The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is kicking off a daylong commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination April 4 by embarking on a 270-mile bicycle ride to raise awareness of the plight of America’s rural poor.
Civil Rides, a three-day trek from the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., is the brainchild of Jason Coker, national coordinator for the CBF’s Together for Hope rural poverty emphasis.
Coker, who also serves as field coordinator for CBF of Mississippi, said he got more than he bargained for when he approached a museum official about kicking off the ride from the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on the anniversary of King’s April 4, 1968, assassination.
“She leaned across the table and she said, ‘Son, you get as many riders as you can,’” Coker related to CBF Conversations podcast with Andy Hale. “You are going to start the day.”
Coker described the opportunity to be part of the museum’s official MLK50 commemoration as both a great responsibility and good opportunity to raise awareness about Together for Hope, a rural poverty initiative that began in 2001 as a 20-year commitment to the 20 poorest counties in the United States.
“The ride, we hope, can raise the national awareness and prick the consciousness of America about what’s happening in rural space,” Coker said.
Coker, a native of rural Mississippi, said American industry has largely abandoned rural communities. One goal of the ride, he said, is to challenge the narrative that people in those cities and towns are poor because they are too lazy to work.
“In rural America, these are some of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met,” Coker said. “They have worked in fields and factories and mines all their lives, and only for that industry to abandon them.”
Coker said economists refer to the trend as rural overpopulation. “It’s not that there’s too many people there,” he said. “It’s just that there’s not enough jobs for the people who are there.”
“They have been abandoned, and now we blame them because they don’t have a job, because the jobs have left, as if that was their fault.”
Coker said the route — from Memphis south through the Mississippi delta to Cleveland before turning across state to Winona and then finally south to Jackson — is also reminiscent of the civil rights activist James Meredith’s 1966 “March Against Fear.”
Meredith, who in 1962 became the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi, intended to walk alone from Memphis to Jackson to highlight continuing racism in the South and encourage voter registration after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
On the second day, he was shot and wounded by a white sniper. While he recovered, other civil rights leaders including King and Stokely Carmichael carried on the 220-mile trek. By the time Meredith rejoined the march near the finish line, it had grown to an estimated 15,000 marchers and was the largest civil rights march in Mississippi.
“We’re not going to be following that exact path, but to start in Memphis and end in Jackson is reminiscent of that kind of space,” Coker said. “Our tires will be rolling past a lot of that sacred space all along the Mississippi delta and down to Jackson.”
Coker said planners hope Civil Rides will raise money for Together for Hope — recently expanded to 301 counties of persistent rural poverty with an ongoing goal of working alongside other organizations helping rebuild rural economies — “but the biggest thing is to raise awareness.”
Coker said many Americans today live in neighborhoods segregated by economics. “Economic segregation in America makes it so that everybody thinks that the rest of the country is just like them,” he said.
“If you are poor, you think everybody is poor and everybody is struggling. If you are middle class, you think everybody’s middle class and working very hard to hold on. If you are wealthy, you think everybody’s wealthy, because that’s your only experience.”
“I hope this ride is able to raise a banner for persistent rural poverty in America, so that people can know that no, it is not the same,” he said. “Not everybody in this country is doing fine. As a matter of fact, most people in this country are struggling to make it, and the economic situation in this country is so skewed toward the wealthy right now.”
Coker encouraged people interested in joining the ride to find out more at the Civil Rides website or Facebook page. Out Hunger, a Texas-based nonprofit led by Rand Jenkins, former communications director for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, is co-sponsoring the event.
Individuals who cannot ride can participate as volunteers or sponsors.
Endorsing organizations include the National Civil Rights Museum, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Simmons College of Kentucky and The Angela Project, kicked off last year by Simmons College to commemorate the 400th anniversary of black enslavement in the United States in 2019.