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Posts Tagged ‘ Alabama ’

Day 8: Religion is a Double Edged Sword

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

By Karl Kumodzi

We arrived in Birmingham, Alabama today and visited the historic 16th Street Baptist Church. At 10:22 a.m. on September 15th, 1963 a bomb went off inside the church, killing four little girls who were attending Sunday school. We sat in the pews of the very same church today and watched a video recounting the bombing and the national response it got. As I sat there, I found myself thinking the very same thoughts I had when I first learned of this bombing in a high school history class – how could someone bring themselves to plant a bomb in a church?

The bomb was planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Ironically, the Klan can be classified as a radical Christian group. I have a hard time wrapping my head around how any Christian group, even a radical one, can bomb a Christian church while people are worshiping inside. It’s fascinating that the crusades, the holocaust, and slavery were all defended using religion. It is even more fascinating that during slavery and segregation, the oppressed used the very same religion to find hope and to fight back. The KKK uses the same text to terrorize and oppress that African Americans used to justify equality and nonviolence. As I sat in those pews today, we sang and danced to old freedom songs and church music. Somewhere in the middle of the experience, it hit me. I felt why demonstrators had the courage to march, sit in, and ride the bus. I knew that in that community, with those beliefs, and the networks, resources, and organizing power that laid in the church, anything was possible. Somewhere between singing about Jesus’ love and “We Shall Overcome,” I understood why a young person like me would risk his or her life to change an unjust status quo. Faith in the promise of the word, coupled with the rising tensions of the time, and reinforced by a community ready to take action would move anyone to act for justice.

Religion can be used for good or for evil. I’d like to think that its use for good is a correct interpretation, and its use for evil is a false one. I’d like to think that the feeling that overcame me in church today and made me want to take action is truer than a similar religious feeling overcoming Hitler or a Klan member and inspiring them to take action. I’d like to think that slaves interpreted the bible right, and slave masters interpreted it wrong. However, I cannot know for certain. One thing does give me hope, and it is this: In every case I have mentioned so far, the good interpretation of religion has always outlasted the evil one. Perhaps this means that it just takes a little while to get to the truth, and that what we see as the good interpretation is indeed truth. Either way, deep down in my gut I know that the feeling I had was true, and very few radical interpretations can sway me from it.


Day 6: A-Rollin’ Towards a Beloved Community

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

By Will Dale

The bus’ wheels are a-turnin’ to the rhythm of our freedom songs. They turn round, round, and round.  The bus’ wheels are a-rollin’ down this highway, spreading our mission and the Freedom Ride story. They spin, spin, and spin around. These wheels are constantly turning, turning, and turning – a-takin’ us down South, our destination.

This notion of a destination struck me this morning as we pulled out of Anniston. To me, a destination is the ultimate end and purpose to what we seek to be realized. The original thirteen Freedom Riders’ intended destination was New Orleans, yet they were hindered by the violence they encountered in the Deep South. As a result, their mission evolved from their journey to New Orleans to the start of a movement that challenged social and legal norms in the South.

The belief in a destination is seen throughout the civil rights movement, most commonly conceptualized in the ideas of freedom and justice. Dr. Martin Luther King often spoke of the “Beloved Community” as one of his ultimate destinations. In this “beloved community,” the formerly oppressed seek to reconcile with their former oppressors. This community would be characterized by the ideals of justice, freedom, and unity. Dr. King’s “Beloved Community” has yet to be realized, but that is why the student freedom riders are here.

Over the last few days on the bus, the other student freedom riders and I have had trouble coming up with our own destination. In this destination, we can find our purpose and future, and I think that the current state and future of civic engagement and social activism lies in this search for this destination. I think we can find our mission in the history of our past, our actions in the present, and the events of the future.

For now, we continue towards Nashville and on to New Orleans. We will also carry on our journey towards our own destination, our own purpose. It is impossible to see what impact we will have on the world in five, ten, or fifty years. But if my predictions are right, I know we will keep the wheels of change a-turnin’, a-rollin’, and a-takin’ us towards our own vision of the Beloved Community.


Day 7: Tariq Meyers

Saturday, May 14th, 2011


Day 7: Returning Home for the First Time

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

By Benjameen Quarless

Today we spent the day at 16th Street Baptist Church, the place where four young girls were killed by a bombing attack. In light of the spiritual energy in the building, I was reminded of the effects of sin in the world. From the theological perspective, sin separates people from God and from one another. Whether one is a believer or not, it is true that violence and anger drive wedges between people and make it hard for them to become citizens in the “Beloved Community.”

