Forgiveness impresses student

Civil rights figures in South showed resilience in conflict

Correspondent photos / Sean Barron Penny Wells, who runs Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, pays her respects to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel, now a civil rights museum in Memphis, Tennessee, on Tuesday. The wreath marks the spot on the balcony where King was assassinated April 4, 1968.

MEMPHIS, Tennessee — The hearts, courage and resilience of those who fought for others’ civil rights decades ago — and who Yoad Rodriguez Lopez had never heard of until recently — have paved a clearer path for him to take in his own life.

Specifically, the Chaney High School sophomore feels he’s in a better position to make what he sees as a few needed changes regarding those with whom he’s had conflict.

“I was impressed with how the killers were forgiven, and I feel like at least I can be willing to accept an apology and forgive (those with whom he’s had issues) – and tell my friends about the history I learned,” Rodriguez Lopez said about the civil rights workers who also suffered greatly because of their work.

One of those he was referring to was Reena Evers, who forgave Byron de la Beckwith, a member of one of Mississippi’s White Citizens Councils, for having shot to death her father, Medgar Evers, on June 12, 1963. He was 37 and the father of three small children.

Rodriguez Lopez also was grateful to Coretta Scott King, who forgave James Earl Ray, the killer of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel.

The motel, now a civil rights museum, was the final stop for Rodriguez Lopez and several other Youngstown area high school students before they returned home late Wednesday from an eight-day Sojourn to the Past traveling American history journey to key civil rights sites in the South.

“I was inspired by what (Medgar Evers) put on the line to achieve a greater future, but I’m sad he didn’t get to live a long life like most people do,” Rodriguez Lopez said. “I want to work hard to put myself on the line for something I believe in.”

More specifically, he hopes to one day work with immigrants and their families and use some of his earnings to donate to various charities — or perhaps start one of his own to improve people’s lives, Rodriguez Lopez continued.

While at the museum, he and the other Sojourn to the Past participants, including a large contingent from the San Francisco Bay area, watched a film called “The Witness,” in which the late Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, founding pastor of Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis, discussed having spent the last hour of King’s life with him in Room 306. Kyles was several feet from King on the balcony as the two men and others prepared to go to dinner at Kyles’ new home when the fatal shot from a .30-06 rifle rang out and felled the civil rights leader and humanitarian, who died one hour later at St. Joseph’s Hospital in the city.

“Kyles was very strong to talk about Martin Luther King when he was right there,” said Rodriguez Lopez, who bought a T-shirt in the museum’s gift shop that read “Be the Dream.”

King had returned to Memphis to lead a nonviolent march on behalf of the city’s 1,300 striking sanitation workers who had walked off the job a few months earlier to protest low wages, no health care benefits or sick days and their overall treatment. The catalyst for the strike came on Feb. 1, 1968, when two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, sought refuge from the rain in the back of a faulty garbage truck that malfunctioned and crushed them to death. The strike was finally settled April 16, 1968, when the mostly black men received nearly all of their demands, though they did not receive pensions.

Also contributing to the massive walkout was the newly elected Mayor Henry Loeb’s refusal to negotiate with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1733.

Rodriguez Lopez speculated that if King had lived, he likely would, despite his age, still be trying to make a better life for others in this country. At some point, he may have done work on behalf of the United Nations, and he probably would also be advocating on behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, Rodriguez Lopez added.


During her presentation to the Sojourn group last week in front of the Evers home in Jackson, Mississippi, now run by the National Park Service, Reena Evers said she still feels the spirit of her father whenever she returns to the house in which she and her brothers, Van and Darrell Kenyatta Evers, grew up – a place she equates with love and forgiveness. Despite his notoriety and high visibility, her father was an ordinary family man whom she described as demanding yet respectful and quiet.

“He was one of the ordinary people who moved to be sure of equality and justice for all,” Evers told the group from on the driveway where her father was shot to death. “My dad loved children, so he would love to know what you’re doing. I learned a lot from my dad; he was always about giving.”

In the weeks and days leading up to his death, Evers and his family were targets of hateful acts by the area’s White Citizens Council and Ku Klux Klan. Shortly before Evers was gunned down, someone had tossed a Molotov cocktail under the family’s station wagon, though the device failed to explode.

“At one point, I asked my dad if all whites hated us, and he said, ‘Sunshine, there’s good and bad in every race. Always look for the good.’ That’s my guidepost,” Reena Evers said.


The group also met Jerry Mitchell, a former investigative reporter for the Clarion Ledger newspaper in Jackson and author of “Race Against Time.”

Mitchell told the group about a story of his that ran Oct. 1, 1989, in the paper after someone had leaked several Mississippi Sovereignty Commission files to him. The spy organization tracked civil rights workers and others who supported the cause and gave information the commission received to the Ku Klux Klan.

Mitchell recalled having spent six hours with Byron de le Beckwith at his Signal Mountain, Tennessee, home, and called him “by far, the most racist man I had ever met.” His reporting was key in securing a conviction Feb. 5, 1994, against Beckwith, who was given a sentence of life in prison for killing Evers.

Mitchell’s reporting also led to convictions in other cold civil rights cases, such as Bobby Frank Cherry for killing the four girls in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama; Samuel H. Bowers in the killing of Vernon F. Dahmer Sr. in Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and the June 21, 2005, manslaughter conviction against Edgar Ray Killen for the mid-1964 killings of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner in Mississippi. That conviction came 41 years to the day after the three civil rights workers’ murder.

In his presentation, Mitchell, who now runs the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, linked the inflammatory language Bowers and other hate group leaders used more than 50 years ago against blacks and Jews with rhetoric used in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

The longtime journalist noted that such hate-filled language also was used in the June 17, 2015, mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, that killed nine blacks; the Oct. 28, 2018, attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11; and the mass shooting May 14, 2022, at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York, that left 10 black people dead and several injured.

In addition, Mitchell drew a tight parallel between Klan members in the 1960s telling their adherents about an invasion of “outside agitators” coming to disrupt the segregated way of life in the South with the mass shooting Aug. 3, 2019, at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart that resulted in 23 deaths and 22 injured. The shooter mirrored rhetoric put forth by some elected officials who warned of a mass invasion of immigrants headed for the U.S., he noted.

The Sojourn to the Past group also traveled to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, where Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine black students who integrated the all-white school in September 1957, conducted a question-and-answer session with them.

Eckford, who faced an angry mob alone on what was supposed to be her first day of school and still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, recalled Ken Reinhardt and Ann Williams, both of whom were in her speech class and were among the few students who reached out to her in kindness.

“On the first day, I heard a man say, ‘Let’s hang her; let’s drag her to that tree,'” Eckford told the group, referring to someone in the mob outside of the school.

Once admitted a few weeks later, Eckford was the subject of constant harassment and, some say, terrorism that included being scalded while taking a shower after gym class, having to step on broken glass while in the shower and being body-slammed against lockers and walls.

Eckford also decried the corrosive effects regarding casual use of the N-word, noting that it says more about the person using the racist term than who it’s directed against.

“It’s racial self-hatred,” she said.

Eckford is in an iconic Will Counts photograph taken Sept. 4, 1957, known as “The Scream Image,” that shows her shielded in dark sunglasses with an angry mob tailing her and 15-year-old Hazel Bryan, who’s scowling at her. Many contend the photograph is highly symbolic of the bigoted legacy of the Jim Crow era as well as intolerance and prejudice in general.

The Associated Press named the image one of the 20th century’s top 100 photographs.

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