Feature / Fellowship! Magazine / Racial Reconciliation / Together for Hope

Cycling, Civil Rights and Rural Poverty

By Ben Brown 

riding pettus bridge

Cyclists Jason Coker (right), Darren DeMent (center) and Greg Dover (left) cross the historic Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma, Ala., during Civil Rides.

Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in the abdomen on February 18, 1965, in Marion, Alabama. Jackson and many others were peacefully marching in support of voting rights from Zion’s Chapel Methodist Church to the city jail in Marion. He walked with his mother, Viola, and his grandfather, Cager Lee. Their assembly was deemed unlawful, and many were badly beaten by the state troopers, and Jackson was shot twice at point blank range.  

Jackson was rushed to the Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma, where he would die eight days later. Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death inspired the historic march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery in March of 1965. Hundreds flocked to Selma to walk the Edmund Pettis Bridge on that “Bloody Sunday.” The goal was to walk 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, but they would not make it that day.  

In October 2019, more than 20 cyclists suited up to cross that same Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma alongside a group of volunteers and a film crew as part of a bike ride across the Black Belt of Alabama from Montgomery to Birmingham.  

Civil Rides is a multi-day bicycle ride sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and other partners that raises funds and awareness for areas of persistent rural poverty in America in support of Together for Hope, CBF’s rural development coalition. In 2018, Civil Rides launched a 200-plus mile ride beginning at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., and ending at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Miss. This inaugural ride was part of the nationwide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  

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Civil Rides participants, volunteers and staff of CBF and Alabama CBF gather on the steps of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., after the completion of their pilgrimage from Montgomery to Birmingham.

“Last year, we started in Montgomery where Dr. King’s life ended; this year, we started where his ministry began,” said Jason Coker, national director of Together for Hope.  

Coker explained that, as with the inaugural ride, this year’s participants retraced the steps of history and, as they pedaled, talked with one another, listened and noted events of the past and present, while discussing the potential of the future—and had fun all along the way.  

“We ride divided into A, B and C groups, depending on the riders’ speeds. We chum up. There’s a lot of camaraderie and it’s a lot of fun,” Coker said.  

Terri Byrd, who serves as coordinator of Alabama CBF, said she was greatly inspired by having Civil Rides in her state. “Civil Rides was an opportunity to tell our story, one of awareness of rural poverty. This event connected us. In Alabama, we have a connection to the past and a connection to the future,” she emphasized.  

Marion, the place where Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot, was a hotbed of civil rights violations for persons of color. Today, it is the location of Perry County’s Sowing Seeds of Hope. Alabama CBF has committed to a 25-year partnership with Sowing Seeds of Hope in an effort to help the people of Perry County with home repair, healthcare, spiritual needs and educational opportunities.  

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Throughout the ride, cyclists are supported by volunteers who provide encouragement, safety and meet other needs.

It is no coincidence that places of historic civil rights violations decades ago—like Marion, Ala.—remain trapped in persistent rural poverty.  

“There’s an incredible history in these places,” Coker said. “It’s intimately related to violations of human rights and violations of human dignity. These are the places of greatest poverty in our country.”  

Civil Rides aims to make that connection abundantly clear. The rides are a pilgrimage for historic civil rights locations;  but also a tour of missional efforts to empower individuals beyond the systems and cycles of rural poverty.  

The Civil Rides in Alabama attracted cyclists from Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, D.C., as well as Alabama. Charles Watson, who serves as director of education for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., noted that participating in the ride was encouraging to him. 

“I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge being the only African-American rider,” said Watson, reflecting on his experience. “I thought about how different that was from the Selma to Montgomery marchers. I was encouraged by members of other communities still seeking truth from America’s past in order to aspire to and implement a better present and future.” 

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Civil Rides participants and volunteers gather on the steps of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Marion, Ala.

The group of predominantly white cyclists riding in Alabama to see historic sites of the Civil Rights movement did draw some interest from on-lookers. Privilege was also recognized in debriefings along the route.  

Keith Stillwell, who serves as regional vice president for Together for Hope in Appalachia, said he biked with the hope of crossing the Edmond Pettis Bridge in Selma, but unfortunately suffered an accident just a few miles short of the historic landmark.  

“We biked the march from Selma to Montgomery in reverse, and it was uphill most of the way,” Stillwell said. “We talked about how we’d rather go the other way and go downhill. In our debriefing we realized the way that we approached the bridge was from the perspective of Bull Connor and the Alabama State Troopers.”  

The world looks different from the seat of a bike, and Civil Rides challenges participants to listen to those around them and see the point of view of those living in rural poverty and those that fought and still fight for civil rights.  

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The Rev. Arthur Price, Jr., pastor of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and U.S. Senator Doug Jones at the finish line.

“We, as white people, have an important role to play,” Coker said. “If we don’t resist, if we don’t intervene, we are passively benefiting. As white people, we have to put ourselves on a highway to be in danger. All you have to do as a black person is be in your skin.” 

From Montgomery to Selma, across the Edmond Pettis Bridge, the march was no longer two-by-two on foot, but instead uphill by bike. Unlike that “Bloody Sunday,” Civil Rides cyclists would make their way across the bridge and then to Birmingham to be met by U.S. Senator Doug Jones at 16th Street Baptist Church, the historic site of the bombing that killed four little girls in September 1963.  

On October 20, Civil Rides participants completed their second pilgrimage. The participants dismounted their bikes and stood on solid ground. Their muscles ached because their legs had propelled them across the Black Belt of Alabama. There was a sense of accomplishment among the riders. The ride was over, but there was still work to do. They had seen the connection between civil rights violations and persistent rural poverty—cycles that still  exist today.  

Civil Rides will hold a two-day Underground Railroad ride Sept. 11-12 from Berea, Ky., to Marion, Ind., following a historic passageway to freedom that was part of the Underground Railroad. Participants will visit locations that served as safe houses for individuals fleeing slavery in the 19th century. 

Register at www.civilrides.com and learn more.

This article appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of fellowship! magazine, the quarterly publication of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Read online here and subscribe for free to fellowship! and CBF’s weekly e-newsletter fellowship! weekly at www.cbf.net/subscribe. 

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