It's funny how although Matt and I had an entire week away from our children, to (hypothetically) sleep as much as we wanted, that I felt exhausted much of our trip. I'm back home now, and writing this post with almost two weeks of time and space, the intensity of what we saw and experienced still sits with me.
I think the exhaustion was the weight and emotion of everything we saw, and the responsibility we have as witnesses to respond in some way to what we saw on our pilgrimage. How am I as a white woman living fifty years after these events (albeit living in a society where similar events still happen), going to live differently after being in these sacred spaces?
Last night Matt and I went to a speaker series here in Oakland. The topic was on how where I live in the Bay Area was intentionally segregated through public policy for the last 100 years. I think in light of our journey through these Civil Rights locations - which in many ways seem culturally so unlike where I live, and so much more segregated than my life in Oakland - I was struck at how many issues of race and discrimination, and in the very least the repercussions of racist policies and laws, persist. In my city. In my state. Challenging to say the least.
There were plenty of good, upright. loving people living in these Southern towns and cities fifty years ago who did not rise up against or blink at their culture of bigotry and violence. And there are plenty of good people now. How will we respond to injustice when it surrounds us?
As we drove from our hotel (which was lovely), to our first stop, I passed this building and loved this:
We went to wait outside of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which in September 1963 was bombed, killing four little girls. Later that day two other young boys were killed in racially provoked incidences connected to the bombing.
We didn't have a reservation to get in, but luckily piggy backed onto a private school group that was on a tour.
(As a sidebar, it was really interesting to go to many sites where school groups were touring. In this case, the entire high school group was white except for one African American boy, who spent the entire time walking around with the sole African American teacher. I couldn't help but wonder what dynamics were at play in that scenario both at that particular experience of touring this church and in general. So many of the high schoolers were blowing the whole thing off (as of course is to be expected because they are in high school!), and from their clothes and other indicators it was easy to tell that they came from wealthy, white, Southern families. As I stood in the small, closet sized gift shop in the church basement behind the one African American student, I wondered what it was like for him to navigate this experience but in the context of his schoolmates. )
The bombing happened on a Sunday morning, and the church was full of kids. 16th Street Baptist had been used as a location for Civil Rights mass meetings, so it was targeted by four members of the Ku Klux Klan, although the bombers (who were found much later and not even prosecuted until 1977- shocking, not shocking) said that they didn't think anyone would get hurt. Even though the 15 sticks of dynamite were on a timer. On a Sunday morning. At a church.
Not to be all sidebar all the time in this post, but an amazing part about this story (and I really encourage you to read up on it), is that one of the bombers very own NIECES acted as a key witness against him, which led to his guilty verdict in 1977.
Below you can see some of the destruction to the church. This bombing was a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement because REALLY?!? who murders children in a church. Oh wait, racists.
The blast knocked the face of Jesus off of one of the stained glass windows.
Following the bombing the church rebuilt and replaced the stained glass, so the church today looks remarkably like it did in 1963, which makes it feel as if no time has passed when you are sitting in the pews.
After the bombing, people in Wales donated this large stained glass window of a black Christ which is now up above the balcony. The right hand represents oppression and the left hand forgiveness. Really quite beautiful.The rebuilt spot at the exterior of the church where the bombing happened; the black marker is a memorial to the girls who were killed. It started drizzling while we were standing there, looking at the exterior of the church.
Thousands of days since, and that devastating split second on a Sunday morning still marks this spot as a place to stand and remember.
(Post-museum we went and got BBQ that a museum employee recommended because, well, Alabama. It was so good that we ate it too quickly to document it. It was in a random food court inside of a nondescript office building and yet...Delicious!)
Across from the church is Kelly Ingram Park. It's amazing to realize how much happened in Birmingham in the early 60's just at this one intersection. The park has interactive sculptures and installations throughout depicting the terror of 1963 in Birmingham. Bull Conner, the Commissioner of Public Safety - a racist, bigoted hot mess - was so violent, brutal and unyielding to the non-violent protesters (including thousands of women and children) that he (whoops!) accidentally garnered support fro the civil rights movement. I won't go into detail on the events that went down in Birmingham because I would probably mess up the historic details, but suffice it to say that Connor and his cronies used maximum force to try and squash the protesters. Among their techniques? They used dogs, water cannons (set at the level to peel bark off of trees or rip brick and mortar apart), cattle prods, and threw thousands (yes you read that number right) of children into jail.
