It’s not easy to find examples of political comity in what thus far has been an acrimonious election year in the United States. But an effort in South Carolina last weekend (March 18-20) is one that should be applauded.
A bipartisan, multiracial group of 14 members of Congress – seven Republicans and seven Democrats – spent three days in South Carolina touring important civil rights landmark sites with the aim of promoting better racial understanding.
Violence against African-Americans in the Palmetto State is still fresh in thought. On June 17, 2015, nine members of a Bible study group at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, S.C., were murdered in their house of worship. An admitted white supremacist confessed to the crime. Afterward relatives of those killed expressed forgiveness for the man charged in the shooting; many said they would be praying for him.
The “Pilgrimage to South Carolina” is an activity of the Washington, D.C.-based Faith and Politics Institute, which for nearly 30 years has led annual bipartisan civil rights “pilgrimages” to Southern states.
Hundreds of members of Congress have had an opportunity to learn firsthand about America’s civil rights history, while engaging in a reflective dialogue with each other without the confrontational trappings of partisan Washington politics.
Among the other sites visited that weekend was Orangeburg, S.C., where in 1968 state troopers killed three black students who were demonstrating against segregation.
While these pilgrimages cannot be directly linked to the passage of specific legislation in Washington, those participating tell of being moved at a deep and personal level by the experience.
“We’ve heard so much about the power of forgiveness, so much about an active form of love, that hopefully we as members of Congress can go back to Washington and take the seeds of connection, the ability to bring people together,” says Sen. Tim Scott (R) of South Carolina. Senator Scott is the first African-American from the Deep South to be elected to the US Senate since the Reconstruction Era immediately following the Civil War.
Two weeks ago a couple of hundred miles north of the pilgrimage’s Sunday church service at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston a white man attending a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was caught on camera punching a black protester who was being escorted out of the North Carolina rally.
The pilgrimage is promoting a peaceful approach to political differences.
“The responsibility and the onus is on every single one of us, but especially those of us who have stepped forward as leaders, to present a case of a peaceful, constructive way to protest those things that you disagree with and look for ways to move forward collectively,” Scott said.
Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, also on the pilgrimage, had been attacked a half century ago as a young civil rights protester. He later forgave his attacker, a member of the Ku Klux Klan. “I don’t think there’s any room in our society, whether in a movement, in a political campaign, for violence,” Mr. Lewis said during the pilgrimage tour.
A statement on the Faith and Politics Institute website notes that “the power of love and forgiveness ... holds open the door to increased understanding and reconciliation.”
That is a healing message at any time – and especially as the US political season moves forward.