Photos by Robert Laspee
On April 4th following a prayer to kick off the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a group of 12 riders, left the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot (now home of the National Civil Rights Museum), in Memphis. They began a 3-day journey through the Mississippi Delta that would culminate at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. The brainchild of the Rev. Dr. Jason Coker, national director of Together for Hope, an initiative of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the cycling event called Civil Rides was created to raise awareness around persistent rural poverty in America and advocate for racial justice and healing. The 200 mile inaugural ride, followed a route that took the group of cyclists to historic civil rights sites, passed expansive fields and through struggling towns where poverty has a strong hold on the economic reality, but not on the unquenchable spirit of the people.
The Civil Rides project was conceived in June of 2017, with Rand Jenkins, the founder of Out Hunger, as a way to bring more national attention to the often-overlooked issue of rural poverty. What better way to garner media attention than to be at the center of an internationally covered event to commemorate the life and death of the nation’s most iconic civil rights leader and untiring advocate against poverty? Despite the monumental task and with less than a year to pull it all together, Coker was amazed at how all of the months of hard work and planning paid off. Thanks to an incredible team that consisted of Rand Jenkins (ride coordinator), Katie Sciba (volunteer coordinator), Linda Stringfellow (hospitality coordinator), and Heather Ivery (Jackson coordinator), Civil Rides 2018 far exceeded expectations.
“I don’t know that I had never been involved in anything with so many moving parts,” notes Coker, “but by grace it all fell into place perfectly.” “It was a tremendous team effort. We had dozens of support folks and volunteers, including the people along the way who welcomed us to their communities and offered us their signature Mississippi Delta hospitality.”
The 2018 Civil Rides event is the first of many to bring attention to rural poverty and swell the ranks of a movement to put an end to poverty in America. The proceeds of this year’s ride brought in around $35,000 that will be divided between 18 communities where Together for Hope has organizations.
Poverty does not discriminate. It touches all geographical regions, all races and ethnicities, all religious backgrounds and ages across the U.S. It is particularly cruel to rural populations. Together for Hope works to alleviate poverty through asset-based community development, which strengthens the community from within, providing a true path out of poverty. In this work, Together for Hope has four priorities: Education, Health & Nutrition, Housing & Environment, and Social Enterprise. The organization has partner organizations from Arizona to Appalachia and from the Dakotas to the Delta.
“Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have concern for ‘the least of these.’” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Coker and Together for Hope are letting no grass grow under their feet since the successful completion of the first Civil Rides event. Their work is ongoing in communities across the country. In towns like Shaw, MS where Coker grew up, he founded an organization called Delta Hands for Hope that is impacting lives through community projects including a summer food program for kids out of school, and the development of a community garden project that will utilize a deserted gin to produce fresh, nutritious vegetables and plant the seeds of entrepreneurism and opportunity for Shaw residents.
A documentary film directed by independent filmmaker Theo Avgerinos, that chronicles the Delta Hands for Hope project in Shaw and follows the 2018 Civil Rides journey is now in production. A preview of the film will be introduced in Dallas this June at the General Assembly of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.