Rarely do we visit a historic site with someone who helped to make history there. But this weekend, more than 60 Members of Congress will travel to Alabama with Selma veteran and Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. The Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage will commemorate the 50th anniversaries of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches which spurred passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. The pilgrimage is an important congressional tradition and one the Office of the Historian chronicles through its civil rights oral history project.
Before the formation of the congressional pilgrimage, local citizens and movement veterans honored the Selma-to-Montgomery marches with the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee. Representative Lewis, former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman, and veteran of Bloody Sunday, frequently participated in the Jubilee march.
In 1997, Lewis attended an event for the Faith & Politics Institute (an organization he co-chairs) that seeks to encourage spirituality and civility on Capitol Hill. Lewis mentioned to Faith & Politics founder, Reverend Doug Tanner, that he would have to leave early in order to make it to Selma in time for the Jubilee. Tanner and Lewis realized it could be worthwhile to bring a group of Members of Congress to Selma the following year. They recruited Amo Houghton of New York, Lewis’ co-chair at Faith & Politics, and spread word about the trip to their colleagues.
During the inaugural pilgrimage from March 6 to 8, 1998, 11 Members followed Lewis throughout Alabama on a whistle stop tour of the state’s major civil rights sites. In Birmingham the first day, they visited the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. In Montgomery, the group visited the Civil Rights Memorial, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, and the Alabama state capitol. On Sunday, they travelled to Selma and attended a service at Brown Chapel AME Church, a hub of activity in Selma during the civil rights movement and the starting point of the marches. After the service, Brown Chapel was officially dedicated as a National Landmark, cementing its central importance to not only the history of the civil rights movement but the history of the country.
Members responded immediately to the personal impact the trip had on them, sharing their experiences with Capitol Hill colleagues. As Reverend Tanner explained in his oral history, the pilgrimage leaves its mark on those who have the opportunity to participate. “It’s like going to Normandy with Dwight Eisenhower,” Houghton told Tanner.
Listen to an audio clip of Reverend Doug Tanner explaining the impact of the pilgrimage on Members of Congress.
Since 1998, the pilgrimage has grown in both size and scope. In 2014, in honor of the 50th anniversaries of the Mississippi Freedom Summer and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the pilgrimage focused on civil rights sites in Mississippi, then on to Selma for the bridge crossing. Yet with all the changes to logistics and locations, the raison d’être of the pilgrimage remains the same.
“I think it’s important for Members of Congress to see, to observe what people did by exercising their constitutional right,” John Lewis explained in his oral history. “You have a right to protest, a right to dissent. You have a right to petition your government and we shouldn’t be trying to limit that. We should be trying to do whatever we can to strengthen that.”
Sources: Montgomery Advertiser, March 5–8, 1998; “Douglas W. Tanner Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, May 15, 2013; “The Honorable John Lewis of Georgia Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, December 11, 2014.Follow @USHouseHistory