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Congressional Pilgrims Going South in Search of a "Grace Note"

05/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If I had been Paul banging out parts of the New Testament, in the days of yore, certainly I would have claimed myself as a "Southerner of Southerners" from a cotton growing family.

My father, "Big Daddy," was the Sheriff in my native Mississippi County in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I cook grits the labor-intensive way. And, let me be clear -- there is serious value, for me, in a tea bag as long as I can dip it in hot water, add ice and throw in a couple of cups of sugar.

I am a Southerner. A white son of the deep South. I came of age in the 1970s and 80s on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. I watched black and white leaders figuring out how to make it work, how to bring it all together. My father would take me with him to the yearly NAACP Freedom Banquets in our county. We would hold hands in a circle and sing "We Shall Overcome." It felt good. I never noticed, at the time, the we were the only whites in attendance -- the first whites to ever attend. Today, all the local leaders -- bankers, school administrators -- attend.

There is no doubt that so much of what I do today in developing message and strategy around national issues and political campaigns came from those amazing people back in Grenada County, Mississippi, who had stood up, stood out and stood strong just to receive full billing as Americans. They touched my soul back then and I carry with me today.

It is with great anticipation and expectation that I prepare to be a pilgrim for a few days in my motherland. There is an organization in Washington extremely good at promoting unity and non-partisan dialogue. The Faith & Politics Institute has been around for about 18 years. Each year they sponsor a Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama, taking Members of Congress from both parties to visit the historic churches and locations in Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery where American history played out in a most dramatic fashion. Civil Rights leaders and icons join and lead discussions with the group.

Our policymakers return to Washington profoundly changed, to say the least. This sojourn through living history always culminates with a commemoration of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma known as Bloody Sunday. 45 years ago, a young visionary named John Lewis led that bloody march. Today, as a U.S. Congressman, he leads his colleagues each year on the Pilgrimage and across that same bridge. Yep, it's a poignant, powerful moment, indeed.

This year, the Faith & Politics Institute's 10th Civil Rights Pilgrimage is this weekend, March 5 - 7. The Faith & Politics Institute will be offering a "Virtual Pilgrimage" throughout the sojourn with thoughts being posted by members of Congress, civil rights notables and others. I look forward to sharing these and my thoughts here at this blog on the Huffington Post.

Secretary of State Clinton often refers to 'grace notes' that are experienced through life. She is talking about those moments that touch the soul, when something special and soul shattering is experienced... something that calls us to understanding, feeling and action.


Several years ago I was running a congressional race down south. It was horrible. We were out of money; there was little cooperation internally and externally. Our opposition was drowning us with spending on television ads. It was so bad I decided to get out... not just out of that particular campaign, but out of the profession. I was ready to hang it up and find another career. My first son was an infant. It was a Friday, and I was already planning on flying to DC for the weekend to be with my wife and new baby; I just decided I would not return.



I was numb by the time I arrived at the airport in Atlanta. Getting through security did not help. As I walked to my gate, from behind, I realized a celebrity must be nearby because people were gathering around someone... there were flashes from cameras. Approaching, I heard, "Son, this is your congressman." 
And then, "Sir, would you mind taking a photo with my daughter?"

 The celebrity: United States Congressman John Lewis. The audience: white Southerners (I know Southern voices), mostly my age (I know slightly graying hair). Many were with their children.



So here I was watching the sons and daughters of the South... those of a generation who remember the remnants of Jim Crow and who had family and friends who grew up prior to the Civil Rights Movement. I know the things they have heard in their communities; the things they were told, by some, as children.

 But here they were introducing their children to John Lewis, having photos taken and getting autographs. And then one white gentleman stuck out his hand to Congressman Lewis and said, "Thank you, sir, for what you did for my family."



John Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge 45 years ago and was beaten with baseball bats for doing so. John Lewis was imprisoned for saying we should all be treated equally, because, well, we are equal. John Lewis was spat upon and reviled.
 Me? Well, I had a bad week in a campaign office. And I was ready to quit. No baseball bats, no spitting, no imprisonment. Nope, I just had a frustrating week.
 I returned to DC, saw my wife and new baby and returned to that campaign and gave it my best. We did not win the race. We came close. But, I have helped many people of good will win campaigns since. I did not quit.
 Now that, folks, is a 'grace note.'


The change of 1970s and 80s is the reality our children live in, today. That makes change incarnate for me. It makes me smile.

This weekend I will travel to Alabama with policy-makers, icons and leaders. We will experience American history. We will also consider the future we can create when we put down our baseball bats, decide we are all in this together and choose to debate the issues instead of attacking each other.

On Sunday, I will join Congressman Lewis, other members of the House and Senate and scores of others and walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. There will be no violent hoards waiting. There will be no billy clubs or bats. We will celebrate how far we have come, and ponder how far we can go.

When it's all over I expect to do what I often do: return to my room, boil some water, drop a tea bag in it, add ice and some sugar, and consider the dream of one America.


This is what Congressman Lewis says about the Pilgrimage:

During this pilgrimage there are times when the walls between us come down. We begin to see ourselves, not as Democrats or Republicans, not as members of the House or Senate, not as advocates of differing views, but we see ourselves as Americans on a journey to discover our roots. In Alabama, we move through American history. The air is filled with the story of ordinary people with extraordinary vision willing to give all they had to redeem the soul of a nation. We come away with a deeper appreciation of our democracy, of the importance of our role as legislators, and the power of a determined people to make a difference in our society.

I hope to see you here and on the "Virtual Pilgrimage" in the coming days.