The Faith & Politics Institute has honored Mississippi congressmen Bennie Thompson and Chip Pickering with the Lewis-Houghton Leadership Award. Thompson and Pickering joined to host a delegation of congressmen, clergy, civil rights veterans, and dignitaries to tour Mississippi earlier this year. The three-day visit enlightened participants on the struggles against injustice and segregation, and the reconciliation witnessed since in Mississippi.

At the time, I served on Pickering's staff and participated in the pilgrimage. The trip reminded me, regardless of ideology and party, of the power of optimism in both faith and politics.

Among our stops we visited Mt. Zion in Philadelphia, Medgar Evers' home and Beth Israel in Jackson and Gulfside Assembly in Waveland. Parchman was the most insightful visit.

Parchman was an unlikely homecoming for two participants on the trip. In 1961, Bob Filner, John Lewis, and other Freedom Riders took interstate buses through the South to force integration. Their bus from Montgomery pulled over at the Mississippi line to let National Guardsmen, under the command of G.V. Sonny Montgomery, to board and provide security from Meridian to Jackson. Montgomery, Filner, and Lewis later became friends when they would all serve together in Congress representing Mississippi, California and Georgia. Back in Jackson in 1961, the Freedom Riders were promptly arrested for using "whites only" facilities and escorted to Parchman Farm for two months.

In 2008, now congressmen Filner and Lewis were escorted to Parchman by Capitol Police for a much shorter visit. At the Parchman chapel, Filner and Lewis recounted their prior inhumane treatment. The contrast of Filner's message struck me. Forty years ago, facing prison practices designed to break the spirit, a young Bob Filner was optimistic. His smile showed me he remained, today, optimistic. He said his generation (in contrast to the next, less optimistic, anti-Vietnam generation) saw one really could make a difference; one really could change the country.

The optimism of the civil rights movement is forgotten today. My anecdotal experiences reveal young whites see discussions of the civil rights movement as a burden; they feel unjustly blamed for actions of people in the past who happen to be their same color. Meanwhile, young blacks see discussions of the civil rights movement as a shame; they are embarrassed and defensive when reminded of a time when people of their color aspired just to be second-class citizens. This is at least partially the case because curriculum discuses the movement in a vacuum, without the results and victories and shared fruits of the struggle.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s voice was not silenced by a gunshot. Medgar Evers' work did not end with a bullet. James Meredith's struggle did not conclude with riots. Vernon Dahmer's mission did not incinerate in flames. History sometimes provides factual beginning and endings, but not contextual effects. The results of the civil rights movement continue beyond the factual ends of participants. It is in the victories many did not see in their own lifetimes, that we can derive optimism to do more.

While there is no perfection this side of eternity - personally or socially, those with faith or engaged in politics cannot escape the optimism of further progress.

Religious people have an inherent optimism. We believe in something better and beyond ourselves. We believe God works in history and our lives and has power to respond to our needs. We believe in a final salvation, a victory over injustice, a victory over sin, a victory over death with life everlasting. This is ultimate optimism.

Political people tend to be optimistic. We engage the political process because we believe we can affect positive change. We campaign because we believe we can win. We govern and act because we believe our work makes a difference.

Optimism permeated the Faith & Politics trip. Thirty years was not too long to seek justice in Evers' assassination. Sins and shame from the past are not too strong to reconcile in Philadelphia. The very songs of the movement: "We Shall Overcome" and "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" are songs of future victory and optimism. We closed the pilgrimage with prayer on the soil of optimism in Waveland.

Hurricane Katrina wiped away the Mississippi Coast less than two years prior. But we witnessed new construction: people rebuilding, returning, restoring. The structures were different, but the ground was not higher; the sea was not lower; there is no promise a storm will not come again; there is no assurance the work on the Coast will not be undone. Nevertheless, Mississippians are optimists and you see it by our fruits.

Thompson and Pickering do not frequently work together. But we can be optimistic that when they find common ground, whether economic development projects or leadership, they have the courage to join despite their differences and the political pushback each receives from their own constituencies. For that reason, for courageous optimism, they received the Lewis-Houghton award.

Brian Perry of Jackson, a former congressional aide, is a partner in a public affairs firm. Reach him at