My grandfather was born in Birmingham, Alabama, also known as “Bombingham” for explosive violence directed against blacks in the 1900s, and the site of this church bombing. In a response to Jim Crow oppression, my grandfather had to make a choice. He had to choose between raising his family in that overtly degrading Southern society, or leave brothers and sisters in Birmingham to raise his own family. He chose to leave Birmingham and eventually moved to Washington State.

What this shows to me is that the effects of not respecting human dignity is to not allow humans to go home to grow in community with one another. In the Baptist church today we heard the lyrics of a popular hymn that stated, “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free”. My grandfather, a World War II veteran, was too proud to subjugate him or his family to the Jim Crow laws. He was also a dedicated father and therefore was unwilling to go to his grave early and leave his kids without a father. As a result of the sin of Jim Crow, there was a wedge placed between the family.

As a result, I want to work in my personal life to recognize where wedges are being placed in between people. Wedges of unjust wages, education and access to resources exist in our society. It is unfortunate because unlike during the Jim Crow days, these wedges are not labeled white or colored for easy identification. These wedges are now discretely labeled under the disguises of immigration laws, education systems, and exploitative foreign policies. I urge all of those people to look in their societies and find the wedges in their respective societies and work to remove them.


Day 6: Dispatch from Ray Arsenault

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

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.


Day 6: Anniston, Alabama

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

By Francisco Diaz

Anniston, Alabama. The name has developed a strong notoriety in my consciousness. It conjures up images of angry mobs and violent intolerance. It was the first escalation and first stark expression of raw hatred against the original Freedom Riders, the place that produced the image of a burning Greyhound that has been ubiquitous thru-ought our journey.

Before this trip I would say to my friends, “I wouldn’t be caught dead in the South.” What I had heard of the region conjured up a view of angry, hostile racists lurking around every corner, every southern accent concealing contempt for those they deemed different from them. It’s no surprise, I reasoned, that the current swath of anti-immigrant legislation states are trying to enact across the country are strongest in these former Confederate states.

While I am the first to reiterate that there is still much work to be done, I am now happy to say that my own views were flawed, prejudicial, and incomplete. I say that I’m happy because I have now begun to move past that view.

At dinner I sat next to an Anniston local named Richard Couch. I couldn’t help but think that he was the stereotype of the South that I had developed in my mind, a burly, blue-eyed man with a thick southern drawl, whose father had been a Klansman, one of the mob that had been there on that day of terror in 1961. Richard was also one of the funniest and most sincere men I have met, a public defender who advocates for the poor of Anniston, who was genuinely happy to meet me and an Oakland Raiders fan and general lover of the San Francisco Bay Area to boot.

When Richard Couch gave an impromptu and tearful welcome to Hank Thomas, who had been on that bus the day it was burned and when they embraced, I viewed the full power of nonviolence. The son of a Klansman hugging a man who his father hated and wanted dead was a greater victory than any violent counter-attack that could have been done at the time to the mob had surrounded that bus. If the Freedom Riders had not been nonviolent, and they fought back and perhaps killed Richard Couch’s father, this true moment would not have occurred.

The genuine power of the moment we saw was a brief, luminescent glimpse of the beloved community Mr. Thomas and the other Freedom Riders sought. Where I once saw hate, bigotry and violence, I now see love, understanding and hope. Later on, some of my fellow student riders told me that the comment page in the local newspaper’s website was full of comments about “stirring the race pot” and “unnecessarily bringing up old wounds.” This could have discouraged me, because we have not completely overcome, but I saw the true power of love, and as we continue, no amount of hate and continued ignorance will take that away.


Day 6: LeRoy Ford

Saturday, May 14th, 2011


Day 5: Love Never Fails

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

By Samantha Williams

What is love? Is it toleration of things you don’t understand? Is it an attachment to someone or a display of affection? Maybe it’s all of these things or none at all. I’ve lived my life believing that I understood love — that I knew how to love. Today in Anniston, AL. I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about it.

Over the past few days I’ve spoken with our resident celebrities (i.e., the Freedom Riders), strolled through museums and historic sites, and sang beautiful, inspiring songs of freedom. But after rolling into Anniston, the parade I had been marching in suddenly stopped and the rain started to pour. In my naivity, I believed that when we arrived in “The Heart of Dixie” the entire city would be ready to right the wrongs of 1961, when Anniston residents firebombed a bus filled with human beings.

I am very appreciative of the city providing us dinner and a place to stay for the night. I spoke with several members of the community whom I believe had pure hearts and truly wanted to overcome the town and the country’s dark past. After dinner Wednesday night, we attended a ceremony in which we joined hands in singing “We Shall Overcome” and wept as we witnessed reconciliation between Hank Thomas, a man that was on the bus that day, and a man whose father was in the mob.

