Civil Rights tour of the South participants walk outside in Birmingham on an excursion.

Civil Rights tour of the South participants Mari Kuraishi and Dinita James ’81

Written by Dinita James ’81, a participant on the Morehead-Cain Civil Rights tour of the South in April 2024.

I was fortunate to be among a group of Morehead-Cain Alumni and guests to hear a talk by Reverend Dr. Carolyn Maull McKinstry, who witnessed the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four girls on September 15, 1963.

McKinstry, then fifteen years old, knew all the girls. She had just left them in the downstairs bathroom. As she made her rounds collecting Sunday school record packets, the church office phone rang. “Three minutes,” warned the man on the line. She only made it fifteen steps before the blast.

There had been lots of bombings before, but no one had been hurt. Despite the gruesome events that Sunday, McKinstry was back in school on Monday morning. No one around her talked about the bomb, planted by white supremacists, or the evil that had caused it.

“I was fifteen for the next twenty years,” she told us, describing how trauma from the tragedy, unaddressed for decades, had stunted her emotional growth.

Our visit with McKinstry, in the stately banquet room of Birmingham’s historic Tutwiler Hotel, just a few blocks from the site of the blast, was one of many highlights of the turning points of the Civil Rights tour of the South. The five-day trip in April 2024 was with an intergenerational group of about thirty Morehead-Cain Alumni and guests. We went from Montgomery to Birmingham, Alabama, and ended the tour in Memphis, Tennessee.

McKinstry told us that it wasn’t until twenty-five years after the blast that she began to process her experience of violence motivated by racial hatred. A reporter who was working on an anniversary story of the bombing had called her for an interview, and she agreed to talk.

That story led to Oprah appearances, many other speaking opportunities, and her book, While the World Watched. McKinstry earned a doctor of divinity as she searched for answers. She says she is healed now and has hope that things will be better for her three adult children. Yet, she is bothered by what she sees going on in the United States today.

Dr. McKinstry’s riveting eyewitness account of history captured three key themes from the tour. One was the importance of putting the “story” in history.

That narrative approach, using true accounts of those who lived the events, has been the life’s work of our much-acclaimed cousin, Taylor Branch ’68, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the America in the King Years trilogy. During our two days in Montgomery, Taylor shared with us context and stories he’d collected from those who lived through the civil rights era.

Our tour guides in Montgomery and Memphis also bore witness from their own life experiences. Wanda Battle was born during the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott and grew up steeped in the solidarity fed by frequent mass meetings in the church buildings on our tour route.

Although she had visited the Legacy Museum many times, Battle was moved to tears as we boarded the bus to leave. Our questions about how white people in Montgomery had responded to the museum’s searing indictment of the city’s past triggered an emotional response to the racial hatred she feels to this day from some segments of her community.

Carolyn Michael-Banks’s homecoming to Memphis to start her own tour business was itself a victory for true history. Michael-Banks, who asked us to call her “Queen,” had been let go from national companies when she added Black history to scripts of tours of Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Empowered now as her own boss of A Tour of Possibilities in Memphis, Queen conjured memories of the thriving community of her childhood as our bus traversed what remains of it today, dissected by federal highways and largely decimated by late twentieth century urban renewal.

These powerful women are three of the many souls whose lives have been touched by white supremacy. The magnitude of this human toll is the second theme that reverberated throughout the tour.

A display at the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery lined up rows of mug shots of the courageous individuals, young and old, Black and white, who boarded buses in the summer of 1961, knowing they would be arrested at the Mississippi state line and jailed at the notorious Parchman Prison, the state penitentiary.

At I Am A Man Plaza in Memphis, the names of 1,300 striking sanitation workers are carved into a marble wall. It was their 1968 strike for fair wages and decent working conditions that brought Dr. King to Memphis, where he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. That site is now the National Civil Rights Museum, where we were welcomed by Morehead-Cain “cousin” Barbara Rosser Hyde ’83 and her husband, Pitt Hyde. Both were instrumental in the site’s preservation. A museum exhibit about the sit-in movement included a photo taken on Franklin Street on February 8, 1964, of four seated protesters holding signs, including one stating: “Chapel Hill, Home of Candy-Coated Racism.”

Perhaps the most powerful symbol of the scope of white supremacy was the National Monument to Freedom at the new sculpture park in the Montgomery Legacy Sites. A giant book the color of red Carolina dirt stands forty-three feet tall and 155 feet wide. Every surface of the immense monument is carved with surnames, more than 122,000 of them, gleaned from the 1870 Census, the first in which formerly enslaved persons were able to officially record the last names they had chosen in freedom.

The stubborn persistence of white supremacy echoed through the tour as a third theme. Taylor Branch ’68 shared his concerns about a resurgence of white supremacy. We saw the statue of Jefferson Davis still standing prominently in front of the Alabama Capitol. When we stopped at the Mississippi Welcome Center for a rest break on the bus ride from Birmingham to Memphis, we confronted a portrait of Robert E. Lee in a place of honor.

During our tour, we stood together in Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, with the morning sunlight streaming through the church’s decorative windows and bathing us in a rainbow of colors, as Wanda Battle led us in a recitation of an excerpt of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Despite that symbolism, we shared a collective understanding that the civil rights era did not yield a color-blind society.

The false ideology of white supremacy persists. Its opponents must be forever vigilant.

View photo albums from the trip by day.

The next trip will be to London from September 22 to 29, 2024, to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the British Morehead-Cain Program. Learn more about group travel through Morehead-Cain Alumni Journeys.