Returning to the SCLC Women's Civil Rights and Voters Rights Heritage Tour



By Rev. Karen Elaine Webster Parks

For the last 36 years, SCLC WOMEN Inc. has led a group of sojourners on a tour of several historical sites dedicated to the Civil and Voters Rights movements. The tour is designed to expose the participants to many unknown or rarely shared facts about some of the s/heroes of the 1960s Voting Rights Movement. The tour ends with a commemorative march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, with thousands who gathered from across the nation for this occasion.

This year Presidents Biden and Obama, along with many dignitaries, were present for the 58th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery. There’s always a group of United Methodists who participate, and this year, more than 100 United Methodists joined the tour. On the weekend of March 3-4 members from St. James UMC-Alpharetta, Oak Grove UMC, Dunwoody UMC, Clark Atlanta University, the North Georgia Conference’s Racial Justice and Healing Academy, Southwest District Fearless Dialogues Group, Faith in Action Youth Academy, and others.
In preparation for the multiple exposures to the foot soldiers and trials of the Civil Rights Movement–especially the trials associated with the fight for the right for all American citizens to vote–it is my custom/practice to recommend to the tour participants that they watch the award winning “Selma” movie or read Congressman John Lewis’ book, “Walking with the Wind”. This year, I started the journey reading a book gifted to me by one of our members at St. James UMC, “Me, Jesus, A Beer, and a Cigar,” by Bob Dickinson.  The overall theme from Dickinson’s book is for us to “Seek the Abnormal; Embrace the Uncomfortable.” This theme encouraged me to make a personal shift on how I would experience this life changing tour after attending it for over a decade. 
Full disclosure, my father asked me the day before my departure, what do you get from the tour after going year after year if the sites and the itinerary do not change? Knowing that my father doesn’t ask me questions out of simple conversation, I delved deeper into how I would respond to this question if I received it from a stranger.
At the first stop we laid a wreath and said a litany for the four Black girls killed in the bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. I was blessed to introduce the first litany, I reminded the tour participants that it was very appropriate that we were laying a wreath in honor of the memories of our four daughters, but there were two young black boys (13-year-old Virgil Ware and 16 -year-old Johnie Robinson who also lost their lives that day). The majority of those listening had never heard that story.
The tour participants lack of knowledge on this bombing and many other incidents and sites that we visited reminded me that there continues to be a need to share this history. The participants also heard about many other unknown foot soldiers of the movement including Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a homemaker and mother of 5 children, who gave the ultimate price for others to have the right to vote.
A conversation that will stay with me for a lifetime is a conversation that I had with a 13 year old. I noticed most lone wolves on the tour. Usually I would approach them to see how they were experiencing the wealth of knowledge that is shared. Quite often the experience can be overwhelming due to the multiple stops. We could spend a half day at many of the places that we only spend 30 minutes to an hour.
On Saturday evening, I noticed that a young male was dining alone. So, I invited myself to join him. Our conversation opened with the usual exchange of pleasantries. Approximately 10 minutes into the conversation Michael asked me “Do you believe in God?” Wait, was this a bait, did he really have the nerve to ask me if I believed in God? After spending the next hour with this young man who was struggling with many things that our teenagers struggle with during this season, it affirmed for me why year after year I go on this trip.
Hope you will join your brothers and sisters next year!

Rev. Karen Elaine Webster Parks serves as associate pastor of St. James UMC Alpharetta.