US Congressman John Lewis
John Lewis grew up on his family’s farm and attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama. As a young boy, he was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which he heard on radio broadcasts. In those pivotal moments, he made a decision to become a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Ever since then, he has remained at the vanguard of progressive social movements and the human rights struggle in the United States. By 1963, he was dubbed one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence.
Congressman John Lewis has met over 50 Sojourn groups and acknowledges that Sojourners “are some of the best young people I speak to across the country,” and says that “Sojourn students truly inspire me.”
Simeon Wright attends many of the Sojourn journeys to tell the story of his cousin, Emmett Till. Emmett was a fourteen-year-old African American from Chicago who was brutally murdered in Money, Mississippi in 1955 for “wolf whistling” at a white woman. Simeon witnessed the incident, as well as Emmett’s late night abduction by the husband of the woman at which he had whistled. The abduction led to the brutal manslaughter of Emmett and Simeon recounts the story of his cousin’s death and legacy.
Minnijean Brown Trickey
Minnijean Brown Trickey is famously known for being one of the “Little Rock Nine.” She attended Little Rock Central High School from September 1957 through February 1958, when she was expelled for retaliating against her abusers. Her parents then sent her to live in New York with Drs. Kenneth B. and Mamie Clark, the African-American psychologists whose research was used in Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case. She eventually obtained a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Southern Illinois University, a bachelor’s degree in Native Human Services from Laurentian University, and a Masters in Social Work from Carleton University. Minnijean has been on over 50 Sojourns and teaches throughout the journey.
Minnijean Brown Trickey’s involvement in the desegregation of schools influenced her lifetime involvement in peacemaking, environmental issues, developing youth leadership, diversity education and training, cross-cultural communication, and gender and social justice advocacy. She was the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Workforce Diversity at the Department of the Interior under the Clinton Administration, and has taught university courses in social work and cross-culture communication.
Elizabeth Eckford is another of the “Little Rock Nine.” She attended Little Rock Central High School from September 1957 until Govenor Orvel Faubus closed all schools in Little Rock in another attempt to prevent the desegregation of schools. She then moved to St. Louis, Missouri where she finished her high school education.
Elizabeth later participated in the March on Washington and joined the army in 1967. She now lives is Little Rock and works as a Probation officer and recounts her experiences with prejudice and the toll it took on her life for the Sojourn attendees. Eckford shares with Sojourners how young people have the power to make a difference in each others’ lives. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Eckford called Sojourn her “renaissance”.
A true pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement, Medgar Evers was assassinated on June 12, 1963. Myrlie and their three small children saw the murder at the front door of their home in Jackson, Mississippi. After suffering through two hung jury trials in the murder of her husband, Mrs. Evers-Williams moved her three children to California. She did not see justice for the murder of Medgar Evers until 31 years later.In 1994, she was present when the verdict of guilty and life imprisonment was handed down for Byron De La Beckwith. At last, she was victorious, Her persistence and faith in the pursuit of justice for the assassination that changed her life and that of her children had come to fruition.
Mrs. Myrlie Evers-Williams is a phenomenal woman of great strength and courage. Her dedication to civil rights and equality is exemplified by her activist role, linking together business, government, and social issues to further human rights and equality. On February 18, 1995, she was elected to the position of Chairman of the National Board of Directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and is also a member of Sojourn’s Board of Directors.
Reverend Billy Kyles
After Memphis sanitation workers went on strike in February, 1968 due to low wages and inhumane working conditions, Kyles helped to form and lead the effort to gain community support for the striking workers. Part of that effort involved persuading the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Memphis in support of the strike. Their success resulted in Dr. King coming to Memphis and leading a major march that ended uncharacteristically in violence. It was later learned that the violence was caused by paid provocateurs. Before this fact was known, however, Dr. King’s disappointment with the violent ending of the march soon gave way to his determination that another peaceful march would be held. He returned to Memphis, where Kyles and several ministers and civic leaders, who had been putting together nightly rallies and raising money for the strike, organized a major rally in preparation for another big march. The rally was held at Mason Temple, the unofficial headquarters for the protest activity, on April 3, 1968.
It was on that evening, marked by active thunderstorms, that an enthusiastic, packed crowd heard Dr. King give what has come to be known as the “Mountaintop” speech. In it, he gave an unusual glimpse into his personal fears and challenges, as well as his prophetic insights into his own fate. The next day Kyles and his family planned to host Dr. King and his entourage at their home for a home-cooked meal. Dr. King was assassinated as they prepared to go to the Kyles’ home. The last hour of Dr. King’s life he spent with Kyles and Rev. Ralph Abernathy in his room at the Lorraine Motel. Rev. Abernathy has since passed on, leaving Kyles as the only living person that actually spent the last hour of Dr. King’s life with him.
Kyles describes his personal Sojourn experience as a speaker to be “…so powerful being in the room and sharing my story… to feel the spiritual connection with the people who will be in charge of the world in just a few years.” He believes that Sojourn participants will have “a different sensitivity because Sojourn has allowed them not just to touch history but to touch those who made history.”
James Chaney was born May 30, 1943 in Meridian, Mississippi to Ben and Fannie Lee Chaney. In 1963, he joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In 1964, CORE led a massive voter registration and desegregation campaign in Mississippi called Freedom Summer. As part of the Freedom Summer activities, Chaney was riding with two white activists in Mississippi when they were attacked and killed by the Ku Klux Klan on June 21, 1964.
On January 7, 2005 Edgar Ray Killen, once an outspoken white supremacist nicknamed the “Preacher,” pleaded “Not Guilty” to Chaney’s murder, but was found guilty of manslaughter on June 20, 2005, and sentenced to sixty years in prison.
