Thursday, December 30, 2010
It's appropriate that our civil rights pilgramage began in a light snow in Jackson Mississippi with me looking up at Medger Evers, the first civil rights hero who moved me. I learned later that Medger Evers, like many other black World War Two veterans came home from war determined to achieve democracy for all in their own nation.
Here I stand on the driveway where Medger Evers, civil rights organizer, was shot in the back as he came home from work. His children and wife were in the house, and hit the floor in response to gunshots as he had taught them. I remember reading about this assassination in Life Magazine as a young teen and feeling connection with the children, admiration for the man, and horror at the manner of his death. I knew then that I did not understand the hate and fear that caused this assassination and too many others. This pilgrimage is an extension of my desire to understand better what happened around race in the American south and maybe to understand better what happens every time human beings hate each other because of some belief or characteristic. If I can't understand, at least I could stand on Medger Ever's driveway and cry for him.
The first sit in in Jackson occurred at this site. Nine students from Tougaloo College picked up library books and sat down to quietly read. Police were summoned and they were promptly arrested. Sit ins at lunch counters and other facilities followed.
At a mass meeting at this church, the night after Medger Evers was assassinated, his widow Myralie spoke to the crowd and said, "I come to you tonight with a broken heart. I come to you to make a plea that all of you here, and all of you not here, will, by his death, be able to draw some of his strength, some of his courage, and some of his determination to finish this fight."
Medger Evers office as NAACP organizer was Number 10 on the second floor of this building, which still houses NAACP offices. After his assassination, his funeral procession started here and mourners carried his body legally in silence to the funeral home. After leaving their beloved slaughtered leader at the funeral home, the crowd marched on toward down town and began singing freedom songs and chanting "We want the killers." Police moved to confront the marchers and violence was averted only when federal official John Doar stepped between marchers and police and pleaded "Medger wouldn't want this".
The architect who offices in this building now has kept it's look as a greyhound bus station. There is even a striking round blue stained glass window of a greyhound inside. Here in Jackson the freedom riders were not beaten but were escorted straight off the buses into paddy wagons and jailed. Wave after wave, they kept coming. 328 freedom riders were arrested, some shipped to the infamous state penitentiary and even placed in solitary confinement there. What courage!
Protesters were jailed here. I learned on this trip how much the respectable, church going black community in the sixties south dreaded going to jail. One of the museums posted that nobody wanted to be a "jail bird". I grew up with that same prejudice, a strong sense of shame around being jailed. The movement really had to fight this belief in order to use the nonviolent strategy of crippling the oppressor by filling the jails. Martin Luther King described those jailed for justice as political prisoners, a phrase which applies, but which hadn't occured to me to use before this trip.
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
The mobs that attacked one freedom riders wanted to kill. They threw a fire bomb inside the first freedom ride bus outside of Birmingham, blocking the riders' exits, chanting, "burn them alive" as smoke pured out. They only escaped because the fuel tank exploded chasing the mob back, giving a few minutes for the riders to escape. A second bus arrived at this spot in Birmingham. Riders were attacked as they left the bus. One, James Peck,was beaten with an iron pipe and required 52 stitches. Another, William Barbee, was left paralyzed for life. Police collaborated with the Klan to give them free rein.
I feel inarticulate about this photo, felt sick to my stomach as I approached the church where the four little girls were killed by a bomb in their place of worship. I imagined the chaos, terror, anger, sorrow that permeated this place that terrible September 15 morning. I thought about Rwanda and Kristal night and all the times people murder each other for hate. The language of the monuments and museums had become more universal to me by the evening of our second pilgrimage day. Somewhere along the way I began to notice the phrase "human rights" used at least as frequently as "civil rights" and to see the movement in the south as one manifestation of a stand against hate that has to continue - not their fight, then, our fight now and forever.
I cowered with the children, so real in that eerie cold December dusk, and forgot for a moment that they were bronze, not flesh. I cringed against the horrifying force of water from the water canons, expected it to knock me down any minute, suspended disbelief. Ingram Park is a time machine which took me back to a period of great evil, great fear, and great courage.
Even bronze, the attack dogs terrified me. It was hard to walk between their snapping jaws. I tried to imagine being a kid and caring enough, feeling enough like all that was good or important depended on me facing those dogs. I tried to imagine being a kid trapped by segregation and choosing to face those dogs in order to win a life in which I could walk down a street, use a drinking fountain or a bathroom, eat at a lunch counter without fear of insult or attack. Walking through this sculpture I felt the high level of the stakes for those who participated in civil rights protests.
