As we continued our journey across The South, our trek led us to The Heart of Dixie, Alabama.
Our first stop was Montgomery. As the capital of the state and former capital of The Confederate States of America, this city is steeped in history, but for people of our generation the more recent history is burned more indelibly in our memories.
Montgomery might be the epicenter of the modern civil rights movement, beginning back on the first of December 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Our knowledge of these events was sketchy at best, so we decided to seek out some of the sites of these historic events with a bit of our usual spur-of-the-moment tourism.
Without any advanced plans, The Rosa Parks Library and Museum on the Troy University campus was the first of these sites that we came upon. After chatting with a few of the students that staff the museum, we headed inside to the focal point of the presentation, a re–creation of the bus Mrs. Parks was riding.
We entered a darkened room they call the Cleveland Avenue Time Machine, climbed aboard, and were taken for a ride through the years from Jim Crow in the 1800s to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and 1956. The Rosa Parks incident triggered the boycott, which began as a one day event but ended up lasting over a year, before being settled by an agreement that nobody could be forced to give up their seat based on race.
The success of the boycott led to more efforts to end segregation and secure voting rights. The story of those struggles led us to The Southern Poverty Law Center and The Civil Rights Memorial Center.
The Memorial captured our attention as we walked up the street toward The Center. The smooth granite circular slab is engraved around the outside edge with the names of people killed in the struggle for equal rights. Water washes over the stone as a constant reminder of Dr. Martin Luther King’s words, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The Memorial was created by Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin, who envisioned the plaza as “a con-templative area — a place to remember the Civil Rights Movement, to honor those killed during the struggle, to appreciate how far the country has come in its quest for equality, and to consider how far it has to go.”
Inside The Center there is a tribute to each of the victims and information on many of the cases The Law Center has fought through the years. After we browsed the exhibits and watched a film in the theater, it was hard not to let anger be our overriding emotion, but then we came to The Wall of Tolerance just before the exit. Tolerance and nonviolent resistance were the hallmarks of the movement, certainly we should carry on that tradition today.
The twenty by forty foot wall is an electronic display of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who have pledged to stand up for equality. After seeing the stories of so many brave souls who gave their lives in the fight for basic American rights, it was not a difficult decision to take the pledge and add our names.
“By placing my name on the Wall of Tolerance, I pledge to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance. I will work in my daily life for justice, equality and human rights – the ideals for which the Civil Rights martyrs died.”
It was a deeply emotional moment watching our names appear on the wall, we’re sure we were not alone in walking out the door with tears in our eyes. Actually, Veronica was openly sobbing and the nice volunteer at the exit had kleenex at the ready, so we’re absolutely positive we weren’t the first.
The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. King served as pastor, stands just around the corner, literally in the shadow of the capitol building that was the birthplace of The Confederacy and site of George Wallace’s famous “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech.
Obviously the atmosphere was pretty charged around here back in the early sixties when advocates began to arrive from around the country to stand up to segregation and register African Americans to vote. This led to some of the most extreme violence perpetrated during the entire movement, most notably the beating of Freedom Riders as they arrived in Montgomery to integrate bus service and depots in 1961, and Bloody Sunday at the Selma to Montgomery Marches for voting rights in ’65.
One of the lesser known participants in the marches was Viola Liuzzo. After the final march Viola volunteered to drive people back to Montgomery from Selma and committed the unforgivable act of being a white woman in a car with a black man. Nothing got a bigot’s blood to boiling like that. So four Klansmen chased the car down Highway 80 and about halfway between the two towns, pulled up beside the car and shot Viola four times in the head. Even though one of the shooters was a known FBI informant, not one of the murderers was convicted by their all white juries. In 1991 the Women of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference placed a marker for Mrs. Liuzzo near the highway at the site of the shooting.
We felt that we should see it, so we stopped on our way to Selma. We wanted to cover the exact route of the Selma to Montgomery Marches (though we were going backward), to get a real feel for what happened there.
We had to watch closely, the marker can be easy to miss, as we did on our first pass. But after doubling back we found it. In a sad commentary as to how far we still have to go, the marker has been knocked down and defaced, often by painting Confederate flags on it, many times.
