A bipartisan congressional delegation launched a civil rights tour of South Carolina on Friday, kicking off events at the Zion Baptist Church in Columbia.
U.S. Reps. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, and John Lewis, D-Ga., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston, are leading the annual Faith and Politics Institute pilgrimage aimed at giving congressional leaders access to the role southern states played in the civil rights movement.
Speaking to reporters Friday at the church, Clyburn said the trip to South Carolina "would give my fellow Congress people an understanding ... maybe even some answers to the question so many people are asking: How could those family members, having just experienced such a horrific act, stand before the world, and say to the accused perpetrator of that act, 'I forgive you.'"
Clyburn was referring to the family members of the nine slain African Americans who were shot and killed during a Bible study at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last summer.
“Coming to Columbia, then to Orangeburg, and culminating in Charleston on Sunday morning, would give my colleagues a very good understanding of what forgiveness is all about.”
Since 1998 the Faith and Politics Institute has led annual civil rights pilgrimages in five southern states to give congressional members access to the history of the civil rights movement.
The S.C. trip includes 14 members of Congress – split between Republicans and Democrats – and 200 students, seminarians, local leaders and annual attendees on the pilgrimages.
Lewis said it was good to be back in South Carolina, where in 1961 he was beaten bloody at a Rock Hill Greyhound station when he and other Freedom Riders stopped their to stage a peaceful protest against segregation.
“What happened in this state can be a lesson for the whole nation,” Lewis said of the Mother Emanuel tragedy. “And what happened in Charleston can teach not just our nation but our whole world a lesson.”
Lewis said the three-day tour exploring South Carolina’s civil-rights history may prove overwhelming to him and others on the pilgrimage.
“I don't know whether I will be able to take it all in. This is what the struggle has been all about. To be able to forgive with a sense of grace, hope and love. And I think my three days here is going to be too much for many of us.”
But South Carolina has come a long way, said Lewis, noting that there still is work to be done everywhere in the struggle for civil rights.
"When people tell me nothing has changed in America, I will say ... come and walk in our shoes. This state is a different state. It is a better state. My native state of Alabama is a better place. Our country is a better place.
Lewis said the nation must “build on this sense of hope and progress and continue to move toward reconciliation and lay down the burden of bitterness, the burden of division and the burden of hate, and bring people together.”
Asked about recent violence on the presidential campaign trail, Lewis said, “I don't think there's any room in our society, whether in a movement or in a political campaign, for violence.”
Lewis said in 1961 in Rock Hill, he and other Freedom Riders refused to press charges, saying they came “with peace, with love, we believe in a philosophy of nonviolence.”
The congressman then recalled how a Ku Klux Klan member and one of his assailants came to his office in Washington, D.C., several years ago with his son and apologized, asking for forgiveness.
“I said, ‘I accept your apology. I forgive you. They hugged me, I hugged them back, and the three of us cried together,” Lewis said.
Scott noted the importance that faith and education in reconciliation.
“If we’re looking for that power that eradicates hate, that power that brings light into dark places, power that has transformed the state, we have to think about the foundation of love, the foundation of reconciliation” which also is a the foundation of faith.
Scott called Clyburn and Lewis “civil rights heroes” and “heroes of the American journey, the American legacy and the American Dream.”
The group had stops planned at Brookland Baptist Church before heading to Orangeburg.