Again, I am struck by the ordinary. The Evers house is small. It’s painted a turquoise color and has an attached car port. Evers was killed when he arrived home one night. An assailant with a rifle, from across the street from his home, shot him in the back. Evers lasted long enough to pull himself into the house. I couldn’t help but think, ‘This was his home, the place he came to be refreshed and not the leader of a Movement, but a place where he was a husband and a Dad. A man’. Looking at the street where he lived, it was an ordinary street with houses all around that really weren’t any different. This ordinary man, had a calling to do something extraordinary – something necessary, vital for his family, for Black people, for white people (though many of them might not have known it or acknowledged it), for the country.
We didn’t know it (the team leaders knew) but, Reena Evers, daughter of Medgar Evers, was expected to be present and share her story. Unfortunately she was ill and couldn’t be with us. Being aware of his assassination back when it happened, though not fully aware of the significance of it, I was disappointed. As we were driving to our next location, we were surprised with a phone call from her. I was impressed that someone so central to the Medgar Evers story, would take the time to speak with us! She didn’t know us. But when she spoke it was as if she really wanted to share with us, something about the man she knew, something about his drive and motivation, something about his character. In the process, we learned that he and his wife, Myrlie, did a phenomenal job with their children because Reena exuded grace, gentleness, sureness and love in her conversation with us.
After a week of so much heaviness, I felt the tension from my emotions begin to lighten. She invited us into the struggle, into the movement, with sweet words that spoke of the house as a place of love, not a place where tragedy struck. And when no one spoke up to comment, I found myself raising my hand. I thanked her for the generosity of her family, and told her how humble I felt, and how grateful we all were for their commitment. I spoke with Medgar Evers’ daughter! Of course, she couldn’t hear me well through a cell phone, and later I had to ask someone what I said, but that’s beside the point. I spoke with her.
We then went to the Fanny Lou Hamer memorial. She was a woman who was larger than life. She began from very humble beginnings, in a family of share croppers. And she became someone who helped galvanize people to work toward voting rights. She stood on the floor of the Democratic convention and told her story as she and the delegation of ‘Freedom Democrats’ from the state of Mississippi demanded the right to be seated as duly elected representatives to the convention. I had often heard songs of Fanny Lou Hamer. Another ordinary person who did something quite extraordinary.
My awe of these ordinary Black people from the South, a region of the country and a people from that region that many white people didn’t have much use for, was overwhelming. As we approached the Hamer memorial, we sang, “This Little Light of Mine”, which happened to be a signature song for her. And after viewing the memorial, before pausing for a moment, to hear her speech to the convention, we sang another song, a song that expressed triumphantly, who this lady was and what she did. And why the Movement was so important.
Music was so important in the Movement. The songs galvanized, geared up the Civil Rights workers for what was to come. They comforted them when there were upsets, soothed them when there were tragic losses, bolstering their spirits, and when words were insufficient, helped the people to speak volumes about life and the effort to live it wholly and fully. One of the leaders of our Pilgrimage is a musician who taught and led us in the singing of the protest songs from the time. These songs were a lifeline and an outlet for the emotions the workers and ordinary people, and we the Pilgrims felt on the journey. I’ll never again hear the words to some of the songs we sang, songs I had known, in the same way.
Emmett Till is the young man whose abduction and death shocked the nation and world and, in my opinion, set the Civil Rights movement firmly on the path of securing the vote for Black people. A 14 year old visiting Mississippi from Chicago, apparently whistled at a white woman. He was pulled from his bed in the late hours of the night, taken, horribly beaten and killed. When his body was found and returned to his mother in Chicago, he was unrecognizable. His mother made the decision to have the casket open at his funeral, to which thousands attended. She wanted to the world to see what had been done to her son.
The Emmett Till Intrepid museum was, more than any other museum we have seen on the journey, the most stark, the least glitzy, the one museum locked in a time warp. It didn’t have the multi-media displays. It didn’t have the well manicured or landscaped look of a place designed for impact from the moment you step into it. It was in an old building that had been part of the processing plant for the cotton that would have been picked in the area. It was a dingy looking place that people from the town had made into a memorial. It made an impact in a way the other, multi million dollar places could not.
I had known of Emmett Till but not until years after his murder. I had not seen photos until just a year ago, at the exhibit at the African American Museum of History and Culture, in Washington DC. I’m not sure I could see them before then, and sorry I saw them then. I cannot think about him and what was done to him, without shaking and knowing that what was done was pure evil. The world has to see. The world has to know. The world has to come to grips with the inhumane, the senseless, the horrific way it deals with racism. We have to find ways to assert our humanity. We have to find ways to co-exist with people who are other than us. We have to find ways or we are doomed. We will annihilate ourselves. We have to fight for wholeness. We have to fight for life. We have to fight. If we want to live, if there is any humanity in us, we have to fight for it. We have to fight.