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Conversation: A Traveler’s Guide

June 23, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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TERENCE SMITH: The book is “A Traveler’s Guide to the Civil Rights Movement,” by author and journalist Jim Carrier. It takes readers on a state-by-state journey through the museums, monuments, and historic landmarks of the civil rights movement. Jim Carrier, welcome.

JIM CARRIER: Thank you.

TERENCE SMITH: How did you come to, not only write this book, but even conceive of the need for a traveler’s guide to the civil rights movement?

JIM CARRIER: Five years ago I went to Montgomery, Alabama, to do some civil rights work, and I found that people were coming from all over the world to Montgomery to basically pay a pilgrimage to these landmarks.

You know, the civil rights movement worldwide is considered a great gift, the great gift of the South. I think sometimes people in the South don’t really appreciate it. But there weren’t very many monuments, no brochures, and I thought a guide book would be useful.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you think, having looked into it, that these monuments are important as teaching tools?

JIM CARRIER: Well, we as a nation erect many monuments to many things. 50 years after most of our wars, we put up a lot. After the Civil War, for example, we put a thousand monuments up to those… just in the South. There are now, 50 years after beginning of the civil rights movement, maybe a hundred monuments, very modest monuments. So there really needs to be more. But they mark sacred spots, and people will go and stand there and contemplate that history, and, in many ways, relive it.

TERENCE SMITH: Let’s take a tour. If you had a week or two, and you wanted to see some of these sites, where would you go, where would you start?

JIM CARRIER: You know, I would start in Washington, D.C. I take the long view of civil rights history, and you really need to start with the words that Thomas Jefferson wrote: “All men are created equal.” When he wrote that, he didn’t mean it, and it’s taken a couple hundred years for us to fully develop the meaning of those words.

TERENCE SMITH: What do you mean, he didn’t mean it?

JIM CARRIER: Well, at the time he wrote those words, it really applied to white men with property, and it wasn’t until 39 years ago that it applied to all citizens, in terms of the Voting Rights Act. So…

TERENCE SMITH: So you’d start, then, with the Jefferson Memorial?

JIM CARRIER: I would start with Jefferson. I would go to the archives and see the Declaration of Independence. I would visit the Lincoln Memorial, which has evolved in its view, in its meaning. It was originally a monument to the union, the end of the Civil War; but, of course, since the 1963 “I have a dream” speech, it’s really become the great icon for the civil rights movement.

TERENCE SMITH: And this is what you’d call civil rights row, on the Mall?

JIM CARRIER: Well, you know, you had Jefferson. At the other end, a mile and a half away, you have the Lincoln Memorial, and right in the middle is the spot chosen for the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. It will be built in some years from now. Each man stood on the shoulders of the other. Each made those founding words and founding creed closer to reality, and I think eventually it will be a very powerful stroll for students.

TERENCE SMITH: Now, there are less obvious sites that you have in the book, in Washington or right around it.

JIM CARRIER: Mm-hmm. Well, you know, I believe that the Civil War … many times we think of the Civil War as a separate movement, but really it was the bloodiest of all civil rights battles. 600,000 people died for that. And so I include in my book, for example, Antietam, which led Lincoln to, you know, create the emancipation proclamation, and Gettysburg, and the great words that he wrote there at the funeral. Well, it’s … and also, just outside of Washington, Monticello, Virginia.

Here’s a state, and you take a virgin state which really was the pattern for America, and we created in that state, our forefathers did, not only democracy, but slavery and discrimination that lasted for almost 200 years. Monticello, I think … you know, when I was a boy going to Monticello, I remember reading about and kind of being enamored of the inventions. Well, now when you go to Monticello, it’s a whole new story. When you look at the Sally Hemmings scandal, if you will…

TERENCE SMITH: She being, she being one of the slaves.

JIM CARRIER: She was a slave that he had children with. And now the Monticello has completely revised the way it tells its history and looks at really what was hypocrisy. But it makes the man much more interesting and the visit there much more interesting.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. You’ve started in Washington. Now we head south. Where do you go?

JIM CARRIER: Well, you’d go into the deep South, certainly, and where would I go next, probably you’d want to stop at the King tomb in Atlanta, but eventually, soon, you’d want to go over to Alabama, because when people think of the civil rights movement, they picture Alabama — all the great marches, the bus boycott, the fire hoses, the dogs, they all took place in Alabama.

TERENCE SMITH: In fact, you call it the Alabama Triangle.

JIM CARRIER: Yes. All within a couple hundred miles of each other, you can see, spend several days, of these great battles. Alabama really was the bookends of the civil rights movement: ’55 bus boycott in Montgomery; the ’65 voting rights march in 1965 in Selma. And a number of those classic pictures have actually been made into sculptures that you can walk by, sculptures and fire hoses and dogs snarling, police dogs.

TERENCE SMITH: And the points of your triangle are, what, Birmingham…

JIM CARRIER: Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma. And in Montgomery of course is the great Maya Lin-designed civil rights memorial of the 31 people who died during the civil rights movement, the martyrs, at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

TERENCE SMITH: I’ve seen that, and that has this extraordinary table of water flowing over, and the quote…

JIM CARRIER: The metaphor from the book of Amos: “Righteousness Rolls Down Like Waters.”

TERENCE SMITH: And yet you go further South, down to a place that I don’t think most people would think of immediately as a historic site in the civil rights movement: Daytona.

JIM CARRIER: You know, Daytona Beach was the place in 1946 that Jackie Robinson played the first integrated exhibition baseball game, and I put that there because sports is really an underappreciated civil rights arena.

In fact, it is probably the most successful one in America, and Arthur Ashe points this out in his history of black sports, which is that if you provide a level playing ground and you treat everybody fairly, then people will rise to their natural ability, and that’s exactly what has happened in sports, and probably the only place in America.

TERENCE SMITH: Then you head west to Memphis, and to the wonderfully named Money.

JIM CARRIER: Money, Mississippi. Within a two-hour period, you know, you’ve got… you know, some people ask me what’s the most haunting site? And I think there’s an old store in Money, Mississippi, down in the delta, where in August of 1955 a black boy named Emmett Till, 14 years old, went in and said something, perhaps fresh, to a white woman, and was murdered, brutally beaten for that, and his open casket was pictured, and for many black Americans, particularly mothers, it was the beginning of the activism.

And then right up street in Memphis, of course, you had the place where Martin Luther King was murdered, and, against all logic, they took that motel, the Loring Motel, and turned it into the first major civil rights museum, and it really is a wonderful place to visit, and it’s turned that neighborhood into an arts district and made civil rights tourism a great economic development tool in Memphis.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, it’s “A Traveler’s Guide to the Civil Rights Movement.” Jim Carrier, the author, thanks very much.

JIM CARRIER: Thank you.