It was overwhelming — and life changing. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, was one of the last sites we visited on our Civil Rights Pilgrimage. For me, it was the most affecting. Rounding a corner as I entered the main section of the memorial, I was confronted by a giant image of a black teenager being lynched before 10,000 cheering white onlookers. For a moment, it paralyzed me. I stared at the spectators in the photo, many of them smiling and even laughing at the young man’s torture.
My path through the Memorial continued through hundreds of steel mud-colored columns listing the names of thousands of murdered black Americans and the counties in which their lives were stolen. I felt as never before the impact hate has had in our country. Each engraved column commemorated lynching victims in one of the more than 800 counties where lynchings occurred during the last century. The victims’ names were etched in the steel like names on gravestones. Running my fingers over the inscriptions, I began to comprehend the magnitude of the violence that has so deeply scarred us for so long.
The tiled path began to slope downward, and the columns were soon above my head. Eerily paralleling the deaths of the victims, the columns now hung in the scorching heat of the Alabama summer, dangling lifeless in the cruel, thick air. Looking up, helpless, silent, and unmoving, I was forced into the role of the spectators in the photograph, becoming a passive bystander to these unimaginable atrocities. Why, I wondered, had God’s people not cried out against such evil?
Later that day, we visited The Legacy Museum, which documents slavery, racism and discrimination from the antebellum South to the modern era. Entering a bright room, imposing photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Ida B. Wells were surrounded by hundreds of smaller images bearing the likenesses of those who spoke out against the violence. These individuals were of diverse backgrounds; all ages, races, and genders were represented. Standing in awe of their courage and sacrifice, I knew my vision for universal respect and equality could no longer be an abstract ideal. I vowed to never again feel like the passive spectator in the photograph at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, lost in mob mentality and mute in the face of wrongdoing.
Returning from the seven-day pilgrimage, I had a renewed faith in Christ and His plans for me. In college, I now plan to major in a social science discipline to better understand the scope of social inequalities, and hone the research, analysis, and interventions necessary to reduce these ills. Jesus embraced and cared for others regardless of race, gender, social class or religion. He did not come for only one group of people; He came for all. Since the Pilgrimage, I have felt a heightened sense of awareness to the many ways my faith can lead me to honor Christ, His mission, and His teachings. Through Christ, my faith has inspired me to continue my own personal pilgrimage toward becoming an effective global citizen, eager to tackle the challenges of our divergent and ever-changing world.
Before the Pilgrimage I was too shy to put my faith into action. Now I want to be a part of the group of leaders the next generation will need for guidance.