April 4, 2018
By Aaron Weaver
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship kicked off today an extended commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination with a three-day 270-mile bicycle ride from the steps of the Lorraine Motel at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Miss. This effort — called “Civil Rides” — aims to raise awareness about persistent rural poverty in America and to advocate for racial justice and healing.
In 2001, CBF made a 20-year commitment to the 20 poorest counties in America with the launch of Together for Hope, a rural poverty coalition of 18 partner organizations from Arizona to Appalachia and from the Dakotas to the Delta of Mississippi working alongside communities in the areas of education, health and nutrition, housing and environment and social enterprise. With the identification by the U.S. Department of Agriculture of 301 counties of rural poverty, CBF is increasing the scale of the Together for Hope coalition for long-term impact in these counties by forging new partnerships.
Funds raised through Civil Rides are being used by Together for Hope in rural communities across America to feed and train people to break the cycle of poverty. In addition, Together for Hope is working alongside civil rights organizations to advocate for racial justice in local, state and national legislative settings.
Civil Rides was birthed by Jason Coker, national coordinator for Together for Hope and field coordinator for CBF of Mississippi. Coker, a native of rural Mississippi, shared his goals for Civil Rides in a recent episode of the CBF Podcast with host Andy Hale. Coker said that one goal is to challenge the narrative that residents of rural communities are poor because they are lazy.
“In rural America, these are some of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met,” Coker said. “They have worked in fields and factories and mines all their lives, and only for that industry to abandon them….They have been abandoned, and now we blame them because they don’t have a job, because the jobs have left, as if that was their fault.”
Coker noted that the route — from Memphis, Tenn., south through the Mississippi Delta to Cleveland before turning across the state to Winona and south to Jackson — recalls civil rights activist James Meredith’s “March Against Fear” in 1966. Meredith was shot and wounded by a white sniper, and while recovering other civil rights leaders including Dr. King and some 15,000 marchers continued the trek.
“We’re not going to be following that exact path, but to start in Memphis and end in Jackson is reminiscent of that kind of space,” Coker said. “Our tires will be rolling past a lot of that sacred space all along the Mississippi Delta and down to Jackson.”
Coker pointed out that segregation continues today, albeit a different form. “Economic segregation in America makes it so that everybody thinks that the rest of the country is just like them,” he noted.
“If you are poor, you think everybody is poor and everybody is struggling. If you are middle class, you think everybody’s middle class and working very hard to hold on. If you are wealthy, you think everybody’s wealthy, because that’s your only experience.”
“I hope this ride is able to raise a banner for persistent rural poverty in America, so that people can know that, no, it’s not the same,” Coker said. “Not everybody in this country is doing fine. As a matter of fact, most people in this country are struggling to make it, and the economic situation in this country is so skewed toward the wealthy right now.”
In addition to CBF, sponsors of Civil Rides include the National Civil Rights Museum, Out Hunger, Northside Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., Millsaps College and Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., and The Two Mississippi Museums in Jackson, Miss. Civil Rides is also endorsed by the Memphis Brand Initiative, Simmons College of Kentucky and the Angela Project.
Two CBF churches in Memphis—Second Baptist Church and First Baptist Church — sponsored a meal Tuesday evening for riders and volunteers. The riders were also introduced during the opening ceremonies of the #MLK50 day-long event at the National Civil Rights Museum at Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
Cyclists and volunteers will stop to visit numerous civil rights sites, including where Dr. King delivered messages, started movements and encouraged people to love one another. Below is a sampling of locations on the 270-mile journey:
- Tutwiler, Miss. — Regarded as the “birthplace of the blues,” Tutwiler is the location of the funeral home where the body of Emmett Till was prepared before being returned to Chicago. While visiting family in Money, Miss., the 14-year-old was brutally murdered on August 28, 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Till’s mother would defy a court order and insisted on an open casket, revealing to the public her son’s mutilated body. The publication of Till’s ravaged body further ignited the Civil Rights Movement. TIME magazine named the photograph as one of the Top 100 most influential images of all time.
- Drew, Miss. — Drew was the hometown of Mae Bertha Carter, a civil rights activist, who in 1965 enrolled seven of her children in the previously all-white public schools. Racists riddled Carter’s home with bullets and she was evicted by her landlord, but she persisted. Carter alongside NAACP lawyer Marian Wright Edelman, who would later launch the Children’s Defense Fund, successfully sued the Drew School District, effectively in 1969 the school district’s segregation system.
- Ruleville, Miss. — During the summer of 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer was among a group of African-Americans to attempt to register to vote in her hometown of Ruleville. Hamer helped to organize the Freedom Summer voter registration drive in 1964 in Mississippi working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
- Cleveland, Miss. — Located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, Cleveland was hometown of Amzie Moore, a local NAACP leader who helped to keep the Civil Rights Movement alive in the 1940s and 1950s and was instrumental in bringing SNCC to Mississippi in the early 1960s. More recently, a battle for desegregation ended in Cleveland, when a U.S. federal court accepted a settlement with the Cleveland School District to consolidate the district’s high schools and middle schools. This settlement ended a legal battle that began in 1965 when black parents sued on behalf of their children in 1965.
- Money, Miss. — Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Miss., during the summer of 1955, a tragedy that helped spark the Civil Rights Movement. Twelve white men acquitted the two killers after deliberating for just over an hour. The killers would later confess to the crime.
- Winona, Miss. — Fannie Lou Hamer and other civil rights activists were arrested on false charges on June 9, 1963 in Winona after stopping to eat. While in jail, Hamer and the activists, upon the orders of law enforcement, were nearly beaten to death by inmates.
- Kosciusko, Miss. — Kosciusko is home to James Meredith, the first African-American to be admitted to the University of Mississippi under the protection of federal marshals in 1962 after the state initially refused a U.S. Supreme Court order to integrate the school. Four years later, Meredith was shot by a sniper during a solitary protest march — March Against Fear — from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss.
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