As touched as I was to see these sincere moments, it is my responsibility as an American to give an authentic account of what I felt watching these events unfold before my eyes. Reconciliation was soon overshadowed by speeches about economic development and an agenda to prop up the local economy from what sounded like a used car salesman — and that salesman was the mayor.

The Freedom Riders were acknowledged sparingly, while community members who helped put on the events were treated as the true heroes. Hank was given his time to speak (although it was not scheduled in the program) and Charles Person, another Rider on the bus that day, was able to speak at the dedication of a mural but without a microphone where only a handful of people (mainly media) could hear him. Meanwhile, local politicians were heard loud and clear as they incessantly encouraged us to come back, start businesses, and tell all of our friends about the great initiatives going on in the city. While it may sound nonsensical to assume these decisions were intentional, a conversation I had with a local Anniston resident does not make it any easier to dismiss my initial reaction that some people still did not understand the gravity of the situation.

I met a black woman, most likely in her late 60s, who revealed to me that, “this is not a city for black people.” She said that schools are still mostly segregated, black people can only get a job if it’s “in the back scrubbing floors,” and poverty in the black community is not the exception, but the rule. I could hear the pain in her voice when she said she couldn’t wait to leave Anniston. All of this she said an arm’s length away from the mayor, who approached us and asked that she quiet down because the program was starting.

I must commend the Freedom Riders who had not one unkind word to say about the ceremonies and rejoiced in the progress the city has made. When Charles Person was asked how he feels 50 years later being in the place he nearly lost his life, all he could say was how happy he was to see progress, no matter how small. He said that nonviolence is more than just being nonviolent. It must be rooted in love, he said. And here I am, feeling angry and confused. Nope, I did not understand love.

Charles loves the men who punched him and threw him to the ground as he was struggling to breath. He loves the men dressed in white, hooded robes and the women cheering them on with babies on their hips. He knew at 18-years-old that without love, the movement would not succeed and he knows today that without it we cannot move forward. There’s a Bible verse that reads, “Love never fails.” Charles taught me that this isn’t just a cliché phrase — it’s a lifestyle. Standing in Anniston at the spot where Charles was beaten, I realized that he did not fail, the Freedom Riders did not fail, and most of all, love never failed.


Day 5: Dispatch from Ray Arsenault

Friday, May 13th, 2011

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 5–May 12: Anniston, AL, to Nashville, TN

Our fifth day on the road started with the dedication of two murals in Anniston, at the old Greyhound and Trailways stations. I worked with the local committee on the text, and I was pleased with the results. In the past, there was nothing to signify that anything historic had happened at these sites. The turnout of both blacks and whites was gratifying and perhaps a sign that Anniston has begun the healing process of confonting its dark past. The students seemed intrigued by the whole scene, including the media blitz. We then boarded the bus and traveled six miles to the site of the bus burning; we talked with the only local resident who was there in 1961 and with the designer of a proposed Freedom Rider park that will be built on the site, which now boasts only a small historic marker. I have mixed feelings about the park, but perhaps the plan will be refined to a less Disneyesque form. It was quite a scene at the site, but we eventually pulled ourselves away for the long drive to Nashville.

Our first stop in Nashville was the civil rights room of the public library, the holder of one of the nation’s great civil rights collections. Rip Patton gave a moving account of his life as a Nashville student activist. We then traveled across town to the John Seigenthaler First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, where John Seigenthaler talked with the students for a spellbinding hour. He focused on his experiences with the Kennedy brothers and his sense of the evolution of their civil rights consciousness. As always, he was captivating and gracious, and full of truth-telling wit. We gave the students the night off to experience the music scene in Nashville, while I and the Freedom Riders participated in a Q and A session following a screening of the PBS film. The theater was packed, and the response was very enthusiastic. It was great to see this in Nashville, a hallowed site essential to the Freedom Rider saga and the wider freedom struggle. On to Fisk this morning before journeying south to Birmingham and “sweet home Alabama.”


Day 6: Reconciliation is a Process

Friday, May 13th, 2011

By Michael Tubbs

Anniston, Alabama is an iconic site in the psyche of all those involved in the Civil Rights Movement.  Fifty years ago, home grown terrorists slashed the tires and attempted to burn the bus holding the Freedom Riders. Today, we revisited the site of the horrific incident to participate in the grand openings of the photo exhibit and two murals.

In a sense, the movement was defined by that fire.  Through those flames, the nation was able to bear witness to the blind bigotry and hatred that consumed far too many. Through those flames, the brave men and women emerged as heroes dedicated to the cause of non-violent direct action and the power of love. Through those flames, my vision of Anniston and civil rights today has been sharpened and borders on being critical.

