Posts Tagged ‘ Alabama ’
Historian Ray Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, writes from the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.
Day 8–May 15: Montgomery, AL, to Jackson, MS
We left Montgomery early in the morning, bound for Selma on Route 80, just as the Freedom Riders did on May 24, 1961. Fortunately, we didn’t have (or need) the protective ring of National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets, FBI agents, police cars, and military helicopters–”the apparatus of protection,” to use Jim Lawson’s words. We passed by several sites related to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march, including the roadside monument dedicated to Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit civil rights activist murdered by Klansmen while driving along Route 80. Our first stop was Brown Chapel, the AME Church that served as the staging ground for the 1965 Bloody Sunday march. Inside this beautiful and historic church, one of the deacons talked with the students about her experiences in Selma–she was 17 in 1965–and about recent and current race relations in Selma and Dallas County. After a brief driving tour of Selma, we got off the bus and walked silently, two by two, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday police riot. The students spent a few minutes at the memorial park at the eastern end of the bridge before reboarding the freedom bus.
We headed west toward the Mississippi line and on to Meridian, our lunch stop. We paused outside the county courthouse in Meridian, the site of many voting rights struggles during the 1960s. And I told the students about Medgar Evers’s confrontation with white supremacists in Meridian in 1958 when he defied Jim Crow and sat on a front seat of a bus. We spent the night in Jackson, where the students held another teach-in on current social justice issues, and where I and the Freedom Riders attended a screening of the film at the Masonic Temple on Lynch Street, the headquarters for the NAACP, SNCC, and CORE during the Freedom Rides and after. The panel discussion following the screening featured veterans of the Jackson Non-Violent Movement, including Hezekiah Watkins, who was the youngest Freedom Rider at age 13 in 1961, and MacArthur Cotton, a Freedom Rider in McComb, MS. Jesse Harris, the legendary SNCC actvist, was also on hand. It is somewhat strange visiting Jackson as a quasi-tourist, staying in the old King Edward Hotel just across from the Illinois Central railway station where so many Freedom Riders were arrested in 1961. History, memory, and a whirl of conflicting emotions.
By Rajlakshmi De
Tell me a story, from the heart.
We stopped in Selma, Alabama today and heard from Mrs. O’Neill, a community member who was active during the civil rights era. The first few minutes of our session with her were very formal and factual, but as we progressed, Mrs. O’Neill answered our questions with increasing insight. The more trust we built, the deeper she delved.
The economic situation is bleak, she said. Races have segregated into separate churches, separate schools. Being ostracized is a concern.
I was really moved by her descriptions of present-day disparities, and was also compelled by how her openness was such an integral component of our understanding of Selma.
How often are we open and honest about the current state of situations? How much are we withholding?
When I think of poverty, I don’t think of a statistic. I think of the frail men who cart me around in rikshas, tensing their leg muscles as they peddle me along, so that I may pay them less than a dollar’s worth of currency. I think of how tempting it is to overpay them. I also think of how that would do little to reduce systemic poverty.
When I think of girls’ empowerment, I don’t think of the illiteracy rate or the prevalence of HIV. I think of stories—of gender roles, of oppressive environments, of strong women.
If society is not engaged in world affairs, in civics, in the future, maybe we could all benefit from more genuine conversations, more storytelling from the heart. I am hopeful that we can make progress, but we need a reason to care.
By Zilong Wang
As we travel through the southern states in America, we are greeted with the famous southern hospitality. We are almost surprised by the warm welcome in Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, etc. At the same time of being thankful to people’s niceness, I can’t help thinking: how could these people be the same mob that had ruthlessly beaten the Freedom Riders and burned buses in 1961, not to mention the lynchings and the whole institution of racial crime? In the end, the Southerners are also people who love their families and care about their children. How could this love be translated into cruelty and hatred to some other people?
To answer this question, let us fast forward our clock by 50 years. Now we all think of ourselves as pretty nice people, but this is what our grandchildren will ask us in the year 2061: “Grandpa, how could you have damaged our earth so badly fifty years ago, and leave me with no choice and no future? How could you have allowed your government to kill so many people in countries far, far away in name of democracy? Don’t you know that every time you fill the gas tank of your SUV, you are overdrafting our energy future, and fueling your car with the blood of thousands of soldiers and millions of innocent people in the Middle East?” In fifty years, our grandchildren will look at our life and society in 2011 with shock and disgust: shocked by our consumerism and indifference to the environment, disgusted by our self-righteousness and inaction. Our grandchildren will ask, “Grandpa, how come you did nothing to help despite the repeated warnings from so many people?”
Faced with our grandchildren’s questions, what will be our answer? Will we regret, will we be shamed? Are we going to be the devil that we are condemning now? Are we already the devil that we are trying to fight?
By Kaitlyn Whiteside
I came on the ride as a history major; I’ll leave as a patriot.
