Remembering civil rights history, when ‘words meant everything’

April 11, 2014 at 10:24 PM EDT
U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and Jeffrey Brown recently traveled from Mississippi to Alabama on a pilgrimage to witness the historical struggles and sorrows people faced during the civil rights movement. On their 100-mile journey, they examine the role of poetry in advancing the movement's message for justice and freedom.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally: the power of words in the fight for civil rights.

This week, we did explore the legacy of monumental moments in the country’s struggle toward equality, from Marian Anderson’s historic performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to landmark legislation spearheaded by President Lyndon Johnson.

Tonight, Jeff continues his travels with U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey to discover where poetry lives, this time to her native Mississippi and ending with a march in Selma, Alabama.


JEFFREY BROWN: It was a journey of memory, including the painful one of killing Medgar Evers in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi, home in 1963.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: To me, you’re standing on hallowed ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: On this day his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, daughter Reena and others paid honor.

REP. JOHN LEWIS, D, Ga.: This one man gave his blood to help free not just a people, but a nation. We’re more than grateful.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was also a journey of language, the power of words to move a nation.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: If I could have your attention…

JEFFREY BROWN: The annual Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage was founded 14 years ago by the Faith and Policy Institute and civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis to commemorate key events from the era and bring politicians from both sides of the aisle together with activists from then and now.

This year, Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and I joined in for what turned out to be a deeply personal experience for her. Natasha grew up in Mississippi the daughter of a black mother and white father.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY, U.S. Poet Laureate: You know, I felt like I grew up in sort of the intersections between the Civil War history, civil rights history, and then that — that moment into which it was born.

And it is the scaffolding that holds up all the things that I’m concerned about as a poet. I think, for me, a commitment to social justice always undergirds my poems.

JEFFREY BROWN: Over three days, more than 100 participants traveled by bus through the Mississippi Delta, Clarksdale, Ruleville, money, on to Jackson, and then into Alabama for a march in Selma.

In Jackson, they visited Tougaloo College, a historically black liberal arts school founded by Christian missionaries for freed slaves.

REV. EDWIN KING, Freedom Summer Organizer: People gathered after the assassination of Medgar Evers.

JEFFREY BROWN: There, they heard from Reverend Edwin King, one of the organizers of the 1964 Freedom Summer, who delivered the sermon at the funeral for civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered nearby that summer.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: It seemed the angels had gathered.

JEFFREY BROWN: Natasha read one of her poems titled “Incident” based on a childhood experience of witnessing a cross burning on her family’s lawn.

Here’s an excerpt.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: We tell the story every year how we peered from the windows, shades drawn, though nothing really happened, the charred grass now green again.

We peered from the windows, shades drawn, at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree, the charred grass still green. Then we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps. At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree, a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns. We darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps, the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.

JEFFREY BROWN: Afterwards, Natasha and Reverend King talked about poetry’s role in the movement.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Do you think of poetry? I think I certainly do see it as another kind of, another form of sacred language.

REV. EDWIN KING: It’s there. And in the music of the freedom songs, we could hold on to each other. We could express our fears together that we could never quite say out loud. I’m afraid, but I will go ahead.


REV. EDWIN KING: But we could sing we’re not afraid, because we were. So music is a form, a poetic form of telling the truth.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Jackson, down the street from the state capitol, there was a service at the Galloway United Methodist Church, at one time a segregationist congregation which lost many members when it finally opened its doors to blacks in 1967.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was one of the Republican representatives who made the trip, in his case for a second time.

REP. ERIC CANTOR, R, Va., Majority Leader: I think, in all, it increases the sensitivity for all of us to never, ever again allow something like this and the hatred that produced the civil rights movement for the struggle for justice, to make sure that we continue that fight and not ever allow that hatred to come back in.

JEFFREY BROWN: The state of Mississippi, in fact, is currently building two museums about its history with a focus on civil rights.

But at a dinner for the pilgrimage group, former Mississippi Democratic Governor William Winter spoke of more troubled times.

FMR. GOV. WILLIAM WINTER, D, Miss.: And we wasted 20 years, and I apologize to the people of Mississippi for not having asserted more leadership. We white folks owe as much to you and your martyred husband as black folks do, because you freed us, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: The last day of the pilgrimage was spent in Selma, Alabama.

One sign of the enormous changes here, Terri Sewell, the first black valedictorian of Selma high and now the state’s first black congresswoman. For her, this trip wasn’t so much about memory as legacy.

REP. TERRI SEWELL, D, Ala.: Old battles are now new again. Progress is always elusive. So, I think that it’s important that we never forget what happened here on this bridge and that we are ever vigilant in fighting for the right to vote.

JEFFREY BROWN: Forty-nine years ago, the Brown Chapel served as a starting point for the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches for voting rights.

John Lewis described what would become known as Bloody Sunday, when police used billy clubs and tear gas against the 600 marchers who had crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I thought I was going to die. I thought I was going to die.

JEFFREY BROWN: We talked after the service.

I was listening to you inside talking about what happened here 49 years ago. It sounds like it’s really fresh memories to you.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: There’s not any way that I can forget what happened here 49 years ago. It’s just as fresh as the morning dew.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fresh as the morning dew?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: It’s just as fresh as the air we breathe here in Alabama. I grew up not too far from here.

JEFFREY BROWN: How important was language and words to what happened here and in these marches?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Oh, words meant everything, words, music. Without words, without the spoken word, Selma and the movement would have been like a bird without wings.

JEFFREY BROWN: There were more words and music, as this year’s pilgrimage concluded with a march over the bridge.

When we first talked about the project, this was the event you first told me about.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Well, for me, it had a lot to do with my own work, my own poems, but in a larger sense, what I think about the necessity for American poetry in general, and that is for a kind of recording of our cultural moment and to record the history of a people.

JEFFREY BROWN: As the pilgrimage came to an end…

REP. JOHN LEWIS: We continue to walk.

JEFFREY BROWN: … John Lewis, on a bullhorn near where he was beaten half-a-century ago, told the crowd, the movement continues today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, you can watch the full reading of Natasha’s poem “Incident,” and you can read her reflections from the trip. That’s on our Poetry page.

Natasha Trethewey is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.