Saturday, April 28, 2007

People's History Trip: Selma & Montgomery

Note: This was published originally in my hometown newspaper, Feb. 2004 or 2005. I wanted to contribute to Black History Month.

I don’t know much about Australian history. I can only speak about it in broad generalities… The British made it a penal colony. They nearly annihilated the aboriginal people who were there before them. They drink Foster’s beer, say things like, “g’day mate” and, they recently hosted the summer Olympics. That’s about it. I could not name a historically significant place or an important date in their history. But, more on that later.

A few years ago my husband and I were meandering through the deep-south on our way to New Orleans. We had no specific schedule to follow, no set time to be anywhere. So, when we saw the sign pointing us to Montgomery, Alabama we decided to check the place out.

The closer we got, the more excited we became. Montgomery: Where Dr. King rose to international prominence as a civil rights leader; where in 1955, Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man ignited a civil rights movement; where 17,000 blacks made their already hard lives harder, by walking to work for thirteen straight months, rather than let Jim Crow laws control them any longer; the state capitol destination for the voting rights marchers from Selma. This was going to be one cool place to visit.

Our first stop was to the visitor’s center. The very nice ladies volunteering there were anxious to show off their hometown, only not the part we came to see. They did not want to talk about, nor could they tell us how to find, what we came to see. They wanted us to know the “father of modern gynecology” made his home in Montgomery, and other notable historical things like that. If we were to find the Montgomery we traveled to see, we weren’t going to find it at the visitor’s center.

We visited the Dr. King’s church there on Dexter Avenue. It was awesome. This is where history converged several times over. Dexter Avenue is a long, broad boulevard that travels from the downtown business district, climbs uphill and dead ends right onto the front steps of the state capitol building. Statues of Jefferson Davis and other confederate dignitaries surround the capitol. One of the state office buildings was named for Lurleen Wallace, wife of proud racist, George Wallace. In the same complex was Davis’ home, the first “white house” of the confederacy. Dr. King’s little church is at the bottom of that long, high hill.

It reminded me of David and Goliath. Dr. King’s church seemed dwarfed by the statues and buildings on the hill. Yet, there with Jefferson Davis looking on, little David toppled Goliath. Wow. In 1965, Selma’s voting rights marchers entered Dexter Avenue at the bottom of the hill. They walked past King’s church and straight up to the capitol steps demanding the right to vote. That must have been something to witness. And seeing the juxtaposition of the capitol to the church made what seemed like a really hard fight, a nearly impossible one.

By asking other pedestrians, city workers and others, we were able to find Dr. King’s home that was bombed in 1956, Dr. Ralph Abernathy’s church, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the civil right memorial that honors 40 men and women who died in the name of justice.

After all that, we knew we had to see Selma too. We drove the same 40 mile highway that the voting rights marchers traveled on their way to Montgomery. It was just off that highway where the KKK gunned down civil rights workers, Viola Liuzzo and Leroy Moton. It was next to the highway where weary marchers rested for the night in a sympathetic farmer’s field. We literally felt the history around us and it was amazing.

To get into Selma, you must cross a bridge… not a bridge… THE BRIDGE... the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where bloody Sunday happened. The Alabama Highway Patrol beat back the 600 marchers with billy clubs and tear gas as they crossed the bridge on their way to Montgomery. On the third try, with the help of a court order, the marchers, now numbering 3200, got past the bridge and set out to Montgomery. By the time they reached the capitol they were 25,000 strong. We stood on that same bridge.

At least part of Selma has embraced its role in history, and even celebrates it. There’s a small voting rights museum at the foot of the bridge. It exists through donations from visitors and left over grocery money. The people that run it, are the people who lived it. Just inside the front door is a wall of remembrance. People are invited to write, on post-it notes, their personal memories of the march, and the rest of us get the privilege of reading these wonderful historic nuggets. There are a thousand or more post-it notes on that wall. We stood there for an hour, reading peoples’ memories… what they ate, how much their feet hurt, how important the march was, how afraid and how brave and how proud they were. My husband and I would intermittently read one aloud, wipe tears away and at times, turn away to regain our composure… so simple a concept, so profound the impact.

There was a room of feet; yes, feet. There were plaster casts of the marcher’s feet, there were the shoes people wore on their feet, and there was even pictures of the blisters on their feet, all precious artifacts of a people in struggle. There was a room full of really good black and white photographs. Interestingly enough, the FBI took most of them. The museum got them through the Freedom of Information Act.

We asked the museum curator if Selma today is anything like Selma back then. We were curious because Selma had had the same mayor since before the ’65 march. She told us a story about being a little girl and having her mother take her to the store to buy new shoes for Easter. In her child-like enthusiasm, she walked into the shoe store and slipped her feet into the first pair of shiny shoes she saw. They were several sizes too big, but her mother was forced to buy them because they had touched her little black feet. Her mother was sorry, but she had to wear them to church on Easter, because there wasn’t enough money in the budget for two pair of Easter shoes.

“Yes,” she said in a pitch that seemed more like thinking than speaking, “No little girls have to suffer that indignity any more.” She felt some things were much better. Other things still had a long way to go.

We took a walking tour through Selma’s black neighborhood. Historical markers pointed where mass meetings took place. We saw where the northerners who came down to join in the struggle stayed. We saw the church were the march was first suggested and later organized. We saw the spot where the Rev. James Reeve was beaten and killed.

At each point along our two-day visit to Montgomery and Selma, we kept running into one man. We were walking out of the visitor center as he was walking in. We arrived at the civil rights monument just as he was leaving. He was coming up one end of the walking tour as we were heading down from the other direction. As we got closer to one another, he jogged over to our side of the street and asked in a voice more agitated than inquisitive, “Where are the bloody busses?”

“Busses?” we repeated.

He went on to ask in his Australian accent, “For two days I’ve been to all these historical places, and you are the only other tourists I’ve seen! Didn’t these places shape the US! Didn’t America become a different place because of these towns and the people in them… where are the tour busses?” We didn’t know what to say.

We had landed in Montgomery and Selma as a result of meandering, not design. We both love history, especially this kind of history, but we hadn’t really planned this trip as much as happened upon it. This “chap” had planned his month-long trip to the US around it.

We’ve thought a lot about his question since then. The history we experienced in Alabama is usually seen as “Black History”, something set aside and separate than part of the history of the United States. For that reason, only about twenty percent of Americans “own” or stake a claim to those historic events. How unfortunate. Because it is in that history we all came to live in a different nation, a better nation. How unfortunate for all our children, who only get the opportunity to hear about how people in two small towns changed the world for the better.

For them, it might as well be Australia.

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