My fascination with the civil rights movement started in 2009 when I began an independent research project on the desegregation of Chattanooga, TN. I continued to study the evolution of the expanding movement during the rest of my time at Georgia Tech as I engaged more and more both inside and outside the classroom. This year, as Vice President of Campus Affairs for the Student Government Association, I initiated and organized a campus-wide event focused on civility and inclusion attended by over 300 students. I also drafted a proposal advocating for a campus cultural center at Georgia Tech.
And yet, for the most part, my involvement was simply surface level. I didn’t truly understand the potential impact that I, or my projects, could have. I went through the motions, implementing changes that I thought were necessary but without the overwhelming passion that my fellow student freedom riders seem to possess. For that, I thank them. I thank them because they’ve inspired me in ways that I didn’t expect, inciting energy and desire that I forgot I could have. I’m not sure if it is the environment, the diversity of the group, or simply the awe-inspiring presence of the original Freedom Riders, but something is in the air that allows a free-flowing exchange of ideas that is unlike any experience I’ve ever had the opportunity to take part in.
While I won’t be going back to make sweeping changes on my campus, I hope that the lessons I learned here will take root in my life and evolve into the same sort of intoxicating passion that allowed the 1961 Riders to risk their lives to “get on the bus.”
By Diana Mahoney
Oversized plaques, encased exhibits, multi-colored murals, all in an effort to convey stories of what has been. Attempts to unpack the past, to inspire the future. Millions of dollars poured into glossy photographs and stimulating exhibits. Our abridged attempts to give explanations to the “whys” of what has been. To unravel the complicated web of the stories we have tangled together over the centuries.
Once upon a time, before we understood inhibitions or colors or hate, we were her. Neither the tension in the air nor the black and white pictures of a burning bus adorning the brightly lit walls of the town’s new exhibit bother her as she toddles back and forth between the rows of adults. Adults who are attempting to make peace, to reconcile a half-century-old story.
Cookie crumbs clinging to her little hands, she reaches out to me to pick her up. I lift her up, tiny billowing white sundress and all and am greeted by two huge, beautiful brown eyes.
“Hi.” I say. Because it’s the best thing I can come up with to say to an almost-two-year-old. She stares back at me before wrapping her tiny arms around my neck and I feel her soft heartbeat as she snuggles close. She pulls back and looks deeply into my eyes and points at the tall, hulking frame of a man across the room.
“Grandpa.” She says.
“Grandpa.” I repeat it back to her. A contagious smile spreads across her little face and I can’t help but smile back. The man she is pointing at, the hero of the evening, is Hank Thomas, whose first greeting from Anniston was in a blazing Greyhound bus surrounded by a jeering, violent mob fifty years before. Whose physical presence is bringing a whole new dimension to my understanding of history and the people it takes to make change possible.
“Monuments aren’t about buildings or plaques. They’re about the people that are walking around. They’re you, and you, and you. Because you are the ones who are living testament to what we fought for.” Charles Person, one of the original Freedom Riders confided in us late one night as we sat around on mix-matched chairs talking about forgiveness and reconciliation with the nature of people.
We’re all monuments. Because we stand testament to the stories of those who came before us, through our lives we bring remembrance to the stories of those who have come and those who have gone. We are evidence that they were here. That their stories, their struggles, their sacrifices, were not in vain. Our lives, living, breathing, passionate monuments whose everyday existence stands testament to the future they unswervingly and faithfully believed someday would be.
As the program draws to a close a man stands in the center of the crowd. Choked up with emotion, he turns toward Hank Thomas and admits that his father was part of the mob that brutally beat Hank fifty years before. The men embrace for a moment before Hank releases him, reaches down and swoops Lily up.
Lily’s that monument. I’m that monument. You’re that monument. Museums, plaques, statues cannot come close to displaying the effect of the past on today the way we can. The sacrifices, dreams and desires of yesterday are manifested in the way that we walk, and talk and think today.
The three of them embrace in a moment that takes my breath away. Lily stares first at her grandfather then at the other man. Her eyes wide, questioning. She wiggles out of Hank’s arms as he sets her down on the floor. She takes one good, long look around the room, and then, suddenly, she begins to dance.
By Charles Reed Jr.
Today was the day that the PBS 2011 Student Freedom Rides bus visited Birmingham, Alabama. While in Birmingham, our first stop was the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This museum highlighted the struggles of the civil rights movement with its exquisite exhibits. Hearing the audio to some of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches empowered me to remain active in the fight for social justice. The longer I remain a part of this wonderful, unique, and educational experience, I know that we must all somehow become involved in helping others realize their power as young leaders of today.
Following our visit to the Civil Rights Institute, the bus went to 16th Street Baptist Church where four young, innocent girls were killed when the church was bombed in 1963. In reflecting on the bombing, it is difficult to grasp the reality of how cruel the segregationists were during that turbulent time in American history. They seemed to have no regard for human life, especially for African Americans. For some reason, they were fearful of change and were willing to use violence to cope with this fear.
