First of, I must say that this past week has definitely served not only a life-changing experience in the way that I view the world, but has also brought me to look inwards to how I want to be in this world.
I remember the Reverend "Billy" Kyles making a reference to something so obvious yet so profound and easily forgotten. He spoke about the uniqueness of each and every one of us as individuals, and how special that is in relation to our responsibilities in contributing to our communities, societies and the world. This touched me because for me, it really defined civil rights and showed how struggle continues as long as we are social beings.
My impressions of the South prior to this trip had been of curiosity, confusion and a slight sense of harsh judgement. I had visited New Orleans, Memphis and Florida before but always maintained that those were the more "touristy" parts. The education that I received in the small town of Selma just through its demographics really showed me how the movement was elevated and empowered from all corners of the South. I really enjoyed visiting Selma and I think Joanne Bland is a remarkable individual, one of which I will forever feel blessed for having the opportunity of meeting.
On the other hand, I couldn't help but feel disappointed by the remnants and perpetual celebration of an old order. I had known from before that many Southerners hold onto a sense of pride in what is deemed a "lost cause", but I had never imagined that the trailing aspects of the "lost cause" by which they should be ashamed of now, would continue to openly bear such importance today. Visiting the site of the Confederate Circle was somewhat comprehensible to me as it paid tribute to peoples grandfathers and so forth in their effort to protect what they believed was right. However, to come into contact with a memorial for Nathan Bedford Forrest alongside the disturbing words that accompanied was a major shock and disappointment and a real eye-opener. We are so easily accustomed to putting the blame upon radical hate-groups, and we quickly denounce them as "crazies". I remember Rachel questioning whether there was a place in Germany where one could find a memorial celebrating Hitler? Seeing that memorial was a revelation to me. It showed me that on the surface, relations may seem better but the struggle to really understand each other continues.
This brings me to another point that I have learned from the trip. Joanne Bland told us the importance of communication and asking questions in order to understand one another. What again seems like a simple reminder, is something that is so significant. I believe that every person has the capacity to love and that every person desires to be loved (reminds me of a debate we had on the bus actually... wink wink Samuel!). I also believe that to denounce somebody as being evil is not good enough, and almost excuses their actions. From what I learned from the Little Rock experience, it was not only the students that were mean and perpetuating the oppression of the 9 black students, but it was an entire community with a specific belief system that they sought to protect. Is it therefore enough to say that the entire community was evil at that time? I don't think so. However much we may not be able to fully comprehend the thought of the time through our contemporary lens, I do strongly believe that what we can do now as a move towards reconciliation and a better understanding of each other, lie within what Joanne Bland highlighted; the importance of asking questions so we can do away with prejudice and stereotypes.
Meeting with Mary Louise Smith was so unimaginable to me. I still can't believe that I hugged a lady that had so much bravery and courage to defy an unjust system alone. I had never really been the person focus primarily on popular individuals as the sole catalysts in movements of change. I also looked to grassroot activists and protesters because I believe they were the ones that put the "move" in movement. Likewise, in Birmingham, AL, my friend and I spoke with a guy sat in the park who shared his story of being arrested multiple times during the 1963 protests and how he feels about the city now it has changed. Listening to personal stories really touched me, and it really brought the textbook to life for me. It gave an individual voice to the numbers that would usually accompany the voice of a leader in a textbook.
So to conclude, as I enter my last segment of my journey to and within the United States on my international study program, I can comfortably say that I am glad that I embarked upon the Civil Rights Pilgrimage. I found it both educational to the mind and heart. I never cried so many times in one week from so many different emotions. It was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I have come across some very special people that I hope to keep in my life as friends.
Thank you o January and the other creators of such an amazing opportunity, and thank you also to the U of I for giving this Brit such an enlightening experience! :)