Monday, April 27, 2015

A New Day, Kind of

Day 3: Selma, Marion, Birmingham Alabama
Waking up with a view of the Pettus Bridge, over which thousands of people marched in the infamous Selma to Montgomery march 50 years ago was surreal. (Can you see it on the right side of this picture?) But as we mentioned the bridge to Howard, the hotel employee who had lent us Civil Rights books at the night before, and how powerful it was to see it and to walk over it, he laughed and said, "I walk over that bridge every day to and from work!" He also hadn't seen the movie Selma yet (only one woman we talked to had seen the movie!)
We spent some time that morning sitting on the upper balcony of our hotel, sitting, thinking, writing,  before beginning another intense day. 
The town is mostly quiet, aside from some buses of tourists, and people working at local shops, there wasn't much activity. The morning itself was still, with a bright sky and no wind. It made me think about how a place can be at rest on the surface, but full of unrest under the surface. It was hard to get an idea of what race relations are like 50 years later in Selma, aside from the comments of the four or five people we ended up talking with during the day. Each of them said that there is still a great deal of racism and segregation, and that there are outright racist actions as well as less overt ones. (I should point out that everyone we talked to was black except for one white park ranger who also agreed; I'm not sure what the others would say.)
Our first stop was at Selma's Interpretive Center, which was a powerful stop. We spent time listening to first person accounts and watching their interviews. One of the clips was of a white local woman, a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy (which, yes, to my shock- still exists!), who was so vitriolic and hateful as she recounted the events of the past. She slammed Viola Liuzzo (the woman I wrote about yesterday who was killed by the Klan as she drove a marcher home) as a "hard-core prostitute" and the Selma to Montgomery march as one big orgy of interracial sex, drugs and alcohol.
Images of the marchers walking to the base of the bridge that we had walked over the day before.
A symbol of bigotry, this button was often worn by law officers and whites who said they would "never" allow integration to move forward.
We walked through Selma, finding first the spot where a white pastor, Joseph Reed, who had come down from Boston to the march was beaten and killed outside of a cafe. He had made a wrong turn walking and accidentally ended up in front of a whites only cafe (which is no longer there, but the below marker is.) Since the 50th anniversary of the march just happened, we often saw wreaths or flowers by the markers to violence.
The town itself shows the cost of little industry and years of economic depression. Many buildings are abandoned, boarded up or falling apart. As we took the route to the church where many mass meetings took place, the reality that we would see time after time was apparent: blacks had gained voting rights and desegregation in the South, but many neighborhoods where the Civil rights struggle took place were poor and without viable jobs to make them prosper. It was pretty discouraging. SO much poverty and so few options. Of course I see this, too, living in East Oakland, but it was a whole new level of economic disparity.

We went by a second memorial to James Reeb, which was just a few feet away from a memorial erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy honoring the Confederate Navy yard workers who produced war materials during the Civil War. We saw this juxtaposition repeatedly on our trip - monuments to the Confederacy and more recently (many just in the year or two before) markers to the Civil Rights movement. The two seem in direct conflict to me, although of course I am not a Southerner. (If someone can explain how that's not the case- go for it.) This weekend the town was set to celebrate the 150th Battle of Selma, a Civil War battle that took pace in Selma, just weeks after the city had marked the 50th anniversary of the march on Montgomery.
Soaking the space in:
Our walk continued past empty, weather worn buildings, many that showed proof of once housing restaurants or stores or working warehouses; now they were just shells, and evidence to a history of a once thriving city.

Our next stop was the Voting Rights Museum, which was small, but housed artifacts from the struggle for Voting Rights. It was kind of eclectic, and less museum-y and kind of homegrown, but really got so much out of walking through the exhibits.
A dress worn by one of the Selma marchers; the base of it is full of tears and rips.
Photos leading up to the Selma March:
This imposing KKK figure, even without a human inside, was chilling. The KKK artifacts we saw in different places were all donated anonymously, since many of the original owners are still around and are either compelled by circumstances or embarrassment or family to donate their hood, robe and other materials. I can't describe how unsettling it was to stand next to this figure.
A KKK painting on a saw blade, which was sometimes up outside of towns to let people know the KKK was active there, a burned cross from a yard, and a membership application.

We drove to the Lowndes Interpretive Center, which is at the site of Tent City, one of the places that people camped on the way to Montgomery. It was also a place where blacks who had been fired or let go from their jobs as sharecroppers once their employer found out they had been on a march or to a meeting about voting rights, leaving them homeless, where able to stay temporarily. Tent City, which was set up in a huge grassy area, housed people for up to two years! 

