Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Montgomery, Alabama: Then and Now

Mural at Southern Poverty Law Center Civil Rights Memorial Center 

Another Martin Luther King, Jr., Day has come and gone. There was a time on this blog when I posted on every holiday or historical point of interest related to the socially-constructed political notion of "race." There was a time I just "had to" weigh in on every news story featuring a Black person, especially a Black person victimized by White Supremacy. But after 571 posts, it occurs to me now that I've pretty much said a lot of what I have to say. And the same shit keep happening over and over. Other people will cover that stuff and, by and large, I just comment on it on Facebook. Today, I have options. That doesn't mean I'm done as a blogger (obviously). It just means I've come to realize that this process has morphed (as everything does) and I have developed my own little niche in the blogosphere. Or at least that's the way I see it.

Sometimes, I'm busy (as most of us are). Sometimes, I'm going through something (as everybody does from time to time, some of us more often than others). Regardless, if you want to know what I think about some aspect of "race," a summary perusal of this site can help you find it on here somewhere.

But since I think about oppression rather a lot and oppression related to "race" more than most -- especially more than most folks that look like me -- I do still (and probably always will) find things I feel the urge to write about in this manner. Recently (January 18th, to be exact), I found myself in Montgomery, Alabama, and made it a point to tear myself away from the business at hand long enough to make my own little civil rights tour in honor of Martin and all the other predecessors in this on-going struggle for justice. This post is the result.

I left my downtown hotel on foot at 11:00 a.m., having already ascertained that everything I had time to see was within walking distance. Fortunately, despite the chilly weather, it was clear and not bitter, so I dressed appropriately and headed out.

My first stop was the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (built in 1885), where I took a moment to strip off my glove and take hold of the polished brass door handle I imagined King touching in the late 1950's. In his twenties at the time he was pastoring the church, he must have been dumbstruck at finding himself the focus of so much fury. How many of us would be willing to stand there rather than run? Maybe that's what the valiant hearts that drove the civil rights era (as it is called) would teach us if we can hear them. They not only didn't run. They walked resolutely to meet their fates, their enemies, even their deaths when it came to that. I told King we're here and holding steady, my frigid fingers warming the brass they clung to. And then, letting go, I walked around the corner to the Southern Poverty Law Center Civil Rights Memorial.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, of course, across the street from the Memorial, is world famous for its ferocious war against injustice of all kinds. Over the decades since it was founded by lawyer Morris Dees, it has gone from focusing exclusively on race relations to add taking on court battles and educational onslaughts against individuals and especially groups that target Native Americans, immigrants, incarcerated juveniles, the LGBTQ community, and any other manifestation of oppression that catches their attention. It's not by happenstance that White Supremacists have bombed the Center and repeatedly threatened and even tried to kill Dees.

Security is tight at the SPLC office building, the Civil Rights Memorial, and the Civil Rights Memorial Center behind it. Big guys in uniforms and serious expressions run purses and book bags through the type of machine one might see at a Federal Court Building attended by much less intimidating officials. But before I went in, I stopped to stand before the Memorial itself, a large, flat circular black granite sculpture by Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin.

Water bubbling out of the center of the piece continually flows over the carved names of some of those who were murdered because they were Black between the decision in Brown vs the Board of Education in 1954 and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. Most of the names, unlike King's, went unrecognized except by those closest to them before SPLC committed to the development of the Memorial and its Center.

Noting that two of the names carved in the granite were murdered by "nightriders" in Louisiana -- Deputy Sheriff Oneal Moore in Varnado in 1965 and Clarence Triggs in Bogalusa in 1966 -- I trailed my fingers in the icy water moving over their names (which is encouraged) while meditating on the Biblical quote carved into a wall that stands behind the Memorial: "until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Entering the Memorial Center (after passing through security) is like entering a grotto. Even with a tour guide talking to a group of students in the foyer, there is a sense of reverence that speaks to the desire of visitors to give homage to the seventy-four featured martyrs, many of whom did not volunteer for that role. I did not, frankly, know what I was getting into when I put this site on my list. It wouldn't have mattered. I support SPLC in whatever ways I can as often as possible. But until I was inside, I had not fully comprehended the "Memorial" nature of this building and its highlighting of those who paid the ultimate price for their race or ethnicity or sexual orientation.

It is a moving experience and it was a wonderful next step on my journey, reminding me that every victory and every triumph in the struggle for justice is rooted in the bloody soil where these people's bodies were laid, if not to rest, to remind us we owe them a debt of respect and gratitude and commitment to carry on.

The foyer lists story after story with portraits and just enough details to help visitors connect with the humanity of the martyred. It would have been impossible for me to ignore one of the stories or not consider for a few moments the photos of the faces. I found twelve more from Louisiana and, though I'm not from Louisiana and wasn't in Louisiana in the 1950's and 1960's, I live there now and couldn't help but take special interest in the fact that the ground I walk on daily holds the blood, sweat, and tears of real people whose faces I have now seen.

Leaving the foyer, one steps into a wide hallway with a continuous floor-to-ceiling mural on each side and yet more stories to read and absorb. The entire experience is something like a cross between going to a funeral visitation and walking a spiritual labyrinth. It is calculated to get the visitors' undivided attention in such a way that they will not only remember in this moment these humans whose lives were stolen from them (some as children), but will afterward not be able to forget them.

