The Higher Road: A Student’s Reflection on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage

By Fahad Ahsan, George Washington University, Class of 2015

The author steps off the plane in Alabama. (Credit: Byron Buck)

The author steps off the plane in Alabama. (Credit: Byron Buck)

When I arrived at the Rayburn House Office building to depart for the annual Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama, Congressman Brad Schneider (D-Il) told me that Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) was one of the most impressive figures I would meet in my life. I took the Congressman from Illinois at his word; keeping in view that Lewis’ political career began with resisting a blatantly racist and aggressive status quo, and today, manifests itself with his towering presence in Congress. On the first weekend of March 2013, he led a bipartisan delegation of lawmakers and a diverse group of professionals and students to the very sights in Alabama where he and fellow activists were violently attacked by police officers back in 1965, most notably the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. It was over the course of this trip, however, when I realized that the fundamental purpose this annual pilgrimage was not to just appreciate Lewis for his successful battle against segregation laws, but also to understand the message of his journey and the lessons that his sacrifice can teach the world today.

The historic results of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s are a direct result of the sacrifice, patience, and moderation that its activists exercised over its course. In the 21st century, it is hard to think of many revolutionary social or political change movements that find a middle ground between violent resistance and submission to the status quo. But in the 1960’s, Lewis and others Americanized Mahatma Ghandi’s concept of “non-violent resistance” in order to directly confront segregation laws in the United States without discrediting its diverse benefactors. Moreover, they recognized that the separatist inclinations of figures like Elijah Mohammad, and in his earlier years, Malcolm X, would have multiplied racial strife within America by adding new belligerents to an already bloody conflict. Thus, they pioneered a moderate method of political resistance, by which they would collectively stand their ground on basic human and civil rights without using means of violence.

I asked Congressman John Lewis what role his faith played in this incredibly resilient movement, and he emphatically stated, “It was everything!” In yet another contrast to modern discourse, where the mainstream media too often ties religion’s place in politics to the words and actions of extremists and fringe groups, John Lewis explained how faith was the backbone of non-violent resistance. Indeed, there was no physical means by which the civil rights movement could have resisted the police dogs, high-power fire hoses, nightsticks and arbitrary detainments, short of coalescing the movement into an armed entity which would have been further isolated from the mainstream. It was this imbalance of power that made the streets of Alabama’s cities an asymmetrical setting of conflict in the 1960’s. While the police officers were armed and given orders to suppress any uprising, peaceful or violent, Lewis and his fellow activists were armed with nothing more than their faith that God would ultimately exalt justice over injustice if they observed patience and steadfastness. Songs like “We Shall Overcome,” were emblematic of this hope.


Police Chief Kevin Murphy offers his badge to Congressman Lewis. (Credit: Byron Buck)

Many of the sites I visited in Alabama, including the Rosa Parks museum and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, reaffirmed in greater detail what I had already read about the civil rights movement in textbooks throughout my schooling. But the unique aspect of the Alabama pilgrimage was that it was focused on both celebrating the past and learning how best to carry forward the legacy of non-violent activism. Nowhere was the timeless victory of patience more evident than First Baptist Church, where Montgomery City Police Chief Kevin Murphy offered his badge to a teary Congressman Lewis as a symbol of his reconciliation for abuses carried out by the Alabama police against him in the 1960’s. The gesture was as much a reflection of how nonviolence by the weaker force in the conflict sustained American unity in the long run as it was a resolution to conflict between former foes.

As I reflected on the abuses that peaceful civil rights activists withstood, the essential role that faith played in upholding their morale, and the continuously unfolding triumphs of tolerance over ignorance in American political discourse, I could not help but think that faith-based non-violent resistance, as a political methodology, could be internationalized so that Islamic societies could tackle their internal conflicts without increasing polarization and intolerance. My experience at Southern Baptist Churches, particularly the inspiring sermon at Brown Chapel, helped me realize that Christianity too had a controversial strain of violent extremists who narrowly interpreted scriptures to justify aggression against less powerful racial and religious minorities, reflected by the Klu Klux Klan. At the same time, Christian faith was also the lynchpin of the peaceful resistance strategy and the primary source of hope for the future. The preacher at Brown Chapel brought me to my feet when he stressed that shedding the blood of an innocent was a sin against all of society; an idea directly stated in both the Bible and the Quran.

Today the discourse of faith and politics in the Muslim world is one that is plagued by a reliance on force, whether it is by those in power or by those who resist power. Insurgent movements, terrorist organizations, and ideological extremists whose ideas are outside of the mainstream, even within their own societies, dominate the external image of Islam. How can this trend be reversed? Indeed, each Muslim country may very well need its own Martin Luther King Jr., Bernard Lafayette or John Lewis in order to bridge the widening gap between peace and resistance. But it is pertinent to recognize that today’s instability overshadows the fact that the concept of peacefully seeking change is not a foreign concept to Islamic political thought.


(Credit: Byron Buck)

In the 20th century, Bacha Khan led the Pashtun nationalist movement in the peace-seeking footsteps of Ghandi, but the idea behind nonviolent resistance goes back even further in Islamic history. The Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, stated that “if there is something wrong, fix it with your hands. If you cannot fix it with your hands, fix it with your words. If you cannot fix it with your words, at least fix it with your heart.” While the first clause of this tradition emphasizes the essential need to act against wrongdoing, the final one stresses that people must at least, in their conscience, know the difference between what is ethical and what is immoral. Human beings with clashing desires and interests will always vary in their relative strength to one another, and as a result, vary in their capabilities to implement change. And if one is clearly in a position of relative weakness against an abusive power where they cannot make social change by their own will, the need for the oppressed group to verbally challenge authority, or at least raise awareness among neutral or opposing members in society, increases. The Civil Rights activists of the 1960’s knew that they could not out-gun or out-man the police in Montgomery or Selma. They did, however, know that they could reach out to other communities, peacefully organize demonstrations, boycott elements of the segregated status quo, and most importantly, invest their faith in ultimate triumph of divine justice. As Congressman Lewis’ new badge of reconciliation shows, it is this long road that achieves victory for the suppressed without harming the basic social fabric of a nation.

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