I loved this picture taken at Tent City of Stokely Carmichael hugging a little kid..
A photo of segregated bathrooms:
Lowndes County, where Tent City was, eventually came up with a political party and logo for their party once voting rights were established- a black panther. Recognize this? An Oaklander brought it back to Oakland, and it became the logo for The Black Panthers! (A very cool link I never knew about.)
I loved driving through the back roads over rivers and streams, and between fields and groves of trees. Alabama is absolutely beautiful.
Our back roads drive led us to the small town of Marion, the birthplace of Coretta Scott King, and the site of the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson, who was leaving this church below after a mass meeting to march the one block to the town jail, where James Orange, another civil rights protester, was being held. Before Jimmy Lee could even get down the block, the group was attacked by police. He tried to run into his restaurant behind the church, where his family worked, and in shielding his mother and grandfather, he was shot in the kitchen and killed. Outrage over his killing is what led to the Selma march.
Here is the jail, just a block away. This sign seemed crazy to me! But with the windows open (like they are here) it would be easy to shout up to someone held in the jail.
We happened upon a cemetery, and I will spare you all of the pictures, but there were so many confederate flags at gravestones. Some would have been soldiers I am guessing, but others just had flags at their plot. 
Marion was another town like Selma, although much smaller; so many artifacts of another era just left to disintegrate. There was also a teeny main street with a drugstore that had a row of rocking chairs outside!
The main intersection, right across from City Hall and the County Courthouse.
We went to a crazy delicious BBQ spot for dinner. Their sweet potato pie was still warm and insanely good, and Matt was in his happy place. We talked for a long time to a young black guy working there, who knew a ton of the local and civil rights history. We'd been having a debate via text with a friend over whether the Rebel Flag was racist or (as he asserted) represented Southern culture and the ways of the past, so we asked our new friend if he saw the confederate flag as racist, since it was all over the local cemetery. He laughed wryly, "Oh, yes, it's racist."
On our way out of town we found the road that led to a second, less official cemetery, where Jimmy Lee Jackson's body was carried a few miles after his funeral in a long procession. Just like other memorials, his gravestone is pocked with bulletholes and other damage. It was quiet there, at the side of the road and at the edge of a glen of trees. I thought about how his life was cut short, and how in many ways, the narrative hasn't changed that much 50 years later.
The narrow country roads gave way to larger highways, and soon we were driving into downtown Birmingham for the night!
We found an excellent cocktail spot close to our hotel, and talked through the day. The day felt heavy. As we sat at the bar, I noticed that the white man sitting next to us, in a starched button down shirt, appeared to have the insignia of the confederate and american flag intertwined embroidered inconspicuously on his shirtsleeve, and the present didn't feel too far removed from the past. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

And so it begins

Please indulge me as I post (way too many) photos of our pilgrimage through the South. This week has left me with much to process, and as we finish up our time here tonight to head home tomorrow morning, I am thinking through the stories I've heard over and over this week.

It's funny how even though we saw repetition in many of the exhibits, placards and museums we visited, the stories are still not embedded in me. On one hand it is not my history, as I wasn't alive yet, and so it takes effort to remember the names and dates and happenings. On the other hand, it is my history; this history belongs to all of us as Americans- not just because it is the story of our nation, but because we inherit both the legacy of courage of those struggling for civil rights and the legacy of shame for the horrific ways our fellow Americans maybe even our ancestors terrorized our human beings, and for the ways racism still marks our nation's landscape. More than once this week I uttered Lord Have Mercy. Our capacity as humans to cause damage to others is incredible.

Day 2: Montgomery + Selma

On Tuesday, we went back to downtown Montgomery to explore in the daylight. We parked by this beautiful, historic home around the corner from the Southern Poverty Law Center. (I keep being astounded as an Oaklander how massive these Southern homes are)
(Loved this pretty fence and gate)
There is a monument outside of the Southern Poverty Law Center by Maya Lin, who made the Vietnam Memorial. Powerful to put our hands in the water. The monument bubbles up in the center, and it made me think of how many small but intentional actions bubbled up during the civil rights period, until it finally couldn't be ignored.
Inside the Southern Poverty Law center. Each portrait has a bio engraved into it, which was so moving. many of the ordinary people who gave their lives- intentionally or not- to the movement for equality.
At the end of the museum you can add your name to the Wall of Tolerance. I added my name (as did Matt), although I don't really like the word tolerance. (Can you find both of our names? Gold star if you can)
Any trip with my husband involves food, so, you know.....
We went to this famous Montgomery spot, Chris' Hot Dogs. You have to try a place when at 10 PM a city bus stops a block away and someone yells out of the front doors of the bus, "Is Chris' still open?" 
Holy goodness, and I don't even like hot dogs. Meanwhile, husband indulged his obsession with sweet tea.
After getting some food, we went to the Dexter Ave Baptist Church for a tour of the church where Dr. King was a pastor for 6 years. Hands down this was the best tour I've ever been on. The tour guide began our time by getting to know each one of us, and by leading us in a time of singing We Shall Overcome. A local kid was there, and didn't know it cost money, and multiple people volunteered to pay for his tour. maybe I cried multiple times on the tour (of course if you know me, this is not shocking.)

