Congressional leaders make civil rights pilgrimage to S.C.

By Jessica Brodie

Bipartisan congressional leaders and a prominent United Methodist leader spent three days in March digging into South Carolina’s extensive civil rights history and listening to stories of pain and reconciliation.

Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, director of The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society and a member of the South Carolina Conference, joined United States House of Representatives Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn (D-SC), Senators Tim Scott (R-SC) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Representative John Lewis (D-GA) March 18-20. The Faith and Politics Institute organized the trip of 10 members of Congress to explore the unique role South Carolina played in the civil rights movement, plus discussing the impact of the 2015 Mother Emanuel shooting in Charleston on the community, state and nation.

“Because of my love of South Carolina and my long-standing commitment to civil rights, I was so pleased to be invited to participate in this particular pilgrimage,” Henry-Crowe told the Advocate. “I know a lot of the people and history of civil rights, particularly as it is in some ways centered in South Carolina, and stories I didn’t even know emerged throughout the weekend.”

Henry-Crowe and the congressional leaders visited Columbia, Orangeburg and Charleston, listening to the stories of civil rights luminaries, religious leaders and historians in each city, such as civil rights pioneer Septima Clark. They learned about the 400-year old Gullah Geechee cultural heritage and had the opportunity to visit Claflin University and South Carolina State University, site of the Orangeburg Massacre where three students were killed Feb. 8, 1968, while demonstrating against segregation. The pilgrimage culminated in a Sunday worship service at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

A trip filled with stories

The delegation left Washington Friday morning and flew to Columbia. They spent the morning hearing a presentation at Mount Zion Baptist, then headed to Brooklyn Baptist in West Columbia for more stories from civil rights luminaries. Next they traveled to Trinity UMC, Orangeburg, where the Rev. Mack McClam, Cleveland Sellers, Cecil Williams and Jack Bass shared stories about the Orangeburg Massacre. They laid a wreath at the site of the shootings, then had dinner at Claflin University.

They spent Saturday in Charleston, touring the Avery Institute, now part of the College of Charleston, and talked to a number of people about their experience during the 1969 hospital workers strike, organized to protest discriminatory practices, unequal pay and more. They heard from Louise Brown, a hospital worker fired because of the strike; Bill Saunders, a chief negotiator; and Cynthia McCottry-Smith, who helped tell the story.

Next, they went to Circular Congregational Church, founded in 1681 and one of the oldest continuously worshipping congregations in the South, and heard from several about their experience with the Mother Emanuel AME shootings: Charleston Chief of Police Greg Mullen, family members of some of those killed, former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and the Rev. Joe Darby, AME pastor.

“Their stories were extremely moving and inspirational,” Henry-Crowe said, lifting up words of love shared by Alana Simmons, granddaughter of Charleston shooting victim Daniel Simmons. Simmons’ phrase, “Hate won’t win,” spoken after her grandfather’s killing, became a popular social media challenge and movement for racial peace and love (#hatewontwin).

“Tim Scott had this phrase he shared—’hate plus ignorance equals death, and forgiveness plus faith equals life—and the point I think he was making is there is so much hate in racism and lack of knowledge that it’s a very dangerous thing, but when there are faith and forgiveness then life comes out of that,” Henry-Crowe said.

Untold tales

Henry-Crowe said one of the best things to come out of the pilgrimage was the opportunity to shien light on stories so many in this nation do nt know. For instance, most of the nation knows about the four unarmed college students killed during the 1970 Kent State Massacre, but very few know about the Orangeburg Massacre, where three unarmed college students were killed.

One of the students shot during the massacre and the only person imprisoned, Sellers spent seven months in jail for conspiracy and inciting to riot and was pardoned 25 years later. He went on to get his doctorate and became president of Voorhees College, Henry-Crowe said, yet even though the state issued a regret and apology, there was never an investigation into what happened.

“I think the story of Cleveland Sellers and how, in that particular case, what the press said and what really happened were two different things, and that story has never been fully vetted in South Carolina,” she said. “Today, racial reconciliation can’t completely happen in South Carolina until the story is fully vetted about what happed at Orangeburg. …

The cloud that hangs over that is what is the truth, and how you move on from the truth has not been told.”

Tricia Bruckbauer, GBCS communications staffer, also went on the trip and said the whole weekend was “extremely powerful and moving.” She lifted up the booming voice of Congressman John Lewis, who said on the last night of the pilgrimage, “When the spirit moves you, move.”

“That really kind of underscores the justice work of civil rights advocates and United Methodists and people around the world,” Bruckbauer said.

Congressional leaders also participating in the bipartisan pilgrimage included Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware), Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Alabama), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland).

The bipartisan trip was a story in itself, Bruckbauer said.

“It was really nice to have both Republicans and Democrats together this weekend learning about the history of civil rights,” Bruckbauer said.

The pilgrimage is an annual trip organized by the Faith and Politics Institute. Most of their trips are to Selma, Alabama. This is the first trip to South Carolina.

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