A presentation of some kind was being made to a group in a theater that opens off the hallway, but time constraints kept me moving and I went into a large room with a very high ceiling and something the Center calls the Wall of Tolerance. Approaching a computer screen, I found that I could, if I chose, take a pledge which reads: "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." Typing my name on the keyboard, I saw it appear immediately on the wall in front of me and slide up and across and through the other names while, in the background, I suddenly became aware of a song playing, one of my favorites: "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round..."

On the way out the door, I bought a t-shirt that reads "the march continues." Yeah.

Only a few blocks away, I entered the Rosa Parks Library and Bus Boycott Museum. Painfully aware of the time because I was trying to hit four points in four hours, I asked a young man who worked there what he suggested. The tour, which involves an hour presentation and a lot of great visual exhibits, was just too long for me. I explained that I probably knew a lot of what the presentation was about (a statement I later decided was more than likely erroneous) and he kindly directed me to the "Children's Wing" of the museum.

"All the information is there and you can read it for yourself," he told me. So I scooped up a couple of posters and a tote that quotes Parks as saying, "The only tired I was was tired of giving in..." and headed for the other end of the building.

Given my situation, he was right to send me down there. The murals, photos, and other exhibits were fascinating, carefully explaining in terms children (and others, such as me) could readily absorb. I found out the bus situation in Montgomery had been an issue for a decade before Parks made her highly touted dent in U.S. history. In fact, Black folks getting arrested on Montgomery buses was a fairly common occurrence. In 1950, for example, Hilliard Brooks, an older man who had tipped a few, was shot to death by a cop for getting into an argument with a bus driver one night and it hardly caused a blip on the local radar. There were no less than thirty complaints against Montgomery bus drivers in 1953 alone. And Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith were arrested in March and October respectively in 1955, the same year that Rosa Parks took her famous walk in handcuffs in December.

At the time, Black bus riders had to come in the front door of the bus, pay (sometimes twice, if the bus driver claimed they hadn't), then go out the door again to the back door and re-board the bus, all the while dealing with whatever verbal abuse the driver or White riders chose to throw at them. Once on the bus, they could sit in whatever rows in the back were available to them, but if enough White riders boarded, Black riders were expected to move back farther or stand in the aisle, no matter how crowded the back of the bus became.

Jo Ann Robinson, the President of the Women's Political Council, a Black women's organization in Montgomery at the time, had written the Mayor a letter warning that a bus boycott might be brewing fully eighteen months before Parks' arrest. So when she got the signal, Robinson stayed up all night mimeographing 50,000 leaflets calling for an immediate bus boycott and distributed them to women who agreed to hit the bus stops early the next morning to put them in the hands of workers waiting for a bus. And within four days, the Black community was solidly behind the boycott.

It took more than a year of finding alternate ways to get to work, one of which involved a hurriedly organized system of Black "taxis" charging 10 cents per ride, but in the end, with the bus company on the verge of bankruptcy, the boycott won. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks (of course) generally get all the credit for this lengthy battle, but I learned at the Rosa Parks Library and Museum that many thousands of ordinary African-Americans and even a few White folks (such as Robert Graetz, Rev. Glenn Smiley, and Clifford and Virginia Durr, among others) were instrumental in proving yet again that when people organize, they can overcome all odds.

The final stop on my private walking tour was the old Greyhound Bus Station where twenty-two  Freedom Riders -- Black and White -- were brutally attacked by a White Supremacist mob at 10:23 a.m. on May 20, 1961, after they were abandoned at the city limits by the state police the Governor had guaranteed President John Kennedy would protect them. In 2011, on the fiftieth anniversary of that dark day in Montgomery history, the station (which was closed in 1995) was re-opened at 10:23 a.m. as a museum to honor the brave students who wrote their wills and rode that bus to demonstrate their courage and prove their moral will over the policy of racial segregation.  Altogether, 438 riders -- some, like Hezekiah Watkins, as young as thirteen -- participated in this valiant effort, but news photos taken and published of this last group's bloody nightmare were the impetus for the federal government to force the changes that had to come.

The "colored entrance" (really just a gate to the side of the building where the buses parked next to the platform) was bricked shut. The lunch counter was removed, the shabby back room for "colored" people was closed, and the station itself was abandoned in 1996 until it was re-opened as the museum.

The hour I spent with Museum Manager Christy Carl was absolutely the highlight of my day. She held me enthralled with stories about the individual freedom riders, some of whom she has now met, and the history of the site. And she lovingly discussed back stories related to the display of beautiful artwork created by various artists to honor the freedom riders in their own particular styles of artistic expression.

The photo below is of Dave Dennis, who finished the trip as a replacement for one of the riders brutally beaten and then hospitalized that awful morning. He was twenty years old at the time. Next to his portrait on the museum wall today, he is quoted as saying, "We weren't ready to give our lives, but we were not afraid to die." Amen.


warren jurn said...

I had not fully comprehended the "Memorial" nature of this building and its highlighting of those who paid the ultimate price for their race or ethnicity.Nice Blog,Thanks for sharing this.

Changeseeker said...

Thanks for letting me know you like it. This was a very special day I will never forget.