Rep. John Lewis walks arm in arm with (from left) House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Assistant Leader James Clyburn as the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. follows across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on Sunday, the 46th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when Lewis was beaten during civil rights protests.
Brown Chapel AME Church, Selma
The pews are packed in Brown Chapel, where the marchers gathered on Bloody Sunday before heading for the bridge. A gospel choir is singing full-tilt and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. has joined the group. Beside the pulpit sits Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
The church’s pastor prays. Jackson urges attendees to tithe. Actually, it’s more of a shakedown than a request. “Give more than your shoes cost,” he urges the well-heeled visitors from Washington, D.C., who sit among the church’s congregants. “Give how you live.”
There is more singing, and a speech from the mayor. But the star of the morning is Assistant Leader James Clyburn, who is to deliver the sermon.
The South Carolina Democrat isn’t a minister, but he’s the son of one, and when he begins speaking, he sounds like a professional. His subject is the Sunday-school favorite: the story of the good Samaritan. A man is injured on the side of a road; two other men pass him by, but a third, a Samaritan riding the road on a donkey, stops and tends to him. Finally, Clyburn delivers the lesson. “Sometimes, you have to get off your high horse!”
By now, the audience is with Clyburn. As he dabs the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief, they punctuate his speech with hollers of “Yes, sir!” and “That’s right!”
“Sometimes,” Clyburn intones, alluding to both the bloody history of the civil rights movement and to the challenges of today, “you have to get down where the problem is.”
Confessions of a ‘Southern White Boy’
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham
The Members of Congress on the trip seem different in Alabama than they do in Washington. In the Capitol, they are VIPs. Here, they are ordinary people. But they also are taking time to do things that are outside their usual rhythm: listen, sing, be silent and reflect. Some are out of their element. To those who hail from districts up north, the Southern drawls and the collard greens with ham hock for lunch are foreign.
Members of Congress, often so ready with a quote, seem unsure, uncertain and humble.
Rep. Spencer Bachus surprises the crowd with his candor during an after-dinner talk on Friday night. The Alabamian, one of only two GOP lawmakers in the group, tells his own story of growing up in segregated Alabama.
In 1962, his father, a contractor, violated the state’s unwritten rules by hiring a black subcontractor to install windows in a school the elder Bachus was building. When the work was done and the deadline for completing the project nearing, vandals smashed every window in the school while the police looked the other way.
Bachus, 63, who was a teenager during the most violent years of the movement, describes his struggles with his own history. “As a Southern white boy, there is a certain amount of shame we have to live with,” he says. But civil rights leaders and activists didn’t make life better only for blacks, he says.