The below sculpture is of three pastors kneeling in prayer when they couldn't go any further while attempting to march toward MLK who was being held in a Birmingham jail. (Have you ever read King's Letter from a Birmingham Prison which he wrote on the margins of newspapers and on small paper scraps while imprisoned and smuggled out like a puzzle? You should.)
The Four Spirits showing the girls who were killed at 16th Street Baptist.
I loved this marker- Place of Revolution and Reconciliation
Police dogs attacking marchers
I cannot imagine the courage it took to walk in non-violence through dogs and police. The bravery it took to face law enforcement who wanted nothing more than to terrorize and harm you. The risks that so many took putting their own lives on the line to attain freedoms that as a white person I would have taken for granted.
You walk through this door and are faced with a water cannon.At the time, it was controversial -even in civil rights circles- to use children in the struggle. I was so moved by the children's courage. It made me wonder, "How do I foster courage in my children? How do we teach them to stand up for what is right? How do we allow them to choose bravery over safety?" Lots for me to think about.
One of the civil rights organizers who was initially against the Children's Crusade, said "Negro children will get a better education in five days in jail than in five months in a segregated school."
This piece is hard to see, but written upside down above the bars (to me it is as if the words are rising to heaven as a prayer) are the words Segregation Is a Sin.
As we walked to our car, through the park, by the front of the church, and finally alongside the back area of the church that was bombed, rain began falling. It felt appropriate.
We left Birmingham and drove through stretches of back country roads through Alabama and into Mississippi. Such beautiful, beautiful country.
We'd decided sort of last minute to drive to Mississippi. It was a few hours out of our way, and meant we'd have at least 5 hours of driving instead of only three, but we'd had a conversation on Sunday with a friend of ours, Dee, who was living in Mississippi when three civil rights workers went missing while investigating a black church that had been burned to the ground. Now about 85 years old, he told us the story of living nearby at the time, and of being at the County fair the day the slain workers bodies were found. He described how tense the atmosphere was, and how to this day it wouldn't be a good idea to announce to locals just what landmark we were looking for. Of course as soon as he told us his first person story, it made me want to at least attempt to visit the spots where these workers were buried or slain. That turned out to be a little tricky since all of the locations in their story were unmarked and small intersections of country roads.
After doing some sleuthing and piecing together different addresses and names, we found ourselves driving down a narrow, kind-of-paved single lane road in the middle of nowhere to hopefully find the church that the men had originally gone to investigate. It was still drizzling.
The tiny church was rebuilt after the arson in the same location, and after winding around on the small road we found it.
Out of all of the places we went, this spot was one of the most emotional for me. We'd been driving through such poor and rural areas, and as we drove to this church we passed some homes that were likely there in the 1960's, some of them in better condition than others.
I imagined these young men, going door to door, trying to convince poor black country folk that their voice and their life was worth being counted and that they should register to vote. They spent time teaching people to read, to write, to organize. These people had absolutely no power, no money, and no privilege. In the eyes of our society they were nothing: poor, black, and uneducated. These young men gave their lives because they believed in the value of the human beings living in this rural part of Mississippi. Standing by the side of the road, this same place where these men were taken, brutalized and murdered, I was standing on hallowed ground.We added stones of remembrance to the small memorial at the roadside.
This church bell, which now stands next to the rebuilt church, is the only thing that survived the burning of the original Mt. Zion Church.
It was incredibly poignant.
Our gift after a very emotional day? A serendipitous meet up with our dear friend Jeff, who lives in Pasadena, but was in Memphis that day for a conference. We were so happy to see him! I might have sent his wife this celebratory we-wish-you-were-in-a-random-state-with-us-too picture...
He had had an intense day as well, so naturally we decompressed over some BBQ......and then processed things a little more over a drink at the fancypants Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis.
Meanwhile, our darlings were back home, so my poor in-laws kept getting pictures like this from me to share with our kiddos, because, well, we missed their cuteness and their insanity.
At the end of the night we were wiped out (ahem, see the beginning of this post. Ah, Full circle. Another wonderful, heartbreaking, exhausting day!) so we skipped Bourbon Street or whatever else you're supposed to do in Memphis late at night, and we tumbled into bed to gear up for the next day.
As I fell asleep I thought about the green countryside, red dirt and vast sky we'd driven through, and how the brave footsteps of young children thrown in paddy wagons until the jails were full took down grown men with weapons.