Congressmen explore the 'civil' in civil rights on South Carolina pilgrimage

A bipartisan group of 14 lawmakers visited South Carolina over the weekend in a three-day pilgrimage that sought to foster race and political relations. 

Leroy Burnell/The Post and Courier/AP
US Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia speaks at a press conference following Palm Sunday service at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., on Sunday as a Congressional delegation participates in Palm Sunday worship services. Behind him, from left, are US House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland; US Sen. Tim Scott (R) of South Carolina; US House Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn, (D) of South Carolina.; and US Rep. Will Hurd (R) of Texas.

Federal lawmakers who finished a three-day civil rights pilgrimage in South Carolina Sunday say what they learned on their trip could help members of Congress come together amid sharp political divisions in Washington.

The bipartisan group of 14 political leaders visited Columbia, Orangeburg, and Charleston over the weekend as part of the South Carolina Faith and Politics Pilgrimage, which seeks to foster racial equity and promote relationships across political, religious, and ideological lines. Those who have attended the pilgrimages say they provide some of the only opportunities for lawmakers from opposite parties to get to know one another outside of Washington’s noxious political environment – and this tour was no different, The Post and Courier reports.

“Time and time again ever since Friday we have found reasons to seek each other out,” said US Rep. James Clyburn (D) of South Carolina, said Sunday at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where an avowed white supremacist killed nine people last June and where the congressional group ended its pilgrimage.

“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,” added US Sen. Tim Scott (R), also of South Carolina.

The pilgrimage, which involved 200 students, seminarians, and residents, also gave local activists a chance to discuss how race and reconciliation have played out past and present in the Palmetto State.

On Friday, civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers compared the attention given to the 1970 Kent State massacre in Ohio – where four white students protesting the Vietnam war were killed – to the killing of three and injuring of dozens of black students by state troopers at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg two years earlier.

“Forty-eight years and to this date, I don’t think any of us know what happened to everybody. We don’t know why they were shot, don’t know what they were shot with,” Mr. Sellers said, according to The State.

At the same time, the themes of forgiveness and progress – particularly around the Mother Emanuel tragedy – also took center stage. Following the killings on June 17, relatives of the nine parishioners killed expressed forgiveness for alleged shooter Dylann Roof. South Carolina has since taken down the Confederate battle flag that flew on the State House grounds for more than 50 years.

“What happened in this state can be a lesson for the whole nation,” US Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia told The State Sunday. “This is what the struggle has been all about. To be able to forgive with a sense of grace, hope and love.”

Still, some lawmakers acknowledged that overcoming the political and racial tensions that divide America today will take far more than a three-day pilgrimage.

“We talk a lot about history, about what happened, about the bad and how we overcame it with the good,” US Rep. Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland, told The Post and Courier. “But frankly, we come in a context of today’s politics where there is too much talk about division, about diminishing others, because of their nationality or their race, or color of their skin.”

"We're not there yet. We have a role to play and we must play it," Representative Lewis added.

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