Historian Ray Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, writes from the bus of the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.
Day 6–May 13: Nashville, TN, to Birmingham, AL
Day 6 started with a torrential downpour–the first bad weather of the trip–that prevented us from walking around the Fisk campus and touring Jubilee Hall and the chapel. So we headed south for Birmingham, passing through Giles County, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and by Decatur, AL, the site of the 1932 Scottsboro trial. We arrived in Birmingham in time for lunch at the Alabama Power Company building, a corporate fortress symbolic of the “new” Birmingham. We spent the afternoon at the magnificent Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where we were met by Freedom Riders Jim Zwerg and Catherine Burks Brooks, and by Odessa Woolfolk, the guiding force behind the Institute in its early years. Catherine treated the students to a rollicking memoir of her life in Birmingham, and Odessa followed with a moving account of her years as a teacher in Birmingham and a discussion of the role of women in the civil rights movement. Odessa is always wonderful, but she was particularly warm and humane today. We then went across the street for a tour of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of the September 1963 bombing that killed the “four little girls.”
The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to a tour of the Institute; there is never enough time to do justice to the Institute’s civil rights timeline, but this visit was much too brief, I am afraid. Seeing the Freedom Rider section with the Riders, especially Jim Zwerg and Charles Person who had searing experiences in Birmingham in 1961, was highly emotional for me, for them, and for the students. As soon as the Institute closed, we retired to the community room for a memorable barbecue feast catered byDreamland Barbecue, the best in the business. We then went back across the street to 16th Street for a freedom song concert in the sanctuary. The voices of the Unity Memorial Choir, first formed in 1959 to help boost the morale of the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth’s local movement, were beautiful, as always. The students were so enthusiastic, clapping rythmically and sometimes singing along, and the movement stories interspersed among the stanzas filled the church with emotion and more than a few tears. The hour-long concert ended with everyone present linking arms and singing “We Shall Overcome.” This was perhaps the most intense experience of the trip for some. Afterwards we spent a few minutes in nearby Kelly Ingram Park, site of the 1963 confrontation between Bull Connor’s attack dogs and the young marchers of the “children’s crusade.” The park now boasts “freedom sculptures” dedicated to the marchers’ courage. Back at the historic Tutwiler Hotel, the students held a 2-hour-long “teach-in,” during which they made presentations on contemporary social justice issues. This was their idea, organized by them. A fitting end to a long and emotional day on the freedom trail.