We began in Dr. King's study, which is original.
One of my cry spots is surprisingly in front of the wall of pastor portraits. The church has photos of all of the pastors since the 1800's, when the church was built during the Reconstruction. The pastor before King was Vernon Johns, a fiery pastor and civil rights leader who rubbed many of the middle and upper middle class blacks at Dexter Ave Baptist wrong. He would challenge them in ways they didn't want to be challenged, and intentionally did things to incite them to action. For instance? He sold his farm vegetables outside of the front of the church, challenging their elitist attitudes. Our tour guide talked about how Vernon Jones prepared those at the church for MLK. Vernon was more radical and less of a peacemaker. Then along came King, who challenged the church, but who never could have pushed as far as he could without Vernon preceding him. I often want Matt to be more like King (let's face it, he is more fiery than I am!) But as our tour guide reminded us? Each of us has a role. It seems funny as I write it, but tears streamed down my face, as I thought about how my husband is different than I am in how he approaches thing, but how both of us have a role in seeking justice and goodness.
The little Sunday School area, with the pulpit which King spoke from when he addressed the marchers from Selma to Montgomery.
The sanctuary of Dexter Ave. I love that they built this church during the Reconstruction, and that they used the discarded bricks from the city paving the main street to do it!

We raced over to King's parsonage, where he lived while pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist. I wasn't allowed to take pictures inside, but I did take pictures of the porch, which still bears the scars of the bomb that was set off at their home while Coretta was home with their ten month old baby. Powerful to see the diningroom table where countless meetings where held about the civil rights movement.

Down the street (which has changed a lot since Dexter Ave Baptist purchased the parsonage- back then it was an upper middle class black neighborhood) I loved this graffiti:

We then went to Montgomery's Greyhound Station, the site of a brutal attack on Freedom Riders. It is now a monument. You. Guys. Heartbreaking and inspiring.

We left Montgomery to drive to a couple of small monuments off the main highway to civil rights workers who were killed. John Daniels , a young seminarian, was killed in Hayneville, Alabama.

Viole Liuzzo , a white mother of five who had driven down from Michigan after reading news reports of how awful the struggle was becoming, was shot in her car while driving a black marcher home.
Her monument has been vandalized many times so it is surrounded by a fence.

We drove the route of the march from Selma to Montgomery, but in the opposite direction, ending up in Selma that evening. We stayed at the lovely St. James Hotel, with about 100 crazy high school students on a civil rights trip.
Selma is a weary town, with little enterprise to sustain it. Walking around it was pretty depressing, although I am so glad we went there.

As evening fell we walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was the site for incredible violence. If you haven't seen the movie Selma, which details much of this part of the movement? I highly recommend it. Walking this bridge was powerful and poignant.
The second half of the bridge falls off sharply so it was easy to imagine the marchers suddenly surprised at the amount of state troopers the the base of the bridge. Of course they were prepared for violence, but walking it in the evening light it was hard to imagine how brutal that day was.
A monument to unknown martyrs at the base of the bridge:
The beauty of the evening as we crossed back over the bridge was in stark contrast to the history of Bloody Sunday.

After walking around the downtown, we finally stopped for dinner and drinks at the lone Mexican spot in town. Two things: One? All the other restaurants were closed. Two? For Selma Alabama it was pretty good, but I'll stick with taco trucks in Oakland for good Mexican...
A sobering day. So much to absorb. Lucky for us we ended up having a great conversation with a couple of locals who have lived in Selma their entire lives, and who have been actively involved in civil rights. And then as we headed to bed, the maintainace guy- African American, and probably in his 70's-walked over to us, introduced himself, and handed us two books about Rosa Parks and Bernard Lafayette (another Civil Rights activist) for us to borrow and read. It felt sacred, so I stayed up late reading one of the books, and thinking about how even in 2015 it was likely still an act of bravery for an elderly black man to approach and give a white couple some books.