Remembering a ‘Bus Ride to Justice’
The tour “was designed to help ministers encounter the truth of racism and begin working together toward reconciliation in our cities and churches,” says Eric Gentry, one of the participants. As we celebrate Black History Month, we present reflections on the tour.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. —“I believe that before we can experience reconciliation, we must tell the truth,” said David Fleer, a professor of Bible at Lipscomb University.
That’s why he and Jerry Taylor of Abilene Christian University led our “Bus Ride to Justice,” so we could “touch, see, hear and experience the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement,” Fleer said, “all of which speak clearly into our present racial distress in the United States.”
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The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was our first stop. It was there, on a Sunday morning in 1963, that four little girls were killed when a bomb detonated beneath that historically black church — an act of racial terrorism.
We stood on the spot where their bodies were pulled from the rubble and listened to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy for the girls, who “say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers …
“Good night, sweet princesses.”
It was impossible to stand in that church — next to black and white brothers in Christ — and not think of recent racially motivated attacks on churches.
Telling the truth was working.
From Birmingham, we traveled to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital. There we stepped off the bus onto Commerce Street, where black slaves once were sold at auction.
Only a few steps away, at the corner of Commerce Street and Dexter Avenue, Jefferson Davis celebrated his election as president of the Confederacy.
Nearly 100 years later, Rosa Parks boarded another bus at the same intersection. Though Davis spoke of “the progress of a movement sanctified by its justice, and sustained by its virtuous people” in his inaugural address, it was Parks who began a lasting movement for justice.
Just up Dexter Avenue we arrived at the state Capitol, where a Confederate flag flew until June 2015. The Selma-to-Montgomery march of 1965 concluded on its steps. There, Dr. King delivered his “How Long, Not Long” speech.
We listened to his words again: “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding … How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
We wondered aloud about continued racial disparities in our world and churches today — from economic inequality to disproportionate incarceration numbers, from the #BlackLivesMatter movement to the many churches still failing to realize racial diversity. “How long?” We prayed the answer is “not long.”
The original march was brutally halted on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma. There, on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, state troopers on horseback charged the peaceful demonstrators, beating them with clubs and injuring 50.
FleerSelma was the last stop on our trip. Taylor and Fleer led us over the bridge. These two men are pillars in our movement, joined by common ambition to see “the dividing wall of hostility” mentioned in Ephesians 2:14 finally, totally destroyed. They continue to lead many of our churches toward racial reconciliation.
On the far side of the bridge, on a monument of 12 stones, the ancient words of Joshua remind us to keep telling the truth: “When your children shall ask you in time to come, what mean these 12 stones, then you shall tell them how you made it over” (Joshua 4:21-22).
We had the privilege to seek out the truth from someone who was there — attorney Fred Gray.
Gray, one of the preeminent lawyers in the Civil Rights Movement, a longtime minister and an elder of the Tuskegee Church of Christ, spoke to us at the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center.
“The experience gave me joy and hope to see the willingness of younger ministers — black and white — to spend their time together,” Taylor said. “They are addressing the difficult questions and topics that a lot of people shy away from. It gave me great hope for the future. This trip will yield a great harvest.”
The tour was powerfully transformative. Each stop was sacred in its own right.
Just as we soak in God’s grace in the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper, there is something sacramental about being in Alabama. As we touch walls once toppled by bombs and kneel on a bridge that once ran with blood, we taste the Gospel more fully.
ERIC GENTRY is associate preaching minister for the Highland Church of Christ in Cordova, Tenn.
CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) speaks at the inaugural Fred Gray Lecture in Human and Civil Rights during this year’s Christian Scholars’ Conference, June 8-10, at Lipscomb University. See www.lipscomb.edu/csc.