By Maddee Rauhauser, Mitzvah Corps Civil Rights Journey 2017 Participant
Near the beginning of our Mitzvah Corps Civil Rights Journey, we visited Medgar Evers’ home in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s a building painted mint green, with that same green making its way to the inside of the home. It all seems normal, but one of those mint green walls is interrupted by a bullet hole.
Medgar Evers was the first field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi. His dream was of a world where African Americans could vote, where they would be treated like humans.
On June 12th, 1963, Evers was shot in front of his home for this dream. The bullet went through his back, the window of his home, the wall, then ricocheted off the fridge. The bullet holes were not the most shocking thing we saw during our visit though. As we walked across the driveway, there was a spot on it where a man had died for his dream. It struck me so hard, because his blood still stains the driveway.
Though he may have died, his dream did not die with him. Medgar Evers was a huge figure in the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. His death may feel removed from the now, but that gunshot that went through his back still resonates today. I feel like events such as Evers’ death are often removed from our present, but the Civil Rights movement is not ancient history. One of the defining, known moments of the movement was the march from Selma to Montgomery and as part of that, Bloody Sunday. There are still people alive who witnessed it with their own two eyes, Ms. Joanne Bland being one of them.
When we visited Selma, Ms. Bland spoke to us. She recalled memories and her fear of Bloody Sunday. She was only eleven at the time, yet she can still vividly recall that Sunday when protesters were turned back and then brutally attacked by the police. She spoke about the sounds of a woman’s head smacking into concrete on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the sight of a woman tumbling down a flight of stairs and lying there unmoving, the fear of being unable to help. I could almost feel the same sense of dread, walking over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, that she must have felt that night. I could so easily imagine peaking at the top of the bridge, staring down at a sea of blue meant to turn me back, feeling the terror of being attacked.
The events in Selma led the way for voting rights, eventually securing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a piece of legislation the whole nation benefited from. This bill was not all encompassing though. There are still voter suppression methods, 53 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed. These methods, like gerrymandering, disproportionately affect communities of color. According to Pew Research Center, 61.4% of the U.S. population voted in the 2016 election, while the percentage of African Americans voting was 59.6% and Hispanics was 47.6%. Voting rights is not an issue left for the 60s; our nation was founded on the right of representation and if certain populations are discouraged from voting, it undermines our nation.
We also have visited the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, where we were told the story of Emmett Till, a young boy brutally murdered and dumped in a river over 62 years ago. We stood in the courthouse where the two men who murdered him were tried. Those men were acquitted, by an all white jury; they admitted to the crimes years later.
Nowadays, racism in the courts is still present, although it doesn’t present itself quite so blatantly. More racism is shown in courts through sentencing, specifically the sentencing of African Americans. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization we visited that represents inmates on death row, in Alabama, a state where 25% of the population is African American, 50% of death row inmates are black, and 83% of the people who’ve been executed were black. This disproportionality of serious sentences is reflected across the entire United States.
The Civil Rights movement, at its core, was about voting rights and fair treatment. It’s not true then to say that this movement is dead and gone. Medgar Evers’ blood still stains the concrete outside his home and the issues of the Civil Rights movement still stain our nation. That era may be over, but the movement is not done; it still lives on in the places we visited on this trip. As Mrs. Bland said, “It’s ‘I have a dream,’ not ‘I had a dream.’”