The Bridge - The long road back

Annual civil rights bus tour moves, inspires

Long Road Back

Dereck Kamwesa, assistant director of admissions for Messiah College, was born in Kenya and immigrated to the midwestern U.S. with his missionary parents when he was a teenager. There he found people looked at and treated him differently based on a single superficial characteristic he had barely noticed before: the color of his skin.

"I make the joke that I didn’t know I was black until about a year after I was in the U.S.,” said Kamwesa.

“I vividly remember looking in the mirror and thinking, ‘Wow, I truly am black, and that means something different here.’”

What it means — and what it has meant — is one of the compelling subjects of the “Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights” bus tour, which Kamwesa and a handful of  Messiah colleagues and students took in June. The 10-day tour of civil rights sites is organized by Todd Allen, special assistant to the president and provost for diversity affairs, through his nonprofit The Common Ground Project. For the past 17 years, Allen has led people to the historic places and introduced them to the brave voices that helped to alter the course of U.S. history. And for the past seven years, Messiah staff and students have joined him. Why?

“Messiah’s commitment to reconciliation includes beliefs about the value of all persons, the importance of justice and the corresponding evils of racism,” said Provost Randy Basinger. “On the tour, racism no longer stands as an intellectual issue we objectively discuss and debate. It becomes a devastating reality we experience and cannot deny.  The evil of racism changes from an abstract belief we intellectually affirm to a conviction we live. The tour is experiential learning at its best — it changes lives. And changed lives help shape Messiah into a community of reconciliation we hope to be.”

For Kamwesa, the tour was largely about perspective. “Being part of the civil rights tour continues to put to life what that journey of being black in America has been for other people,” he said. “What I’ve gone through in the last 20 years pales in comparison to what other people went through.”

Long Road Back

It was equally eye-opening for Messiah student Gloria Igihozo ’19, a biochemistry major from Rwanda who lost much of her extended family in the 1994 genocide there. Igihozo serves as the student chair of the Multicultural Council.

“I did feel kind of detached from the whole civil rights movement, because it had been in a different century and I wasn’t born yet. How we learned about it made it seem like it was so far back that we could not relate to it,” she said of what she had been taught about that era of history before the tour. “But on the tour I realized that the civil rights movement is so near and dear to me. It reflects some of the injustices that I’ve known and that I’ve seen.”

Igihozo says she was particularly moved by the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a new site in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated to the lynching and mass incarceration victims across the U.S.

“I was reading nameplates ... and how they were lynched. And I remember getting to one nameplate, the name of a man who was actually lynched in Pennsylvania. I kind of froze for a second. Because this is where I live right now,” she said. “It reminded me of the genocide in Rwanda, because people were killed in the most brutal way possible. It was just really surreal to me.”

Allen says the day the tourgoers visited the lynching memorial was “definitely a Kleenex day.” The group started at the Southern Poverty Law Center, hearing stories of people whose lives were taken, and then went to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) offices, where they met Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent nearly 30 years on death row before finally being exonerated with the help of EJI founder Bryan Stevenson.

Then the group toured the lynching memorial. “Bryan says, ‘On the road to reconciliation, we’ve got to have some truth telling.’ And it smacks you in the face with the truth,” Allen said of the stark and moving memorial.

Another highlight of the tour included a chat with Lisa McNair, sister of Denise McNair, one of the four young girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963. McNair, who visited Messiah in 2017 as a speaker during the campus Martin Luther King Jr. Day festivities, says speaking to Allen’s annual tour group is always a pleasure.

“Daddy used to speak to them, every year they came,” said McNair, who took over for her parents in 2013 to tell groups about the effects of the bombing from her family’s perspective. She says her sister’s death is her first memory.

“Sadly, this country, I think, has done a disservice to the civil rights movement and those who lost their lives and participated in it. We know about Selma and the march on Washington and Dr. King, but there’s a whole part of our shared American history that is still not covered in history books like other parts of American history are covered,” she said. “So I think sharing that with young people is important, because they’re not going to get it anywhere else if I don’t share it.”

It’s those face-to-face, intimate stories from people such as McNair and Hinton that bring history alive and move the hearts and minds of tour participants.

“To me, that’s what really makes the tour powerful,” Allen said. “Because you can go to museums and monuments, but to be in those places with the people who actually made history happen … .”

Long Road Back

Susan Shannon, director of Learning Technology Services, says she was moved shortly after she boarded the bus for the first time June 9. Listening to then-strangers discuss real, difficult issues respectfully and thoroughly in those first hours of a 10-day ride apart from her family, friends and daily duties made her realize what a transformative journey it would be.

“It removes you from your current reality,” she said of the trip, which is loaded with museum visits, monument stops, talks and other experiences in states such as Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. “It takes you to a different place. The immersiveness, just being together … it’s the full experience.”

A self-described activist for social justice issues, Shannon says the trip confirmed for her the importance of the convictions she already holds and bolstered her confidence to continue to put her energy behind them.

“The trip gave me the courage and strength to stay on my journey,” she said.

That type of reaction is exactly what Allen says he hopes for each year.

“It’s called ‘Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights.’ We call it that for a reason. We tell people that when you go back to wherever you came from, I want you to ask, ‘What was going on here in the 1950s and 1960s around race?’ And also ask yourself, ‘What’s going on right now? And how involved and engaged am I?’”

In that light, Igihozo’s eyes have been opened to a truth that’s been right under her nose since arriving in this country to begin her education at Messiah a few years ago.

“I came here during the Black Lives Matter movement,” she said, “and being on this trip showed me that not much has changed. There’s an assumption that the civil rights movement ended. But the reality is that it just continued but under a different image.”

In reflecting about those who risked or gave their lives in the fight for equal rights, Kamwesa says he sees not only the possibility for him to make a difference for the next generation, but also the responsibility to do so.

“The job I have now was probably not a possibility for them,” Kamwesa said of those freedom fighters from decades ago. “What does that look like for somebody coming after me? If somebody comes into Messiah 20 years from now, will my presence here have made any difference for them?”

The tourgoers’ emotions upon returning were not shades of despair but of hope, love and reconciliation. Igihozo says the most powerful thing she learned was seeing the kind of people who nonviolently forced change for the good of this country.

“Most were college students my age,” Igihozo said of history’s protesters and organizers. “So many times, it’s easy to feel helpless and think that I can’t do anything, I can’t get anything done. To see people my age be the figures of this movement, it reminded me that I have a voice, I have power and I need to use it for the good.”


—Robyn Passante