This sculpture speaks for itself, and visually points out the role of black clergy in the movement. Bob and I both believe the minister in the middle is Dr. King. It strikes me right that we can see Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where the four little girls were killed by Klan bombers.
Birmingham is an industrial city and, from an olfactory standpoint, it still has a bad smell. The murder of the four little girls in church and the behavior of Bull Connor, the dogs and fire hoses set on children, gave it a bad emotional smell in my consciousness. The city. however, is doing an amazing job of cleansing in the way it commemorates the movement era. The protesting children are painted as freedom fighters and Bull Connor is clearly labeled "the bad guy". The route from Ingram park to downtown stores where marchers picketed and sat in at lunch counters is lined with visually striking and information rich markers which detail the history of Operation C (for confrontation)in Birmingham. It was on this route that I first encountered the concept of the civil rights movement as a second American revolution, one which allowed the fuller implementation of the ideals for which the first revolution was fought.
This chapel was the launching point for Bloody Sunday marchers headed for Montgomery to protest the recent murder in a demonstration of Jimmie Lee Jackson and to demand voting rights. Many were dressed in Sunday best. Some carried bed rolls. None was expecting the armed force of police and a deputized posse of Klan thugs, many mounted who met them at the top or the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The mob beat the marchers and chased them back to Brown Chapel while attacking with clubs and bull whips. Horsemen even rode into the chapel, allowing the marchers no safe or holy ground.
Bob and I walked from First Baptist Church, past Brown Chapel, and crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a cold morning in December. As we were returning to town a friendly black man passed us and volunteered that he is sixty, and that, as a teen, he marched across this bridge and was arrested. He seemed proud of having participated in that march, as he should be.
Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge on foot was a focal point for me when we planned this trip, the thing I most wanted to do. I remember Bloody Sunday in 1965 when police and thugs on horseback attacked marchers on their way across this bridge to Montgomery to demand the right to vote. At that time it was life-threatening for blacks to even try to register to vote. Even if they didn't get killed or beaten, poll taxes of $1.50 for every year of age past 21 and impossible tests about the Alabama Constitution blocked voting. The marchers were turned around that Sunday, beaten, chased away, but they were not stopped for long. The attrocities of Bloody Sunday and the subsequent march from Selma to Montgomery focused national attention and got the voting rights legislation passed. The march from Selma to Montomery was the last major march of the Civil Rights Movement.
I stand here between Selma and Montgomery at the memorial to Viola Liouzzi, a white Detroit housewife and mother of five who responded to the news coverage of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by getting into her car and driving to Selma to help. She participated in the march to Birmingham and the joyful rally on the steps of the Alabama State Capital where Governor George Wallace stayed in his office and ignored the marchers' petition for voting rights. That night Viola drove marchers back to Selma and was driving back along the dark highway to get another batch when Klansmen began to chase her. At the spot where her memorial stands she was shot to death through the window of her car. The image of this woman who did not let thoughts of her own safety stop her from responding to her horror at injustice haunts me. She had a kind of wild courage I doubt I have, know I've never shown. I'm glad someone still puts roses on her memorial.
TheQuote next to Wall of Tolerance
The Southern Poverty Law Center at Mongomery is dedicated to the elimination of hate crimes and intolerence aimed at any group, for any reason. In recent times, hate crimes against gays have been a main target of the group. Bob and I have supported this center and received their magazines for years. Reading these publications have kept me aware of the level and presence of organized hate in our society. It touched me to be at the center and to see Bob's name on the Wall of Tolerence, where he placed it on his last visit here. I added my name while we were there, and am searching my heart for ways to become more effectively active against hate. Writing this blog in this way is a beginning.
Freedom riders, black and white, were beaten here for attempting to use cross country buses in an integrated manner. The blacks sat in the seats and used the facilities designated for whites and the whites used the facilities and sat in the seats designated for blacks. The bus station is in the process of being restored as a museum. An excellent mural which commemorates the freedom rides and honors the freedom riders is posted around the front of the building, which is being restored as a museum. As Bob and I stood quietly reading of the courage and determination of the freedom riders I tried to imagine being the target of killer rage, ducking blows and bricks, fleeing bloody to First Baptist church in hope of safety. This was one of the moments when I really felt the life and death nature of the struggle against the evil of segregation - that many blacks felt it simply wasn't worth it to go on this way. There's a line in one of the freedom songs "Mr. Kennedy can't you see what segregation done to me?" I think I saw, a little, standing in the cold outside the Mongomery bus station.
