Tuesday, March 12, 2013

After 52 years, an apology

My colleague Tee Turner calls it “the most pure act of reconciliation.” The historic apology by the police chief of Montgomery, Alabama, to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a veteran of the civil rights struggle, made national news.  Lewis and fellow Freedom Riders were brutally beaten by a mob after arriving at Montgomery's Greyhound station in May 1961 while the police stood aside.

Tee witnessed the apology during the Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage organized by the Faith & Politics Institute, March 1-3.  

Police Chief Kevin Murphy presented Lewis with the badge off his uniform as a mark of honor, saying that the police department had failed in its duty to protect the civil rights activists. Lewis, clearly moved, said it was the first such apology he had received.  

The pilgrimage began at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, where Governor George Wallace made his notorious “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” in June 1963, protesting the enrollment of two black students, James Hood and Vivian Malone. John Lewis grew up in Alabama, but had never before visited the campus. He said he was overwhelmed by seeing the place where Wallace made his stand.

With 300 participants and 27 members of Congress, the annual bi-partisan pilgrimage was the largest ever and included Vice President Joe Biden and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. The Richmond Times-Dispatch  quoted Cantor: “As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of so many pivotal moments in the civil rights movement… I felt it was important to make the trip to Alabama to honor the sacrifices of patriots like John Lewis who stood on the front lines making them possible.”  

The pilgrimage took place as the Supreme Court is considering challenges to the Voting Rights Act introduced by President Johnson following the Selma to Montgomery marches.

I was pleased that the newspaper highlighted the significance of Cantor’s presence, noting that Virginia had led the movement of Massive Resistance to school desegregation. “Virginia may have shunned the visible excesses of Alabama and Mississippi and others, but a genteel disposition coincided with a legacy of cruelty and hate. With tyrants always it is thus.” Strong words from a newspaper known in earlier times for racially prejudiced editorials.

Tee Turner says he was moved to hear Wallace’s daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, who was 13 in 1963, describe life with a man who was a respected judge, a kind father, and an image of the South’s defiance. She said that the events of that tumultuous time were never discussed in the family. "My father owed me a conversation, an explanation of what he had done, or at least share with my sons why," Kennedy said. She made the trip to Tuscaloosa to "stand as testament to change" and to give her sons the conversation that she never had with her father.

Tee comments that Kennedy’s words show the trans-generational impact of decisions on both oppressor as well as the oppressed.  Summing up his Alabama experience, Tee says he saw a “remarkable level of ownership of the ugliness of history.”

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