In Layman’s Terms: Civil Rights Immersion trip forces focus on truth

Todd Seifert


Civil Rights Immersion 2023

Would people in the United States stand for Americans to be held captive? Would Americans do nothing as other countrymen and women were beaten mercilessly, starved, violated in numerous ways and separated from their families?

The answer is yes.

That’s exactly what happened from 1619, when the first African slaves arrived in the then-New World, until 1865, when the Civil War concluded. And since then, African Americans have been free, but they’ve often been denied the same opportunities as their white fellow Americans. Systemic barriers such as red-lining, Jim Crow laws and what amounts to an only marginally hidden caste system have left many African Americans on the outside looking in on a country they helped to build.

That barrier was never more evident to me than on a recent civil rights immersion trip to Alabama with 31 other members of the Great Plains Conference and some of our friends from the Louisiana Conference. Though I had read numerous books and hosted podcasts on the subject of racism, the stories from our history became a weight on my shoulders as my fellow travelers and I walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where people just wanting the voting rights afforded other Americans were beaten by white supremacist-backed police officers.

They weighed down my heart as we toured The Legacy Museum, which is operated by an organization known as the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery. This museum hits you in the gut as soon as you enter. Large video screens all around you give the illusion of being at the bottom of the ocean as you look to the left to see sculptures of partially submerged people; a screen in front bluntly tells you that 2 million captives en route from the African continent to the Americas to be enslaved died during the passage, and their bodies were tossed overboard. The Atlantic Ocean became their burial ground.

Those who survived the trip were sold like cattle at auction. Another museum, the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, displayed an enlarged version of a catalogue. Among the listings:
  • “Jo Saunders — 35, splendid engineer .. careful and trusty.”
  • “Jim Goldthwaite — boy about 16, smart fellow, been sick but not convalescent, weak and emaciated from sickness, in flesh very likely, valuable.”
  • “Hannah — about 80 years old, faithful, trusty, good cook, not very able bodied, but willing, good natured, diligent and reliable, an excellent woman.”
I know. It’s sickening.

But it’s the truth. Our truth. Our past.

I think too often we look at slavery and the legacy of discrimination to come after it as the past for African Americans. But that’s only partially true. The shame that is slavery — followed by Jim Crow laws and by stunted wealth potential and mass incarceration — belongs to each and every one of us. It’s a shared blot on our ancestry.

If it were truly only in the past, perhaps some of the things we say to make ourselves feel better about it all would ring true. But it’s not just the past.

Lawmakers in at least 32 states have tried to ban books. Some states don’t want “woke” teachers to educate children on the nation’s troubles regarding race, stating they don’t want white children to feel badly about what happened.

They prefer their children grow up ignorant of the atrocities that took place. I think that’s a huge mistake. Errors not shared are errors prone to being repeated.

And we already make enough new mistakes. We don’t need to repeat any.

For example, our group toured the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where a white supremacist, apparently angered with integration laws, decided to plant a bomb under stairs leading into the church.

Four girls died. And I was appreciative to learn something I had not realized before: Two other black children also died that day, boys who were killed as part of the aftermath of the bombing.

It’s perhaps a small bit of poetic justice that the bomber’s actions may actually have provided the real impetus for ending Jim Crow laws. People who had remained silent on the push for civil rights all of a sudden found their voice when children were massacred.

It makes me wonder how much longer we, as followers of Christ will remain silent. Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25:31-46 that we are to take action to care for our neighbors. We are to tend to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned — not just talk about it.

Our group discussed a lot about feelings each night after our trips to see these historic sites — from the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King served as the pastor from 1954 to 1960 to the parsonage he and his family lived in that was bombed to the Freedom Rider Museum that tells the story of people who knowingly put themselves in danger to ride integrated buses in protest in an effort to bolster voter registration among African Americans.

Two words I found myself gravitating toward were “aggravated” and “inadequate.” I’m aggravated because our country, which proudly proclaims in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal” basically lied. Be mad at me for pointing out the obvious truth if you like, but if you will pause to reflect, you’ll see that I’m right.

I said “inadequate” as a way of looking in the mirror. I know I have not done nearly enough to rectify the wrongs in the communities in which I’ve lived. I haven’t moved far enough past words and taken action.

I so greatly appreciated the vulnerability some of the members of our group shared with all of us. They educated us on what it’s like to be from an African country and coming to the United States. They shared insights most of us didn’t know about the significance of names, how deep the hurt from racism can cut to a person’s heart, and how people — mostly white people — can become blind and deaf to the things they do and say that cause hurt to others.

As part of my preparation for the trip to Alabama, I read the book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” by best-selling author Isabel Wilkerson. African American herself, Wilkerson connects the dots in this book about how skin color has been the designation of caste in the United States as much as the brutal realities that are faced by the marginalized in India and as were suffered by Jews during the Third Reich in Nazi Germany.

Going to these places, seeing these historic landmarks, and talking to people who lived through bombings, knew people who had been lynched, and who found ways to survive was inspiring. And, dare I say, it is these people who give me reason for hope.

Let me explain.

The folks at 16th Street Baptist Church still worship every Sunday. Sure, the building is slightly different than that horrible day in 1963. But they kept on being the church even after the tragedy.

People at the Equal Justice Initiative are working to document people who were lynched, collecting soil from those sites so people whose lives were taken are given a proper memorial and so their stories are told. They are doing their best to ensure people find justice within a system that was anything but just for so long.

We can’t change the past. We can’t restore the names of people who had theirs stripped from them when they were enslaved. We can’t restore the opportunities for wealth that so many white people gained decades ago, particularly via real estate, nor can we provide the financial gains that have been handed down from generation to generation in the white community.

But what this trip was all about was helping us realize that we can do something now. We can speak up as advocates. We can take action at the ballot box, in the workplace, in schools and anywhere that bigotry rises to the surface.

May we have the courage of Freedom Riders in our own cities and towns. May we be as wise, strong and courageous as the people who fought for civil rights before us.
Todd Seifert is communications director for the Great Plains Conference. Contact him at