By Alice Tisdale Perkins
Jackson Advocate Contributing Writer
As a child, the Honorable John Lewis would step onto a small wood box to preach to the chickens in his backyard. We all know what became of him. He demanded justice for all throughout his lifetime. So, it should not be too far-fetched to imagine seven-year-old Cashmere Burse, who rushed home to tell his “best friend” Bella all about his pilgrimage from Jackson, Mississippi to Birmingham, Alabama, to grow up and get into “good trouble” on behalf of God’s children.
When asked who he was going to tell first about his trip, and what he was going to say, Cashmere replied, “I’m going to tell my dog; I’m going to tell Bella I had a good time, and she’s going to be so happy for me.” Cashmere said he learned a lot during the four-day Sankofa (go back and get it) experience, (May 27-30, 2021) to Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham. Participating students attend the Drs. John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation after-school program, coordinated by their daughter, Elizabeth Perkins.
“The trip went above and beyond my expectation,” said Elizabeth. “The students really got into learning about their heritage. It is as though they were little sponges, eager to absorb the strength and courage of those who came before them. They wanted to be like the student crusaders who fought against oppression. Of course, it is hard to watch our children learn about slavery, beatings, lynching, voting suppression, and other racist acts against African Americans, but it is necessary. I am so proud of how they handled it.”
Eight-year-old Bishop Mack seemed to replace his shock of learning the horrid past of African Americans with a sense of pride. With a soft, almost solemn voice, he said, “I didn’t know about the four little Black girls who died in the church bombing. I didn’t know about the lynching of Black people. It is so sad. Why did white people hate us like that?” However, now that Bishop does know, he said in earnest, “I know I’m going to do better in school because of their sacrifices.”
It was not only the youth who cringed as Rev. Ron Potter, who assumed the role of tour guide, described in detail the imageries they encountered as they walked through the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the Legacy Museum, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, and across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. For Elizabeth’s older siblings, Phillip and Joanie, it was a vivid recollection of their youth. Their father, Dr. John M. Perkins, was severely brutalized by authorities in the Brandon (Miss.) jail in retaliation for his efforts to register Blacks to vote.
“My Uncle Ron contributed to my growth of learning during this trip as he did an excellent job explaining historical events and breaking down what that meant in the timeline of the United States,” commented Shelby Perkins, a recent college graduate. “The trip was a life-changing experience. I got to dive deeper into my cultural history and the roots that we have in the United States, and our fight for justice,” she said. “Going to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice was such an influential and emotional visit as I visibly saw representation of the injustice of lynching and murder committed by various counties and states toward Black and Brown men, women, and children. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to spend time with the youth and witness their reactions and listen to their questions about what African American people have gone through and are still going through in the United States.”
Although the trip was packed with history lessons, it was balanced with pool parties, movie nights, and a shopping spree at the Christian Service Mission, a community warehouse filled with food, household items, clothing, school supplies, toys and games.
For 13-year-old Dominique Smith, that was the best part of the trip. “I had the best time at the warehouse because everything was free,” he said. Yet, he acknowledged, “I really appreciate the people at the warehouse. They really work hard and sacrifice so people like me can have nice things.”
Dominique also shared how much he appreciates the foundation’s youth director, Angela Truex, who although is 33 years old, could easily be mistaken for a college student. “This is my life’s work,” said Truex. “Youth leadership adds value to community. I want our students to know they can make a difference just like the students they’re learning about.”
Another young adult the students are getting to know, but can actually talk and laugh with, is Phil Taylor, 30, who also made the trek to Alabama. This is Phil’s second stint with the foundation. The first was prior to his attending Purdue University where he received a B.A in African American Studies, American Studies, and Caribbean Studies.
“I’ve always been intrigued by history. I was taught at an early age about my true history and the meaning behind it,” stated Phil. “I was raised around a lot of men who always passed down stories and knowledge; I always watched movies in science and documentaries; and I was always fascinated about learning from different people and their upbringings.
“In order to understand someone, you first have to know where they come from, where they have been, and where they are going. Knowing history helps define a person’s thinking, social economic status, culture, and belief system,” he said. “Knowing these concepts help shape and define a person’s ideology. History is everything to me and a lot of people don’t know about their true history nor care to learn. But I do, because it’s who we are.”
Phil would be proud to know that 12-year-old Almonie Burse loves history and has plans to contribute to society in a big way. “I can’t wait until I’m 18, so I can vote. I want to be a part of voting for the president who will be for the whole country, not just for a few. The vote is what helps America. It’s how we get accuracy in getting the rights for all people,” she told this writer on the trip which encompassed the true meaning of a pilgrimage – a spiritual awakening.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. That realization came true for 15-year-old Ma’Liza Ward who wanted a pair of Croc shoes, but the mall prices hovered around $50, not something this inner-city youth could afford. Hence, lunch at the community warehouse mentioned earlier. What was pulled down from a shelf hovering over her head? A box of Croc shoes! The experience touched everyone, some to tears. “I’ve never seen Ma’Liza smile like that,” shared Elizabeth.
And faith episodes did not happen once, or twice. They happened several times during the trip. Another was when the youth learned the hotel pool was closed due to short staffing. But not until after they had put on their swimsuits and imagined all the fun they were going to have. To say the least, they were devastated but grumbling was short-lived. Then, the next evening, with no expectation or anticipation, the pool was open. It was apparent the youth had twice as much fun seeing God in action and in purpose.
Commenting on the heritage tour was youth coordinator and family member, Geanette Perkins. “I am so happy I was in this group and was privy to seeing the reactions of our youth – our futures – to our history. Hopefully, they will always remember, as they now have visible memories of a historic time.”
For this writer, it was meeting J’Amber Griffin, 11, who replied to my question, “Who is your hero,” with, “You.” Of course, I wanted to know why. “Because you’re my partner … a partner helps someone be all they can be.” This writer deems it a privilege to have been a part of the Alabama pilgrimage and partnered with J’Amber who I can’t wait to read, if not write, about her accomplishments.
But it takes seven-year-old Kiana Moore to sum up the Sankofa experience. She gave the trip and after-school director Elizabeth Perkins two thumbs up!