We entered Selma at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, scene of Bloody Sunday, when 600 marchers were beaten and gassed as they tried to cross the bridge on their first attempt at marching to Montgomery.
Two days later Dr. King led another march, this time only planning to go as far as the bridge, to prove the point that they had the legal right to do so on the authority of a Federal District Court Judge.
The third march left Selma two Sundays after the first try, with just over three thousand people. They walked about twelve miles a day, sleeping in fields along the way, until they reached Montgomery four days later. By the time they marched up to the capitol building the group had grown to 25,000. But later that night the murder of Mrs. Liuzzo marred the success.
Before we crossed the bridge into Selma, we pulled off to see the small memorial below the eastern entrance, but it was in a sad state of repair. Once across we were a little surprised by the lack of acknowledge-ment the town of Selma seems to have for these events and the civil rights movement in general.
With banners hanging from the lampposts reading: “Historic Places, Social Graces,” the city seemed to want to play up its Southern charm more than any of its more recent history. I guess we can’t blame them too much, it wasn’t pretty, but it still struck us as strange after seeing the beautiful tributes in Montgomery.
The two biggest landmarks from the movement in Selma, the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, have not changed much over the decades, so we parked and set out on foot to retrace the route of the marchers from the bridge back to the church that had served as the starting place for all three of the Selma to Montgomery Marches.
As we walked up Martin Luther King, Jr. Street we were struck by how much everything looked like the pictures taken fifty years earlier. Other than the street being paved, The George Washington Carver Homes where many of the marchers lived and took in participants from out of town, including Viola Liuzzo, looked exactly the same. Sometimes progress isn’t readily visible. We were ready to move on.
Our exploration into the history of the civil rights movement would not have been complete without seeing the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the site of the lowest, most cowardly act ever perpetrated by the segregationists.
On a September Sunday morning in 1963 four Klansman planted a bomb in the basement of the church and set it to go off during a youth meeting at the morning services. Four young girls were killed in the blast, but only one of the perpetrators was arrested. He paid a small fine for illegal possession of dynamite. No one else was arrested, tried or convicted for the murders until many years later.
The church is still active and it seemed a bit unseemly for us to treat it as a tourist attraction, so we went across the street to The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The Institute, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, had by far the most extensive exhibition about the civil rights movement that we had seen in our travels.
Set up as a walking journey, multimedia exhibits took us through the turbulent decades of the fifties and sixties while the powerful Oral History Project told us the stories from the actual participants, in their own voices.
Across from The Institute is Kelly Ingram Park, which served as a staging ground for many of the demonstrations in Birmingham. Even though it was a bit chilly it felt good to do some walking outside, so we followed the park’s Freedom Walk which circles the four acre green space.
The Walk is lined with several statues, including four that we found had particular impact, by sculptor James Drake. Drake’s works put us right in the middle of the situations he depicts. None more so than Police and Dog Attack. The sculpture completely captures the ferociousness of three attack dogs lunging. It was a powerful statement, giving us the feel of what it must have been like to have the dogs turned loose back during the May 1963 demonstration.
Elsewhere along the path we encountered Firehosing of Dem-onstrators, depicting water cannons being turned on protesters, and Children’s March (“I ain’t afraid of your jail”), where we stopped to look through the steel bars of a jail cell window at two youngsters who represent the children that were arrested during the protests.
The last of Drake’s works along The Freedom Walk is Foot Soldier Tribute. This serves as a memorial to all who struggled with “gallantry, courage and great bravery” in the civil rights movement. Mayor Richard Arrington Jr. dedicated the tribute with those words in 1995.
Birmingham was so violent during the civil rights era that it became known as Bombingham, but now the city seems to have come to terms with itself by commemorating its sordid history and celebrating the outcome more openly than either of our previous stops.
It was a difficult few days for us as we were forced to confront thoughts and feelings that we would have much rather avoided. We addressed issues that many of us Americans would like to think have been completely resolved. But it seems to us that turning a blind eye only leads to a situation like Selma, where our eyes could not see much progress.
The lesson we learned is that the light of day is best, because as much as this is fairly recent history, we were taken aback by how little we knew about the details. In Birmingham, the details are on display – front and center – and in Montgomery the good fight continues every day to defend the civil rights of all Americans.
So perhaps we all shall overcome.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com