Louisiana Conference Embarks on Civil Rights Immersion Trip with Great Plains Conference

July 24, 2023

In a proactive effort to address societal issues and promote equality, the Louisiana Conference's Beloved Community Coalition recently undertook a significant Civil Rights Immersion trip, joining hands with members of the Great Plains Conference. During this eye-opening journey, Bishop Delores J. Williamston was joined by Rev. Tiffanie Postell, Rev. Karli Pidgeon, Rev. Emily Carroll, and Jennifer and Todd Rossnagel. 

The group visited historic landmarks, including Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and the parsonage of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the profoundly moving Equal Justice Initiative Museum and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. They also marched across the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL.

The origins of this transformative trip trace back to Bishop Delores Williamston's time in the Great Plains Conference. Back in 2020, Bishop Williamston, together with her sister Sandy Beverly and the Rev. Dr. Martha Murchison, who serves as pastor of Sunrise Presbyterian Church in Salina, established the Dana Adams Project 1893. 

On April 20, 1893, nineteen-year-old Dana Adams and three other Black men met at a Union Pacific depot. In an incident initiated by a white worker's order to leave the premises, an altercation erupted, leading to unjust charges of attempted murder against Adams and his companions. Following a hasty trial without any legal representation, Adams received a harsh sentence of seven years in prison.

As Adams was being transported to Leavenworth jail aboard a Santa Fe train, a shocking turn of events occurred. A mob of fifty white railroad workers disconnected the train car and forcefully detained Adams. Handcuffed and dragged to the Union Pacific depot, he faced a horrifying fate as the mob lynched him from a telegraph pole. Shockingly, despite approximately 200 witnesses present during this heinous act, no one was arrested for their involvement.

One hundred fourteen years later, Williamston, Beverly, and Murchison collected soil from the lynching site, contributing to the nationwide Equal Justice Initiative. In a groundbreaking move, they also installed a historical marker dedicated to commemorating the tragic lynching event.

Throughout the process, Bishop Williamston worked hand-in-hand with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, following the group's meticulous plan, detail by detail. However, she had never traveled south to see the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened to the public on April 26, 2018. The Memorial is the nation's first Memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence. 

Williamston had helped plan a potential trip to Montgomery, but her election to the episcopacy interrupted her involvement. All the while, the Great Plains Conference members kept the trip on the books and stayed in contact with Bishop Williamston. 

Concurrently, the Louisiana Beloved Community Coalition had been considering a trip to Montgomery to plan future trips from Louisiana. When the idea was presented to Bishop Williamston, she saw an opportunity for Louisiana to collaborate with the Great Plains team. She endorsed the idea wholeheartedly with the primary objective of scouting potential routes and destinations for upcoming trips involving Louisiana United Methodists. 

During the trip, Bishop Williamston said both conferences sought to gain valuable insights and build a foundation for future initiatives aimed at combating racism and promoting social justice.

She also articulated a crucial perspective: "If we do not earnestly study and reflect upon our past and contextualize it with the present, we are destined to repeat the same historical mistakes concerning civil rights, voting rights, and the rights of various marginalized groups. As people of God who identify as Christians, we must treat all human beings, who are made in the image of God, with utmost respect and dignity. Failing to do so serves no purpose and hinders our progress as a society."

The significance of such experiences cannot be overstated, as the lessons learned during this trip and future trips hold the potential to foster empathy, understanding, and unity among individuals and communities. By acknowledging the past and taking meaningful action in the present, the Beloved Community Coalition Louisiana hopes to exemplify its commitment to social justice, equality, and the collective well-being of the entire Louisiana Conference.

While history books are full of stories, Bishop Williamston says nothing replaces the physical interaction with the sites. 

"To be where the civil rights movement was birthed and where people marched and were beaten, where firehoses were turned on black children, brings a whole new perspective than reading it in a book," she said. "These places are real, tangible and still carry the scars and memories that will always remain in those places and others around our nation."

