I grew up reading stories about the brave heroines and heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. But the movement takes on a brand-new meaning when you're able to walk in the footsteps of these legends, 50 years after they changed the course of history. As a part of the United Health Foundation’s Diverse Scholars Initiative, I had the unique privilege of accompanying Congressman John Lewis as he led the Faith and Politics Institute (FPI) on its 14th Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage. 

Over the course of three days, our delegation traveled from our nation’s capital to the heart of the South in an attempt to shed light on the experiences of the unsung heroes of the Mississippi Freedom Summer and to commemorate the 1965 crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Along the way, we revisited the racially charged tragedies that helped define an era. Through song, we were granted a sneak peek into the soul of the Freedom Riders. And we were within breathing distance of some of the brave women and men who devoted their lives to the noble cause of civil rights. Most have heard of Dr. King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but for many this was the first time hearing of the legacies of Medgar Evers, Congressman John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.

For many participants, the proximity of both time and place to the injustices, the bloodshed, and the victories elicited emotions ranging from frustration, to grief, to joy. Revisiting the pain in some strange way, much like a physician de-briding a wound, helped to facilitate healing. Many of us had tough conversations with each other and, more importantly, with ourselves. We exercised our opinions, challenged our consciences and allowed our perspectives to clash. In doing so, we rediscovered the age-old truth that our commonalities far outweigh our discrepancies, that we are more alike than different, and that we are more brothers than strangers.

I returned home from this life-altering experience with some worthwhile jetlag, a renewed sense of hope, and a few life lessons I’d like to share: 

1. The Bigs Are Not So Big, and the Smalls are Not So Small.

John Lewis strikes me as a now man. His keen sense of urgency was best illustrated when he said, “If not us, then who? If not now then when?” From sit-ins in Nashville to marches in Selma, he traveled through the South taking advantage of every opportunity to fight for justice -- even if it meant ruffling a few feathers along the way. At the time, most viewed him as a troublemaker. But  the people regarded him as a hero. Meeting him in person, you could still see commitment in his eyes and despite his many accomplishments. You could still hear humility in his voice. He kept his words scarce, like precious jewels – but when he spoke, you felt what he meant. 

And in my quiet reflection, I realized that he not only displayed character, courage and confidence as a Congressman, but he also donned these attributes as a teen. In fact, one of the most shocking revelations during this pilgrimage was the realization that the Civil Rights movement was fueled by so many under the age of 25! SNCC Chairman John Lewis was taking Freedom Rides at the tender age of 20.  Eleanor Holmes was still in Law school when she was recruited by Medgar Evers to participate in Mississippi’s Freedom Summer. Youth lacked the wisdom that would have cautioned against partaking in such a risky endeavor, yet they had enough foresight to know that the time for action was now. An army of young adults, teens, and children challenged a political and cultural structure that was 400 years in the making – and won!

2. Selflessness: A Model for Success

The ‘50s and ‘60s were tumultuous times for race relations in the U.S. Speaking against racial inequality could cost you your reputation, your livelihood, and, more importantly your life – whether you were black of white. Those who did were answering a moral question. A question proffered by Dr. King some 50 years ago. Paraphrased, he stated that the real question at hand was not, “If I stop to help someone, what will happen to me?” Rather, “If I don’t stop to help someone in need, what will happen to them?" It is then that I realized that success was not vertical. Contemporary success is often equated to the “toys” we accumulate in life – the degrees, the accounts and the materials they afford. But what would happen if we returned to the virtues of our recent past?  What if we, like those brave men and women of yesterday, equated success with what we could do for others? This attitude during the Civil Rights Movement culminated in a people’s right to vote, to be heard, to legally exist. I wonder what we could accomplish as a human race if we adopted this same attitude.

3. A Path Towards Reconciliation: Changing the Narrative

Most of us are familiar with the dark past of the Civil Rights Movement. And many wonder how do we come to terms with such a shameful past? I think the first step to bridging a painful past with a bright future is to change the narrative. The key to amending history is to not look at events like the Civil Rights Movement as if they are solely turning points in black history, but rather turning points in American history. By extension, the same argument could be applied to the sister issues of health disparities, income inequality and gender discrimination. These are not his or her issues, black or white issues, rich or poor issues --but rather they are human issues. In order for this great nation to reconcile lessons from our past with the promise of tomorrow, we must champion every inequality with the same fervor as if it were directed against us as individuals. In the words of Dr. King, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!"

Marcus Rushing

Marcus Rushing
Coca-Cola Scholar, University of Illinois (2003-2005)
University of Kansas School of Medicine, MD Candidate
University of Illinois, PhD Candidate