Project Pilgrimage cohorts met with Robert Graetz three separate times and he always left us in awe. Known for his support of the Montgomery bus boycott, Mr. Graetz passed away Sunday at the age of 92.
“I have always contended that the absence of fear is not the point,” Mr. Graetz wrote in “A White Preacher’s Message on Race and Reconciliation: Based on His Experiences Beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” a memoir published in 2006. “What you do when you are afraid is what makes the difference. We often had good reason to be afraid.”
Mr. Graetz seemed to toggle seamlessly between foot soldier and field general in civil rights and social justice causes for roughly seven decades. He was the only white board member of the Montgomery Improvement Association, a group that formed in the days following Rosa Parks’ arrests, to oversee the boycott.
Mr. Graetz and his wife, Jeannie, elected to aid the boycott, in part to remain effective in their new church. The pastor used his Sunday sermon to urge parishioners to avoid Montgomery’s buses on Monday and offered rides to work. As a result of his involvement, Graetz’s home was bombed several times and he was harassed by white residents.
When we consider the loss of giants like C.T. Vivian and John Lewis this year as well as Pilgrimage friends Dr. Reavis Mitchell and Theresa Burroughs, the loss of Mr. Graetz is a reminder that our time with this generation is slipping away. We must act on that good fear. It is up to us to heed the lessons they taught us while we were on the bus and carry on their legacy, together.
Our most recent session in our new Platform series was centered around Dismantling the Colonial Legacy: Symbols of white supremacy.
Quess? and Eleanor led us through such a timely and much needed discussion on white supremacist symbols both in the American South and in Washington state.
For those of you who were unable to make the Zoom, we are providing this recording and hope that you will learn as much as we did.
(Sasha Duttchoudhury, seen here with the hat, was a participant on the Spring 2020 Pilgrimage and they graciously agreed to write about their experience and what it has been like to process the past few months.)
“Hope is a discipline.”Mariame Kaba
I have thought about James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner every day since Mr. Leroy Clemons shared their story with us in Philadelphia, Mississippi. How could I not? The graphic nature in which Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were killed during Freedom Summer, the killer’s capacity for hatred and cruelty, and the injustice of their lives cut short are heart-wrenching at minimum. Their brutal murder is far beyond the scope of my racial equity context, where less threatening issues like microaggressions are the focus. As I stood in a forest, just down the road from the killer’s family home, the very spot where the men were killed, microaggressions feel inconsequential.
I have thought about the radiant smile of Mr. Clemons and I can’t imagine what it must take for him to retell the horrific story while the monsters lived in his very town. Mr. Clemons is disciplined hope embodied, creating the circumstances necessary for hope to be real every day. He not only takes people across Neshoba County to retrace Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner’s steps and tell their story, but Mr. Clemons was also a key part in convicting their killer. To hold pain and act is the most hopeful thing we can do.
To hold pain and act is the most hopeful thing we can do.
I’m not sure my heart has the capacity to hold what Mr. Clemons holds, let alone still smile and fight on without completely collapsing in a puddle of despair. The emotions my body has known around race hold a different kind of nuance than what a college-level liberal arts education has offered. While I’ve taken it upon myself to make healing, holding, pausing, and processing a core part of my anti-racist work, I still grieve Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. Everyday. And tragically, they are in increasing company. I will never know all of the names of the lives lost to racism, white supremacy, and hatred, nor could I ever know all of their stories, but I feel compelled to learn, to increase my heart space, honor the dead and fight like hell for the living.
Despite Ms. Nina Simone’s great success around the world, not everyone knows the song Mississippi (Goddam!) Not everyone knows about Alabama (Goddam!). But now, under unprecedented lockdown, everyone knows about Minneapolis (Goddam!) and the unjust killing of Mr. George Flyod. Protests have been held across the country and across the globe in South Africa, South Korea, Brazil, Japan, Australia, and across Europe. The global solidarity and action from communities outside of the US to address anti-Blackness in their own global contexts is so moving. This truly is a global pain.
I have often thought about how the rising activists of our current moment are holding not just the names of Mr. George Floyd, Ms. Breonna Taylor, Mr. Ahmaud Arbery and so many others, but also the ache of lives lost, stories untold, potential unlived, and the survivors who carry on the memories of these people. The enormity of this grief should not be held by our Black siblings alone, this is grief we must share—that is healing.
(Appeared in the Summer 2020 Project Pilgrimage Newsletter.)
Riding on the bus during a Pilgrimage can be a unique experience. You often sit with a new person each day, as we switch up seat partners to promote conversation. On my first Pilgrimage, my initial assigned seat was next to civil rights hero, Bob Zellner. I remember asking him about his lifetime of activism and how it looked for him now as an elder. Even today, he still possesses the same fiery, optimistic, and sometimes radical outlook about nonviolent direct action as a means to achieving widespread racial equity. The idea of meeting the type of violence Bob Zellner experienced with a nonviolent approach and a belief that all people can change for the better is difficult to comprehend. To hear his stories firsthand is a gift worth treasuring.
I was recently speaking with Bob and he reflected on the pandemic and its impact on communities of color, as well as the change that has come from the protests across the country for Black Lives and against police brutality. We spoke about his role in the civil rights movement as the first white field secretary in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the connection to today’s social justice movements. Formerly complacent white folk are newly active in the Black Lives Matter movement and he acknowledged this encouraging shift. This is the moment that he and so many others in movements of the past worked hard for; the moment of change he hoped to see realized in his lifetime.
Bob Zellner has been an important partner and a fixture on our Pilgrimages since the early days. The Pilgrimage draws in aspiration from the freedom rides that he took with other leaders like Bernard Lafayette and John Lewis. Their lives are testaments to finding the good in people and as we remember the lives and honor the work of heroes like Lewis, CT Vivian and Joseph Lowery, I ask that every reader join me in dedicating this moment – this movement – to the heroes who paved the way for a better future.
Monuments and symbols of white supremacy are falling across the country, so let us recognize the real heroes of this nation. The women and men, like Bob Zellner and John Lewis who deserve to have statues erected in every city and their names emblazoned on the bridges that connect our past to our present. This is who we should be. This is at the core or our work at Project Pilgrimage. Changing the narrative and taking action.
Take care and hope to see you all soon!