For Rev. Tiffanie Postell, the trip was personal. The Slidell pastor was born in Americus, Georgia, and raised in Atlanta. As a child, she would often visit Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, as well as travel to Montgomery and Birmingham to visit various museums.

"Whether I was going with my church children/youth group, or a summer camp, there was intentionality in knowing all aspects of Dr. King’s life and the history of the Civil Rights Movement," Postell said., "It was important that I know my history. My learning on this trip was as I have grown older and spent time working and navigating society, the lens I had as a child is very different than the lens I have as an adult. As a child, I experienced racism but didn’t have the words to express how I really felt or how I was truly impacted. As an adult, I was able to see myself in certain situations and name the racial injustice, tension, and trauma that I not only live with, but have also constructed my life around."

Postell says immersion is important because it evokes feelings when remembering/reliving/relearning the story of slavery, the Civil Rights movement, and the entire history of blacks and African-Americans in the United States.

"Simply reading a book and looking at pictures gives you the story but doesn’t really bring it to life," she said. "When you can stand in emulated ocean waters where slaves were carried over from Africa, or see the jars of collected soil that represent those who have been lynched, or you can stand in the same church where a bomb killed four little black girls, if truly willing to be open, the Holy Spirit moves within you, and you don’t leave the same."

Rev. Emily Carroll agrees that physical immersion is vitally important. 

"It allowed me the ability to not only see but utilize all my senses to be one with the air, the soil, and the eeriness of it all. As I return, I am privileged to take home a newfound appreciation for the soul of a people. The souls of my people who recognize hope as a superpower and recognition that there can be victory in the face of adversity," Carroll said. "The words of Mary McLeod Bethune shine forth: 'If we have the courage and tenacity of our forebears, who stood firmly like a rock against the lash of slavery, we shall find a way to do for our day what they did for theirs.'"

Rev. Karli Pidgeon says the physical immersion reminded her that the places are much larger than the storybooks can even begin to describe.

"I am a firm believer in the ground telling a story," she said. "The ground holds the story and the information. The soil of these places is important, so much so that I could almost feel the presence of the folks who journeyed through those places. It connected me in a new way to the folks who were part of the fight."  

Pidgeon said that it's also incredibly important to realize how faith played a role in the Civil Rights Movement. "To recognize the church's role in a real and tangible way was and remains incredibly valuable." 

Jennifer Rossnagel, a lay member of the Beloved Community Coalition, echoes the importance of physical immersion, saying it's a re-affirmation of what we all say during our baptisms when we say we will "accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?"

"Going to the actual places enslaved human beings were bought and sold, where the Civil Rights Movement began in response to Jim Crow era laws and racism, and being a witness to the very real terror of lynching of our Black and African American brothers and sisters is something from which every Christian will benefit," Rossnagel says. "Being a witness to these events is not just about seeing the museums; it is about seeing, understanding, and being compelled to the action of sharing the true past with others. It is also about lamenting the sins of the past, the extreme amount of harm done and still happening, and honoring those who were killed."

Jen's husband, Todd Rossnagel, serves as Director of Communications for the Louisiana Conference and also joined the group. Rossnagel lived in Montgomery, AL, for four years in the late 1990s and continues to be amazed by the significant sights he says must be physically encountered to be fully understood. 

"Stepping onto the hallowed grounds of the Civil Rights Trail is more than a mere journey through history; it is an immersive experience that allows us to connect with the struggles, sacrifices, and triumphs of those who paved the path towards equality," Rossnagel said. "Being physically present in these physical places is a powerful reminder that the fight for civil rights is not merely a distant memory, but an ongoing call to action, urging us to uphold justice and equality for all in our present and future."

The Beloved Community Coalition is actively studying the prospect of organizing a trip back to Alabama, with hopes of bringing a multitude of other Louisianians. If you are interested in such a journey, please reach out to the Conference Office and express your willingness to attend.

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