When a young Southern Baptist pastor named Alan Cross arrived in Montgomery, Ala., in January 2000, he knew it was where the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had his first church and where Rosa Parks helped launched the famous bus boycott, but he didn’t know some other details of the city’s role in civil rights history.
The more he learned, the more troubled he became by one event in particular: the savage attack in May 1961 on a busload of Black and white Freedom Riders who had traveled defiantly together to Montgomery in a challenge to segregation. Over the next 15 years, Cross, who is white, would regularly take people to the old Greyhound depot in Montgomery to highlight what happened that spring day.
America, unlike some countries, is not defined by a common ancestry, nor is it tied to an official faith tradition. But it does have a distinct identity and a quasi-religious foundation.
Americans are expected to hold their hands over their hearts when they recite the Pledge of Allegiance or stand for the national anthem. Young people are taught to regard the country’s founders almost as saints. The “self-evident” truths listed in the Declaration of Independence and the key provisions of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights have acquired the status of scripture in the U.S. consciousness.