OAKLAND -- For seven consecutive years, Rep. Barbara Lee has taken the next generation of heirs to the civil rights legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. to travel to the deep South for the annual Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage. And each time, she returns invigorated.
This year was no different.
Lee, the founding chairwoman of Oakland's Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center, took two students from Alameda and one from Oakland with her on the three-day Southern sojourn to Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, Ala.
"It was very rewarding to witness the young leaders make the connection between the nonviolence and conflict resolution curriculum they receive at the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center to the stories they heard and the people they met during their pilgrimage to the birthplace of the civil rights movement," Lee, D-Oakland, wrote in an email after returning from the pilgrimage that ended March 3.
Erin McGee, 15, a 10th grade student at Oakland's Unity High School, spoke about the experience from her home.
"When we got on the bus the first day, it was unbelievable. I sat with Bettie Mae Fikes, a civil rights singer," she said. "They have you sit with someone you don't know, because racial violence came out of segregation and this set a different tone, right from the start."
Merriam Salem, a 16-year-old 11th grader at¿ the Alameda Science & Technology Institute, said her pilgrimage actually started at home.
"We did our own fundraising because we wanted our community to support us," she said. "I started with teachers and family and then it was a ripple effect and others participated."
Malcolm Jackson, a 10th-grader at Encinal High School in Alameda, attended the pilgrimage, but missed the mini-reunion to share memories at Erin's home.
Each student had to raise $1,400, including an extra $200 to help cover security costs when Vice President Joe Biden was added to the list of luminaries making the trek. But for the experience they called "poetic," "powerful" and "life changing," nobody was complaining.
It wasn't just young people who benefitted from the trip. Erin remembered civil rights leader Dorothy Cotton telling them she wasn't worried about the world anymore because of the students she had met that day.
"I never thought I'd hear that," Erin said. "I really can make a difference."
At the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., Merriam said politicians reached across the partisan divide to hold hands and sing songs of the revolution.
"It started snowing," she remembered, "and it was so beautiful. It was a perfect moment of looking at our lives and making sure justice is there."
Along with tears of joy, the journey held moments of profound pain, often prompted by intimate, unexpected details and confessions from adults leading the pilgrimage.
"I saw a little antique ashtray at the MLK parsonage that struck me," Merriam said. "We were right where (King) had his meetings. We were in a sacred place."
On the tour, Erin said Montgomery police Chief Kevin Murphy removed his badge and handed it to Congressman John Lewis, D-Georgia, on behalf of the police force that had failed to uphold its duty to protect the Freedom Riders in 1961.
"He said the badge had been a symbol of fear and hatred and that now he wanted it to be a symbol of reconciliation. It showed us how to forgive," Erin said.
Looking to the future generation, Lee said the fight for justice and equality is evolving. Guiding young people to "take the reins" and lead the modern civil rights movement is the primary purpose of the freedom center and the pilgrimage.
Merriam, a Muslim-American, wore her hijab on the final day, when the more than 300 pilgrimage participants linked elbows to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. The original march in 1965 prompted Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.
"This was my day to make my mark," Merriam said. "Everyone was leaning forward, thinking about how to solve issues, not just in our country, but in our lives. Students at my school think it's over and accept their suffering. I tell them they don't have to see gang violence. Their lives aren't scripted. They don't have to lose themselves to have a life."
After they belted out a hearty rendition of "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around," Erin was hopeful.
"The pilgrimage made me see that people are starting to get along. We're all different, but we're all serving the country. We are the change."