Angela Lewis is James Chaney’s daughter and she helps Sojourners recount the story of a father she lost when she was just ten days old. Angela delivers an inspirational message of what young people, like her father, can do.
On September 15, 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed in a terrorist attack by white racists opposed to integration. Sunday school pupils Addle Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley all fourteen, and Denise McNair, eleven, were killed.
Christopher McNair attends the Sojourn journey to recount the story of the his daughter’s death, as well as the public environment at the time on the bombing. McNair shares with Sojourners that “hatred only destroys the hater.”
Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi, and is the leading civil rights reporter in the country. He convinced authorities to reopen seemingly cold murder cases from the Civil Rights Era, prompting one colleague to call him “the South’s Simon Wiesenthal” .
Mitchell was a court reporter for the Clarion-Ledger in 1989 when the film Mississippi Burning inspired him to look into old civil rights cases that many thought had long since turned cold. His investigations have led to the arrest of several Klansmen and prompted authorities to reexamine numerous killings during the civil rights era.
Mitchell’s work so far has helped put at least four Klansmen behind bars: Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers, Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers for ordering the fatal firebombing of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer in 1966, Bobby Cherry for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls and, most recently, Edgar Ray Killen, for helping orchestrate the June 21, 1964, killings of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.
Reverend Clark Olsen
Reverend Clark Olsen’s journey to Selma in 1965 began when he heard Dr. King’s appeal over the radio for clergy to join the efforts of Civil Rights activists in Alabama. King was calling for a peaceful protest in response to the chaos of the March 7th Bloody Sunday protest. Olsen’s desire to participate was immediate.
Once in Selma, Olsen joined other ministers who had come to town to support this cause. As he and some colleagues made their way to Brown Chapel the evening after the Bloody Sunday march, his friend, Reverend Reeb, was attacked and murdered before his eyes. Clark was also brutally beaten in the attack, and later had the courage to testify and point out the killers–an action that put his own life at risk.
Reverend Jimmy Webb
After the death of Reverend Reeb in 1965, there was a national outcry of demonstrations. Because of these demonstrations around the country, local police positioned a barricade around Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama. At the age of 16, Mr. Jimmy Webb led a group of protestors out of that police barricade and when approached by some of Sheriff Jim Clark’s posse, Mr. Webb eloquently presented his case in a nonviolent manner.
Mr. Webb politely engaged in a conversation with the officer, asking him questions like “do you believe in equal justice for all…” but was quickly interrupted with the officer’s reply: “I don’t believe in equal nothing. There’s no two people in this world alike, and they’re not equal on any terms or conditions. There’s no two peas in the world alike, no two pieces of money or nothing else.”
Remaining calm, Mr. Webb eloquently presented the officer with this popular and thought provoking question, “Then sir, are you saying that if I have a quarter and I’m black, and you have a quarter and you’re white, then my quarter isn’t worth as much as yours?”
On the night of January 10, 1966, the Dahmer home was firebombed. As Dahmer’s wife and children escaped the inferno, gunshots were fired and Vernon returned fire from within the house. He was severely burned about the head, face, arms, and upper body before he could escape. His 10-year-old daughter, Bettie, also suffered painful burns. The Dahmer home, grocery store, and car were destroyed. Dahmer died on January 11, 1966, from the effect of burns in his respiratory tract.
Authorities indicted fourteen men, most with Ku Klux Klan connections, for the attack on the Dahmer home. Thirteen were brought to trial, eight on charges of arson and murder. Four were convicted and one entered a guilty plea. In addition, eleven of the defendants were tried on federal charges of conspiracy to intimidate Dahmer because of his civil rights activities. Former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, who was believed to have ordered the murder, was tried four times, but each trial ended in a mistrial.
Based on new evidence, the state of Mississippi reopened the case and in 1998 tried Sam Bowers for the murder of Dahmer and assault on his family. The jury convicted Bowers and the judge sentenced him to life. He died in prison on November 5, 2006.
Joanne Bland is co-founder and director of Journeys for the Soul Museum in Selma, Alabama, where she works to promote civil and human rights, and in particular seeks to increase voter awareness. During her lifetime she has been a witness and participant in some of our nation’s most consequential civil rights battles. She began her civil rights activism in 1961 as an eight-year-old attending a freedom and voters’ rights meeting presided over by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Students for a Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists organized Bland and other area children and teenagers to participate in the civil rights movement. In the front lines of the struggle, the young Bland marched on “Bloody Sunday” and “Turn Around Tuesday,” witnessing brutal beatings, shooting and hosing of fellow marchers by police. Only 11 years old, she has the distinction of being the youngest person to have been jailed in these demonstrations.
Ms. Bland’s early involvement in the struggle against “Jim Crow”, American apartheid, has been the foundation for her civil and human rights work throughout her life. She continues to be active in local and regional organizations devoted to expanding and securing civil and human rights.
In Memoriam, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth
Fred Shuttlesworth (born Freddie Lee Robinson on March 18, 1922) is a former civil rights activist who led the fight against segregation and other forms of racism as a minister in Birmingham, Alabama.On December 25, 1956, unknown persons tried to kill Shuttlesworth by placing sixteen sticks of dynamite under his bedroom window. Shuttlesworth somehow escaped unhurt even though his house was heavily damaged. A police officer, who also belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, told Shuttlesworth as he came out of his home, “If I were you I’d get out of town as quick as I could”. Shuttlesworth told him to tell the Klan that he was not leaving and “I wasn’t saved to run.”
Fred Shuttlesworth led a group that integrated Birmingham’s buses the next day, then sued after police arrested twenty-one passengers. His congregation built a new parsonage for him and posted sentries outside his house.