Here I'm standing at a marker at the spot at which Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white person. In Mongomery the bus policy was especially awful. Blacks were required to enter at the front of the bus, pay, then leave the bus and re-enter through the back door and sit in the back. They had to get out and enter again through the back door even if carrying children in the pouring rain. Many Montgomery bus drivers were habitually rude to blacks. As a bus rider who has long experienced the great difference kind or rude treatment by a bus driver makes, I empahize with the difficulty of having to deal with habitually rude drivers. Rosa Parks had a history of difficulty with the driver who ordered her arrested and said that she would have waited for another bus that night if she had known he would be driving the bus she got on. The Rosa Parks Museuum shows a strong multimedia presentation of the arrest which set of the bus boycott.
Martin Luther King was just twenty six, a new daddy, right out of graduate school when he followed the controversial outspoken antisegrigationist, Vernon Johns as pastor of this church. He did not expect to be the spokesman and anchor for a powerful bus boycott, or to have himself and his young family the target of so much hate. He was chosen as boycott leader partly because he was a relative unknown without a reputation as a civil rights trouble maker. The extent of his gifts for oratory and leadership were as yet unrevealed. Little did anyone, including Dr. King himself, know what was coming for the man, the family, the cause, the nation.
Dexter Baptist parsonage
The parsonage where Dr. King lived with his wife and baby daughter in Mongomery while he was pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was the scene of a major epiphamy for the young preacher. One night not long after the bus boycot had started, Dr. King was about to doze off beside his sleeping wife when the phone rang. When he answered,vile hate-filled threats against his family shook him to the core. He made himself a cup of coffee and sat at the little kitchen table, discouraged and frightenened, then dropped to his knees to pray for guidance. He wrote that it was then that his Jesus said to him directly "Martin Luther, stand up." and gave him the strength and courage to be the leader he became. Later the house was bombed, but no one in the family was hurt, and after a moment of rage, Dr. King felt strengthened ins commitment to nonviolence.
First Baptist Church was the site of many mass meetings during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 through 1956. Martin Luther King's good friend Reverend Ralph Abernathy was Pastor of this church at this time and was instrumental in the selection of Dr. King to lead the committee in charge of the boycott.
The building we see here was built brick by brick by parishioners after the bus boycott. When the boycott ended this church and three others were damaged so badly by bombing attacks that they had to be rebuilt. The original church was formed in 1867 on this site and at one time was the largest black church in the United States.
On May 17,1961 Dr, King, injured freedom riders who had been beaten by white mobs, and 1,500 protesters were trapped inside the church by rioting whites who threw bricks and bombed a car. The police did nothing to help. It was only when the National Guard arrived at midnight that the congregation was able to go home. During their frightening hours in the church, they just kept singing.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Here I stood on the steps of Martin Luther King's boyhood home and thought about the brilliant boy, known for amazing memory for Bible verses, prominent pastor's son, who must have hurried down these steps to school, who maybe sat out here on a warm summer evening chatting with friends. I remembered the story of his early distress about segregation when he was not allowed to try on shoes in a department store because of his race.
This is the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where martin Luther King's father was pastor during his childhood and where MLK Jr. was co-pastor from 1960 until his death. The church was the heart of a thriving black middle class neighborhood blighted by the fact of segregation.
I turned the corner in the museum not expecting to be confronted by Martin Luther King's hearse, the mule drawn hearse I remember tearfully watching on television the day of his funeral, still numb that this leader had been slain. I wonder still how the course of history would be different if he had not been killed that day, or any day, if he had lived to die a natural death.
Friday, December 24, 2010
I warmed my hands in the eternal flame at Martin Luther King Jr.'s grave site and let the warmth of flame and the power of his life invigorate me, inspire me. He was a mortal man, fallible though great. He and all his followers were flawed, had feelings, made mistakes, just like me. I can't excuse myself for passing up opportunities to serve because those who have made a difference were heroes and I'm not. Finding my own way to pass on the flame is a challenge which requires continuous study and committment.