Every summer, Leon Patterson makes a trip down South to see relatives in Selma, Ala. But this year, he made an extra journey so fellow churchgoers could meet his family members who were directly involved in the marches that changed the face of American civil rights.
“I learned the hard way,” said Patterson, who came of age in Birmingham during the 1960s and wanted his Twin Cities congregation to better understand some of the struggles blacks faced back then.
“They wanted to see for themselves some of the activity that happened during that era,” he said of the 11 members who joined him from Living Spirit United Methodist Church in south Minneapolis. “They have a lot to learn.”
The group joined an estimated 40,000 other travelers in the riverside town for the 50th anniversary of Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” march, which galvanized America’s opposition to racial oppression in the South and expedited passage of historic voting rights for minorities in 1965.
Living Spirit pastor the Rev. Donna Dempewolf said the congregation has a diverse background with deep roots in the civil rights movement — as multiple members marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at that very spot.
This pilgrimage was the first that members have made through the church, she said, and an opportunity they didn’t intend to miss.
“We view Selma and the [Edmund Pettus] bridge as a holy place,” Dempewolf said. “If we learn about history we can be better representatives today to combat some of the same issues.”
On the trip, group members were able to listen to President Obama speak, retrace King’s footsteps on a commemorative march and visit Birmingham’s 16th St. Baptist Church — the site of the 1963 bombing that killed four young black girls.
Jaelynne Palmer, 18, was the youngest congregation member to make the trek.
Current events, including protests sparked by police shootings, made Palmer want to attend because “we’re hitting a boiling point in our society,” she said. She wants to understand it better so she’s more equipped to help.
“It’s one thing knowing and learning about the history, but it’s a whole other ballgame actually being there and seeing where all these events took place,” said Palmer, a senior at Hopkins High School.
“Some of the struggles are still going on,” Patterson said. “I’d like to see that get better. That’s probably another 50 years away, but I hope not.”
A Twin Cities observation of the Selma march is being held Sunday at 2 p.m. beginning at the State Capitol and ending at Central Presbyterian Church in downtown St. Paul.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.