Reflections on a Civil Rights bus tour

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National Memorial and Monument for Peace and Justice. Submitted photos

On the national holiday celebrating the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., Granby Racial Reconciliation (GRR) sponsored a Civil Rights bus tour virtual panel discussion. The panel consisted of Granby residents, Ken and Rose Mouning, Pastor Clark Pfaff and Ellen Thomson who participated in the tour this past summer.

The Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding (CCIU) organized the trip to “explore the historic and ongoing struggle for racial equity and justice … on a tour of some of the most important landmarks of the Civil Rights Movement.” CCIU is an interreligious organization that “promote(s) interfaith dialogue and understanding…through the lens of our shared imperative to love our neighbors.”

Prior to the panel discussion, Pfaff, pastor of Valley Brook Church, shared why he wanted to make this trip, the impact it had on him and the reasons he wanted to share his experiences.

Growing up in the southeastern United States during the 1960s, Pfaff was immersed in the racist culture of that place and time. Pfaff admits he “was not completely innocent of racism.” In his late teens, he “rejected the blatant racism around me” and “for decades I thought I was good. I thought, ‘I don’t have biases. I treat everyone the same.’”

In 2017, encouraged by a friend, Pfaff read Waking Up White: Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. He saw in her story parallels to his own. Reading the book “helped me understand that while I had long ago rejected the ugly and blatant racism of the culture I grew up in, I was totally oblivious to the subtle and less blatant racism all around me and that I participated in. Through Debby’s book I realized that the color of my skin gave me an advantage in so many ways that people with darker skin are not afforded.”

Since reading Irving’s book, Pfaff actively sought conversations with his friends of color, sitting and listening to their experiences in these United States. He read about the Civil Rights Movement, about racism. He read books by authors of color. This fueled the desire to be where the pivotal activities for civil rights occurred. Pfaff stated, “I knew I wanted go and walk where brave people courageously stood and walked and bled so they could have the rights that I have and that I take for granted.”

Though there were many powerful places and experiences on the Civil Rights tour through Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, two stood out for Pfaff. “Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma with my friend Ken Mouning, was an incredible honor. This was the site of the Bloody Sunday March in 1965 where peaceful protestors were attacked by state troopers as they marched for equality. And because this violence was televised it became a turning point in the quest for racial justice. To walk across that historic bridge with my friend who is African American and who has been a mentor to me is a moment I will never forget,” he recalled.

The other powerful experience for Pfaff was walking through the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. He describes this memorial, also known as the lynching memorial, as “haunting and holy” that filled the pastor with “grief and sadness as I walked among coffin-sized monuments.” Per, the memorial is “dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” The memorial features 800 six-foot monuments hanging from the ceiling to symbolize racial terror lynching victims. The monuments are engraved with the names of over 4,000 lynching victims. Pfaff reported, “Sadly, thousands more African Americans were lynched and their deaths were never documented.”

This Civil Rights tour helped Pfaff grasp “how much people of color have had to endure just to have the same freedoms that I have always had. We need to understand that (this is) not a comment on a person’s worth and how they have worked to get where they are. Those words are a statement of fact that over the past 400 years people born with white skin had an advantage over people born with dark skin. The advantages include not being enslaved, treated as an animal, mistrusted, denied basic human rights, profiled, denied equal opportunities, etc. To have those simple advantages would be a dream come true for many people.”

Pfaff concluded by encouraging others: “My hope is that we would each own our part in ending bias and racism and realize that this is not a decision that is made once and then we move on. No, this is something that we must recognize will be something we must work on throughout our lives.”

Rev. Clark Pfaff (l.) and Ken Mouning on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.