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. 

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