The group of 52 plans to see people and places that were key to the civil-rights efforts in the 1950s and 1960s, and are still important today.
The pictures shocked much of the nation — nonviolent marchers attacked by state and local lawmen with tear gas and billy clubs outside Selma, Ala.
It was March 7, 1965, a day remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” And the attack on 600 voting-rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge had the opposite effect of what troopers likely intended.
News of the incident sparked outrage, leading to a return march two weeks later under the protection of U.S. Army troops and federal marshals — and the passage in Congress within months of the federal Voting Rights Act, increasing opportunities for African Americans to register to vote.
Follow the civil-rights pilgrimage here.
David Domke “Marching to Selma” civil-rights lecture series beginning March 30. More information here.
“Selma is Now”: Hear what the pilgrims learn
An evening of reflection and engagement through storytelling and music by participants from the pilgrimage, is planned for 6:15 p.m. March 12, at the Central Library, Fourth Avenue & Spring Street. Presented by The Seattle Times, the University of Washington and the Seattle Public Library.
Fifty years later and 2,000 miles away, the commitment of those who risked all for justice and equality at Selma and elsewhere in the South is inspiring 52 people, some of them college students and nearly all from the Seattle area, to depart Saturday for a nine-day “Civil Rights Pilgrimage.”
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“It’s incredibly relevant,” said David Domke, chair of the University of Washington’s Communication Department, organizing the journey. “If you think of yourself as being an innovative, creative and progressive state, you need to be on the front lines of fighting for opportunities for all people.”
President Obama and scores of members of Congress are expected in Selma for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, March 7 and 8, but Selma is just one of more than a dozen stops for the Seattle-based group.
To understand what happened in Selma, Domke said, one must learn what came before and after it: marches, bus boycotts, sit-ins, lynchings, burning of black churches, campus unrest, court decisions and political struggles that continue today.
The group, assembled by Domke and former students of his now teaching at Bellevue College and Utah State University, will cover more than 1,500 miles by bus in five states, and meet with some who took part in the history-making events.
They’ll visit with Bernard Lafayette, 74, African-American leader of Nashville sit-ins. And they’ll be joined on their bus for two days by Bob Zellner, 75, a white Alabamian whose father and grandfather were in the Ku Klux Klan, but who became one of the most prominent white activists of the civil-rights movement.
Although Seattle may seem a different world than the Deep South, the pilgrimage — and ones already sold out for this fall and next year — indicate that civil-rights concerns resonate with Puget Sound area residents. That also was evident in a five-part lecture series Domke presented, drawing crowds of more than 400 to UW in a series he will repeat next month.
The “pilgrims” on this journey south will learn not just from those they visit, but from each other, in a group reflecting diversity in age, gender, race and ethnic background.
Some students who went on a similar pilgrimage last year are back on this trip, with experiences they can share with newcomers.
• Joel Allen, 22, an African-American Bellevue College student who feels obligated to learn about those who preceded him. “I look in the mirror and I look at some of their photographs and they look just like me. I’m a direct beneficiary of what they’ve done.”
• Aida Solomon, 23, so moved by a pilgrimage last year that she has spent most of the year since in Mississippi, working in programs that help youth. Solomon, whose parents are from Ethiopia, will help run the music program for this trip, an homage to the role music has played in civil-rights history. She’ll graduate this spring from the UW.
• Komalpreet Sahota, 18, youngest member of the group, who first learned about civil-rights heroes from her parents, immigrants from India. No amount of study prepared her for entering Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, where in 1963 a bomb planted by Ku Klux Klan members killed four girls, ages 11 to 14.
Sahota, a UW junior, said the support of her fellow travelers helped her through the experience.
“I had never been a part of such a loving group outside of my own family,” she said. “Sometimes there was joy and sometimes there was pain, but either way, we would experience it together.”
She is returning as a student mentor on this trip.
Among the others making their first such pilgrimage is John Keegan, 71, Seattle attorney and board member of Seattle Repertory Theatre. He decided to make the trip after hearing about it from a Rep board member who went last year.
Keegan said he wants to address “a hollow feeling in my life.” Growing up white in Spokane and attending Gonzaga University, he was aware of civil-rights marches, but from a distance. “I was sympathetic. I would sign petitions,” he said, “But I didn’t do anything that really put me personally at risk.”
Ed Taylor, 55, UW vice provost and dean of undergraduate academic affairs, also is making the pilgrimage for the first time.
Taylor, who is African American, grew up near a military base in Central California amid what he says were close-to-home civil rights heroes. Among those he includes his own mother, encouraging her children to bravely make their way in the world, and his elementary-school principal, a black woman who held her students to high standards, preparing them to achieve and succeed.
“They were as much a part of the civil-rights struggle as anyone who was marching,” Taylor said.
First-time pilgrims also include Dr. John Vassall, 64, chief medical officer for Swedish Medical Center. Early in his college days, Vassall headed up the Black Student Union at New York’s Harpur College. But he transferred to the University of Wisconsin as a sophomore because that school had a particularly active African-American student group.
“It was a very good school,” he said. “There were rallies and protests during the evening, and during the day we were very serious about academics.”
He heard about Domke’s pilgrimages from another doctor at Swedish, and is pleased that the group includes people of influence in various professions. “I appreciate that, because in order to get social change you have to change the community, not just yourself,” he said.
The pilgrimage is not designed as a sightseeing trip or vacation.
“I don’t think any of us view this as just going back to see history,” Keegan said. “Race and social justice is still a front-burner issue in this country.”
Domke concurs, noting the Voting Rights Act has been weakened by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2013 allowing states more latitude to restrict voting rights and voter registration.
“The reality is that it’s probably harder to vote now than at any time since 1965,” said Domke, who plans to lead the pilgrimages twice a year through at least 2018.
The pilgrimage grew out of a less formal trip to Selma Domke made with three former students in August 2013, an experience that helped him see the connections between important civil-rights moments.
An interest in the topic in the Seattle area helped fuel ticket demand at two recent Seattle Repertory Theatre plays on the life of President Johnson. Racial justice also underlies discussions of police use of force, whether in Ferguson, Mo., or Seattle or Pasco.
A civil-rights pilgrimage on a smaller scale could be conducted in the Puget Sound area, said Tim Jones, chair of the political science and international-studies program at Bellevue College
“Many liberal Seattleites are unaware of the civil-rights struggles in our own backyard,” said Jones, who has been to the South on previous Domke trips.
Among the topics that could be explored locally, Jones cites racial covenants that prevented people of color from living in some Seattle neighborhoods as late as the 1960s, and redlining by lenders that limited where people of color could buy homes.
Other topics to explore could include the World War II internment of residents of Japanese background, and the struggle of the Duwamish Tribe to gain federal recognition, Jones said.
Domke is proposing taking civil-rights concerns to another level by the creation of a “Center for Communication, Difference and Equity” at the UW, which would link the university and the community to explore ways to address a variety of inequities.