A bipartisan delegation of U.S. Congress members visited Birmingham on Friday as part of a three-day tour of the state’s civil rights history.
The 2019 Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage is organized by the nonprofit Faith & Politics Institute, which offers tours, retreats, forums and reflection groups to members of Congress and their staffs.
Since 1998, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) has led close to 300 members of the U.S. House and Senate, as well as Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush in 2015, through Alabama each spring. This year, 45 members of Congress made the trip.
This year’s pilgrimage includes stops in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma. In addition to Lewis, honorary co-hosts include Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama as well as Rep. Martha Roby (R-Alabama, District 2) and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Alabama, District 7). Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Alabama, District 1) is also part of this year’s group.
“This is a bipartisan delegation of Democrats and Republicans, and they say there is no civility in Washington. We are here to prove that wrong,” Sewell said.
“What I love about Faith & Politics is it’s an opportunity for us to shed the R and the D, the blue and the red … for pink, for colors of unity,” she said, alluding to the jacket she was wearing.
A native of Selma, Sewell said it’s an honor to visit places important in civil rights history with Lewis, who led the Bloody Sunday march in her hometown as a 25-year-old alongside the Rev. Hosea Williams. Lewis was also one of the 13 original Freedom Riders working to integrate transportation in the South and spoke at 1963’s March on Washington.
“I think it’s so important that we not only acknowledge our history, but we have to pay it forward as well, to really come together and get to know each other as we travel through time with our distinguished colleague John Lewis,” Sewell said. “To have an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of John Lewis with John Lewis is an honor.”
On Friday, the delegation visited 16th Street Baptist Church, where they were greeted by Pastor Arthur Price and the Carleton Reese Memorial Unity Choir singing “This Little Light of Mine.”
Students from Montgomery Public Schools and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival performed parts of “Four Little Girls,” which portrays the lives of 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victims Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia D. Morris Wesley and Addie Mae Collins before that tragic day in September 1963 and imagines the impact they would have made in the world if their lives hadn’t been cut short.
“You’re speaking truth,” Lewis told the students after the production. “You’re making it real. I remember coming to this church after the bombing and standing outside.”
Jones, a former U.S. district attorney, discussed prosecuting two of the men, Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, decades later for their roles in the bombing.
On Saturday, the delegation visits Selma, where the group will walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and visit the Selma Interpretive Center and Brown Chapel AME Church. That afternoon, they will tour Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church in Montgomery, the Southern Poverty Law Center Civil Rights Memorial, the Rosa Parks Museum and Alabama State Capitol. The pilgrimage finishes Sunday with a service at First Baptist Church Montgomery.