and makes us who we are. We must understand it, learn from it, and do better.
Class of 2020
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