Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., is one of the stops on the exploration of the South’s civil rights history. (Wikimedia Commons photo)
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., is one of the stops on the exploration of the South’s civil rights history. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

'Pilgrimage' to the South's civil rights sites to explore religion, culture

The South’s religious, culinary, literary, cultural and musical history will be examined through the lens of the civil rights movement.

By Jeff Brumley

A Mercer University-led tour of the American South will expose participants to some of the culture, history, politics, architecture, food, religion and key locations that informed and drove the nation’s civil rights movement.

In other words, one of the tour’s leaders says, it’s a pilgrimage of sorts.

“If the tour is successful, part of it will be that people think there’s something valuable about the South as place,” said Doug Thompson, associate professor of Southern studies with an expertise on Southern religious history and the civil rights era. “We will be connecting the dots between the places we are going — and that is something you do on pilgrimage.”

The six-day bus tour begins May 18 in Atlanta before venturing to Montgomery, Ala., New Orleans, Memphis, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala. Stops include the Statehouse and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, plantations, museums, the home of William Faulkner in Oxford, Miss., Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo, Miss. and the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham.

ThompsonThe group will also visit some of the South’s most iconic dining locations.

Significant civil rights locations not visited, like Tuskegee and Mobile, Ala., will be still be discussed, Thompson said.

“We can talk about some things as we go past,” he said.

One of those discussions will be about the influence the Mississippi Delta played in helping slave spirituals inspire the development of what became blues and jazz, he said.

The South’s cotton culture, huge before Civil War and even bigger after it, will be repeatedly touched on during the tour because it planted some of the seeds for what would become the struggle for economic and racial equality.

“It’s going to create all kinds of reasons for things like sharecropping and tenant farmers,” Thompson said. “Our tour will follow that development from the antebellum period on up through the modern civil rights era.”

For his portion of the tour, Thompson said he will also lead discussions on the religion of the South, namely how Roman Catholicism and Protestantism were used both to support and oppose slavery and later civil rights.

Many don’t realize that Catholics supported the social structures of the South, including slavery, in the same ways that Baptists and other Protestants did. Both traditions were known for having segregated congregations, he said.

But there were also Protestants and Catholics who agitated against those practices, choosing instead to identify with the prophetic voice of Scripture.

There was little that was black and white about the complexity of faith in the South during these times, he said.

“It’s hard to talk about Catholicism or Protestantism in monolithic terms,” he said.

Baptists presented just as blurry a picture, he added.

“They are across the board” in support or opposition to slavery and civil rights. Many argued that Jesus was not a Southerner and that the Bible should not be used to support discriminatory cultural norms. Others saw biblical order in a segregated society.

“The two impulses are both there,” he said. “Sometimes we have to figure out which one is doing the most work.”

The tour will be the first of its kind for Mercer, and is being organized by its Center for Southern Studies. The two other leaders are David Davis, assistant professor of English and a Southern literature expert; and Sarah Gardner, professor of history and the center’s director. The event will focus on their areas of expertise as much as Thompson’s.