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The Guilt Trip

A picture of reporter Leoneda Inge in a large group of white people.
Leoneda Inge
Me and my fellow travelers in between visits to Civil Rights sites in the South

Have you ever been on a “guilt trip?” I have.

Back in 2018, I signed up for a private bus tour that took a group of folks from Durham, North Carolina, down to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit museums and memorials.

Once I’d paid my bus fare, hotel and museum fees, I thought my journey to Montgomery would be a Civil Rights trip of a lifetime. In many ways, it was just that. But I’d be remiss not to admit how shocked I was to board the bus in Durham and see it filled with white people. Even the bus driver was white.

What exactly had I signed up for?

I am admittedly a little spoiled when it comes to “the movement.” I was born and raised in the South, educated at a historically Black college. So, I expected a bus trip to the lauded, new National Memorial for Peace and Justice to be full of — Black people. I quickly reconciled the voices in my head telling me to get off the bus when people sitting around me began to sing songs from the unifying soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement.

By the time they got around to “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind Stayed On Freedom),” my hard, confused shell began to soften.

Just a little background on this trip: one of the main reasons I chose to hop on the bus was to experience the artistry of North Carolina-based actor Mike Wiley. And he did not disappoint. Mike stood in the aisle of our bus and transformed before our eyes — into the young Freedom Rider John Lewis.

“Songs stiffen the spine. Sleep was gone, we got to the border between Alabama and Mississippi and we saw that famous sign, Welcome to the Magnolia State. And our hearts jumped into our mouths.”

We sat quiet, watching, listening and knowing what came next for John and the other brave freedom fighters.

Mike Wiley dramatizes stories of Civil Rights heroes at the Convention Center in Charlotte, NC in 2017

The weight of this journey began to get heavier by the hour. We didn’t just visit the then-new lynching memorial in Montgomery. There was an emotional stop at the Civil Rights Memorial constructed by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And then there was the Freedom Rides Museum, located inside an old Greyhound bus terminal. That’s where I got a chance to speak with Clay Turner, an older white man on our bus, and a retired pastor. Turner told me of his past as a supporter of Civil Rights, trying to turn his “guilt into something that may be redemptive, may be healing, may be helpful.”

That’s when it hit me. For me, this was a field trip. For Clay and many of the white people on that bus, this was a guilt trip.

Most of the folks on my bus to Montgomery were likely born in the 1960s, or earlier. And like Clay, there was this sense of “white guilt,” that they had not done enough to address the racial ills strangling this country. It may be this same “guilt” that has resulted in so many people with so many different backgrounds joining young Black people in the streets, screaming out against police brutality, systemic racism, and against icons of white supremacy marbled and bronzed.

Toward the end of the ride, our Durham to Montgomery journey was made whole when we came face-to-face with hundreds of steel columns magnifying the names of thousands of Black people who were lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950. My new bus buddies and I walked the memorial grounds on a search to find columns from where we were born, raised or live today.

There were tears on this trip, but not by me. I already knew all of this history. I did smile a lot, though — proud of how my history had been re-packaged, brushed off and presented so everybody, even the youngest and the whitest of us, could understand why Black people march. Why we chant. Why we scream. Why we sing.

Why we wake up in the morning, stayed on freedom!

Hear sounds from Leoneda’s bus trip to Montgomery, Alabama and a conversation with diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice expert Desiree Adaway on addressing white guilt about systemic racism on this episode of WUNC’s Tested podcast.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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