During the day, we also had the opportunity to listen to Catherine Burks-Brooks, an original 1961 Freedom Rider, as she discussed her involvement in the civil rights movement. Her stories of the experiences she had during the movement were sincere yet filled with humor. She had this aura that captivated us as an audience. Her enthusiasm about empowering today’s youth was the highlight of her presentation.
Before my visit to the 16th Street Baptist Church, I didn’t know whether or not I would get emotional during this experience. This evening when we revisited the church for a gospel choir concert, I had my answer. As I sang along with the choir, the words of choir made me a bit teary eyed. These Freedom Riders sacrificed so much for me so that I would have the opportunities that I have today. I also thought about my grandmother who grew up during the civil rights movement and how she only wanted the best for me in life. I know she would be proud to see how far I have come and I wish she were here to see it. As we continue on this ride, I will always remember to appreciate those who have come before me and keep their legacy alive.
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 7–May 14: Birmingham, AL, to Montgomery, AL
On the fiftieth anniversary of the May 14, 1961, Mother’s Day assaults on the Freedom Riders in Anniston and Birmingham, we began our day on the bus from Birmingham to Montgomery, replicating the ride of the Nashville Riders on May 20. The Nashville Riders did not stop on their journey from Birmingham to Montgomery, but we did. Thirty-five miles north of Montgomery, the back of the bus began to fill with smoke, thanks to an overstressed air conditioner hose. We had to abandon the bus temporarily, to allow the smoke to clear, as one of the logistics staff members patched up the hose with duct tape. We will stop at nothing to give the students an authentic experience reminiscent of the burning bus of 1961. Eeerily, our roadside experience occurred almost exactly 50 years to the minute after the bus was firebombed in Anniston. But the students took all of this in stride, breaking into song once we got back on the bus. As one student put it, in the words of a freedom song,”Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us ’round.”
Once we arrived in Montgomery, we toured the Civil Rights Memorial designed by Maya Lin and we all put our hands in the ceremonial water that rolls over the inscribed names of movement martyrs. Then we entered the Southern Poverty Law Center to visit the exhibits and put our names on the Wall of Tolerance–and to listen to Mark Potok’s lecture on the Center’s efforts to monitor and combat contemporary hate groups. Following an outdoor lunch at the Civil Rights Memorial, I led the students on a walk down Dexter Avenue, retracing in reverse the last stage of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. We passed by the old slave market site at Court Square on our way to the Rosa Parks Museum, which I helped to design in the 1990s. In the museum, the students visited the holographic bus exhibit that re-creates Rosa Parks’s 1955 arrest. We then walked past the historic Frank Johnson Courthouse, site of several of the most historic civil rights trials of the 1950s and 1960s, on our way to the old Greyhound station, site of the May 20, 1961 Freedom Rider riot. The station now houses a Freedom Rides art exhibit that will open offically next Thursday. The students got a sneak preview of the exhibit before listening to Jim Zwerg’s lecture on nonviolence. Jim was nearly beaten to death during the 1961 riot at the station, so his words had special authority. Hearing him speak in this context–with all the students gathered around, some sitting on the floor–was quite an experience.
Our next stop was the First Baptist Church–Ralph Abernathy’s church and the site of the May 21, 1961, siege, during which a white supremacist mob threatened to burn the church (with the Freedom Riders and more than a thousand supporters inside) to the ground. In 1961 the church’s basement was the scene of the famous phone calls between Dr. King and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and that is where we had dinner before moving upstairs to the sanctuary for a screening of the American Experience film. The film has been shown in a wide variety of venues all over the world, but showing it at First Baptist had special meaning. The Q&A with Jim Zwerg and 5 other Freedom Riders following the screening was quite something, and Jim and Rip Patton closed the evening by leading us in a rendition of “Oh, Freedom.” Amen to an emotion filled day. On to Selma and Jackson on Sunday.
By Tania Smith
Today we left Nashville, Tennessee and headed towards Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham has a very important history in the civil rights movement. It was dubbed “Bombingham” due to the violence perpetrated against its black citizens. The city of Birmingham also had a racist and violent police commissioner by the name of Eugene “Bull” Conner. Conner ran Birmingham as a racist and bigoted police state. Fifty years later, as I entered the city on the 2011 Student Freedom Ride bus, the moment felt surreal.
We visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the 16th Street Baptist Church. Klan members bombed the church in 1963, killing four innocent little girls. Despite its tumultuous past, the 16th Street Baptist Church is a symbol of the past and the hope for the future. I say this because in the evening, we listened to the church’s Carl Reese Memorial Unity Choir sing old songs from the movement, songs that inspired a generation to mobilize, and as a choir member put it, “get out of our seats and into the streets.” It was an inspiring moment— student freedom riders, original Freedom Riders, and people of all races locked arms across the sanctuary and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Tears were flowing; emotions ran high. Despite this progress, the reality is that there is still much work to be done. I hope that one day, maybe 30, 35, or 45 years from now, I’ll be able to look at the future generation, my grandchildren and their grandchildren and say the words “We Have Overcome.”