Lessons Learned from Elizabeth Eckford, Carolyn McKinstry and Annie Pearl Avery

Over the years we at Distant Horizons have had the pleasure of introducing travelers to community leaders all over the world. Through carefully created opportunities groups have met with local politicians, activists, storytellers, makers, artists and journalists to name a few. Creating these relationships is some of the most important work we do as a company. While this is true for all our programs across the globe, this, particularly right now, is especially true on our home soil, right here in the United States. We pioneered our first Civil Rights tour in 2017 bringing groups of Americans on a moving journey right in their own backyard. The tour introduces voices that are not separated from travelers by oceans – it introduces travelers to their fellow citizens – Americans.

The accounts and memories shared with travelers on these programs are all non-fictional accounts of the injustices and discrimination happening in neighboring states, cities, or in some cases, their own hometown. As travelers walk in the footsteps of major Civil Rights activists, it is in our hopes that through these stories, and the resilience shown by brave men and women, they start to ask themselves what they can do to further this fight for justice. That they may realize the fight is not over. 

While all of the voices on this Civil Rights tour are of critical importance, three stories are particularly pertinent to the events of today. These are the stories of three resilient women, from three different cities, and three different walks of life. Elizabeth Eckford, Doctor and Reverend Carolyn McKinstry, and Annie Pearl Avery have, time and again, been a shining light and example to our travelers.

When our groups meet with these women, they are presented with the harsh realities of what it was like, and in many parallel ways, what it is still like, to be a black woman in the United States of America and live in a black community in the United States of America and be a black citizen in the United States of America. These stories do not start off sugar coated or sunny. They begin with simple statements: I wanted to get a good education. I wanted to go to Sunday school. I wanted to vote.

As these simple statements turn into tragic stories of discrimination and reveal the rotten products of institutionalized and systemic racism, what we really take away from these experiences is how these three women survived and pressed onward despite all those obstacles. How they went on to get an education. How they went on to overcome mental hurdles and forgave their wrongdoers. How they were able to see an unjust system (albeit slowly) crumble and resolve to further voting rights and others.

In this resilience are tools we can take away with us and use to build a better world for everyone in the present. If you’re observing the current events in the United States, it’s easy to wonder if we’ve made substantial progress or better, you’re wondering what you can do. We would like to offer some important lessons from our time with these three women and their stories. It is from these warriors that we hope to provide an insight into not only what it means to be black, but what tools can be gained from them that will allow each and every one of us to go forth into the world and do what is right.

Elizabeth Eckford

When Elizabeth Eckford shares her experience, she begins with the trauma caused by facing a snarling white mob alone on the way to her first day of high school. The mob made it seem like the entire tangible world was up against her and her simple wish for a good education. Today, we’re seeing the overwhelming opposite: crowds into the tens of thousands taking to the streets to stand in solidarity and show that further change is tangible because we are here with you and not against you. This is a good thing. This is the right direction.

However, what Elizabeth also touches on comes after the crowds, the racism she encountered after she made it to school. She recounts how no one spoke to her. Her peers harassed and tormented her in unimaginably cruel ways. Her teachers didn’t make any effort to communicate with her and, despite her clearly academic strengths, never gave her an “A” in any subject. Surely students and teachers around her saw this discrimination and outright meanness that occurred day after day. No one stepped in to listen and to learn from Elizabeth. No one thought outside of themselves to brush off these terrible systems and the hatred they put in place to say: you’re a person that deserves to be seen, heard, and acknowledged. No-one except for two white students in her debate class. Elizabeth was a shy student but she loved this class and when she talks about the two white students who acknowledged her as a person, you begin to understand how a person can make a difference by doing so little but so much. If we can make that the lesson – you don’t walk by anyone lying on the ground bleeding. You don’t watch a wrong being done without intervening. You act.

Carolyn McKinstry

Doctor and Reverend Carolyn McKinstry, former attendee of the 16th Street Baptist Church that was bombed in 1963, killing four young black girls, greets guests in the sanctuary of that very church. As they gather around to listen to Carolyn, she recalls her strong community, the joyful Sunday morning before the bomb went off. A thriving Black community in Birmingham in the 60s. Then her tone shifts and she shares how one senseless act of violence changed all of that.

Their church, the cornerstone of their community and her personal life, was obliterated. Innocent, young Black lives lost. Community torn apart. Those girls -daughters, granddaughters, friends, nieces-  were ripped away from the people who loved them because of hate and discrimination. And the bombers? The men were not charged until the early 2000’s. One had passed away before the trial went to court and lived a life free of any consequence to his actions.

Carolyn made the decision early on that, she too, would overcome. When she won the Spelling Bee contest in Alabama but was not permitted to attend the final in Washington DC because of the color of her skin, she did not stop.

Annie Pearl Avery

Lastly, we meet with Annie Pearl Avery. A fiery woman who walks with a cane and shows up to our meetings shouting, “VOTING RIGHTS” through a megaphone. Annie Pearl has been an advocate for her rights before most even know what it means to be an advocate. She marched as a young girl with Martin Luther King Jr. across the bridge in Selma. She was arrested for protesting starting in her early teens. She has been arrested for her activism over one hundred times, but she has never stopped.

Now in her 80s, Annie Pearl’s life can be seen as a dedication to the fight for justice. When she meets with travelers they always pry her about the activism of her past. While Ms. Avery does indulge in their questions, it’s when she talks about what she’s fighting for in the present that her passion starts flowing. At the end of the meeting, travelers crowd around Annie Pearl with their fists in the air yelling, “VOTING RIGHTS”.

What we take away from these stories falls in place with the calls to action of today. We can look at the groups in our society who are calling out to us with that same need to be seen and see them. We can listen to those who need to be heard. We can acknowledge those that need to know their lives matter. Elizabeth so candidly shared with us how it felt to not be acknowledged. We think of Elizabeth and we strive to learn more.

Today, when we see senseless acts of violence committed by members of our communities that are supposed to protect us from those very things, it’s time to take action. We need to stand up now, not almost 40-years later, and make sure these people are brought to justice. The lives of those four Black girls from the 16th Street Baptist Church mattered. Justice for them. The lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Arbury, and many others matter. Justice for them.

Communities like Carolyn’s are resilient. We see that also in the families of those who have been lost to senseless police brutality and violence. They pick up and continue forward. But they should not have to wait for justice. Hold your local authorities accountable. Sign petitions. Use your voice to advocate for these voices that were quieted too soon. We think of Carolyn’s story and we strive to do better.

From Annie Pearl we learn that the fight is not over. The fight for systematic change, the dismantling of a system that disfavors people of color, in many ways is still kindling. If you’re looking at the recent events and wondering when things will, “go back to normal”, when people will stop heading to the streets, when we still stop holding our figures of authority accountable for their racist and violent actions, know that the battle is not over. It’s difficult. It’s filled with resilient citizens that understand the price for justice and equality. We think of Annie Pearl and we strive to keep going.

May we learn from Elizabeth, from Carolyn and from Annie Pearl and may their lights provide beacons for us all.

Written by Savannah Fortis, tour manager for many of our Civil Rights Tours.