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ON A SOUTHERN PILGRIMAGE, A GROUP FROM CONGRESS FOUND HISTORY AND CONNECTION

If they're not careful, the people at the Faith and Politics Institute could give Congress a good name.

Co-chaired by House member John Lewis, D-Ga., and my husband, Amo Houghton, R-Corning, this Institute sponsored the first annual Civil Rights Pilgrimage renewal journey to Alabama a couple of weekends ago.

Ten members of Congress plus the chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties participated in a three-day crash course on American civil-rights history. It was part of a new Capitol Hill program for lawmakers called Congressional Conversations on Race.

As we rolled along in a chartered bus, the group grew silent watching PBS's "Eyes On The Prize," a video history of the civil-rights movement in America.

Our "pilgrims" rolled along the route of the Freedom Riders buses, starting in Birmingham, the city where four girls were killed by a bomb planted at the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.

It was one of the horrifying acts that shocked and galvanized the American public into action 33 years ago, inspiring thousands of protesters and peacemakers to participate in the non-violent marches, rides and sit-ins led by Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and others.

On our modern journey, the members of Congress -- many of whom were too young in 1963 to understand the gravity of "the Movement" and its battles -- were powerfully moved.

Building on the Martin Luther King Jr. Days of Dialogue project and the President's Initiative on Race, our group's visit to the fiercely segregated cities of the '60s seemed like a sequel to the Hershey, Pa., Bipartisan Congressional Retreat last year, whose aim was to promote civility and understanding in the ranks of Congress. Our pilgrims were Democrats and Republicans, men and women, black and white, young and not-so-young.

Viewing the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, with its searing history of the Movement, one walks a gantlet between sculptured attack dogs lunging across the narrow passageway. The mother of a congressman who had grown up in the South expressed the pain she felt at having been part of the system that subjected fellow Americans to so much brutality and hatred.

Rep. John Lewis comforted her, as he does those who beat and tormented him, as "victims" of a history they couldn't control, where the system taught them to hate. This remarkable man remains committed to a "beloved community," trusting the change in these people as authentic, from bigotry to tolerance, from sheriffs to governors to mayors who confronted him during the struggle. He is full of hope.

On to Montgomery. A mural of the events in the life of Martin Luther King Jr., in the undercroft of the church he served from 1954 to 1959, was explained by the 89-year-old deacon who long ago recruited him to come there.

Upstairs, in the church where King preached, reverence deepened as the group stood before the pulpit and sanctuary that framed the man. Enveloped in silence, we moved on up the hill across from the Alabama state house to the Civil Rights Memorial, a monument to those who died in the struggle.

Designed by Maya Lin, known for the Vietnam "wall" in Washington, the black granite table records the names of 40 people who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom between 1954 and 1968. Water emerges from the table's center and flows evenly across its top. A curved black granite water wall behind the table is engraved with King's paraphrase of Amos 5:24:

. . . Until justice rolls down like waters/And righteousness like a mighty stream.

We stood silently, hands trailing through the water, touching the names, feeling the texture and the water, meditating on the rippling reflection of faces, tears blurring, feeling gratitude for the heroic 40 who died, sadness for human brutality, guilt that we hadn't all done more, determination to work for the cause.

Then Selma. As you enter, at the bottom of the bridge, site of John Lewis' march into the fierce posse of armed men with clubs, there's a battered arched sign that says "Welcome to Selma." In the top of the arch, there's a rusted Confederate flag.

Sunday morning, at the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the preacher was John Lewis. He paid tribute to the African-American "founding fathers of a new America." He is one of them.

And these congressmen and women and their families and friends, marching with him, were bonded in a spiritual community.

Faith and politics. Civility. Bipartisan leadership. These were the mantras of our pilgrimage to Selma.

PRISCILLA DEWEY HOUGHTON, a writer and playwright, is the wife of Rep. Amo Houghton, R-Corning.

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