My experience thus far on the bus has convinced me that reconciliation is a process not a moment.  At the dedication of the photo exhibit for the burning bus, the son of one of the mob  members hugged a Freedom Rider who was on the bus, welcoming him to the town.  Although the moment was special, it was not, as many were calling it, reconciliation.  For reconciliation to happen, the present should not bear much resemblance to the social realities of the past.  A local woman eloquently echoed these sentiments saying, ” we got this mural after fifty years but we have a long way to go.” In towns nationwide, blacks still face police brutality, inferior education, employment difficulties and a host of other ills.

In many respects the election of the first black president and commerating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides is the beginnining of the long process towards racial reconciliation. Sure moments and memories are nice, but unless we seriously address the racial inequities that plague us in every sphere, fifty years from now our children won’t be able to hold any dedications commemorating the work we did.   It’s definitely important to look back and reflect on the past, but it’s more important to collectively turn our gaze to now and the future and frankly engage with the work that still needs to be done.


Day 5: Lu-Anne Haukaas Lopez

Friday, May 13th, 2011


Day 4: Dispatch from Ray Arsenault

Friday, May 13th, 2011

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 4–May 11: Augusta, GA, to Anniston, AL

As we left Augusta, I gave a brief lecture on Augusta’s cultural, political, and racial history–emphasizing several of the region’s most colorful and infamous characters, notably Tom Watson and J. B. Stoner. Then we settled in for the long bus ride from Augusta to Atlanta, a journey that the students soon turned into a musical and creative extravaganza featuring new renditions of freedom songs, original rap songs, a poetry slam–all dedicated to the original Freedom Riders. These kids are quite remarkable.

In Atlanta, our first stop was the King Center, where we were met by Freedom Riders Bernard Lafayette and Charles Person. Bernard gave a fascinating impromptu lecture on the history of the Center and his experiences working with Coretta King. We spent a few minutes at the grave sight and reflecting pool before entering the newly restored Ebenezer Baptist Church. The church was hauntingly beautiful, especially so as we listened to a tape of an MLK sermon and a following hymn. The kids were riveted.

Our next stop was Morehouse College, King’s alma mater, where we were greeted by a large crowd organized by the Georgia Humanities Council. After lunch and my brief keynote address, the gathering, which included 10 Freedom Riders, broke into small groups for hour-long discussions relating the Freedom Rides to contemporary issues. Moving testimonials and a long standing ovation for the Riders punctuated the event. Later in the afternoon, we headed for Alabama and Anniston, taking the old highway, Route 78, just as the CORE Freedom Riders had on Mother’s Day morning, May 14, in 1961. However, unlike 1961’s brutal events, our reception in Anniston, orchestrated by a downown redevelopment group known as the Spirit of Anniston, could not have been more cordial. A large interracial group that included the mayor, city council members, and a black state representative joined us for dinner before accompanying us to the Anniston Public Library for a program highlighted by the viewing of a photography exhibit, “Courage Under Fire.” The May 14, 1961 photographs of Joe Postiglione were searing, and their public display marks a new departure in Anniston, a community that until recently seemed determined to bury the uglier aspects of its past. The whole scene at the library was deeply emotional, almost surreal at times. The climax was a confessional speech by Richard Couch, the son of a Klansman who was part of the bus-burning mob in 1961. When Mr. Couch walked over to Hank Thomas, who was savagely attacked in 1961, to embrace him and ask for forgiveness and reconciliation, there were tears all around. The students and everyone else in the room were stunned. I have never seen anything quite like that moment. Later Mr. Couch and Janie Forsyth McKinney, the 12-year old white girlwho braved the mob in 1961 to come to the Freedom Riders’ aid, joined the students at our hotel for a two-hour deiscussion of race and reconciliation. I would wager that those of us who were in that room will remember the depth of feeling and searching questions and comments of the students for the rest of our lives. Words can’t describe what took place in the hearts and minds of the Freedom Riders, young and old, last night.


Day 5: Esther Kim

Friday, May 13th, 2011


Day 6: Not Quite Like Home

Friday, May 13th, 2011

By JoyEllen Freeman

There’s no place like home. And I believe that. From the very beginning of the trip, I looked forward to traveling to Atlanta with my fellow Freedom Riders because this is the city that I call home. As a part of our visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. historic site, we visited Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King used to preach. We sat in the pew and listened to a recording of one of Dr. King’s original sermons. Listening to his congregation respond back to him, staring at the wooden communion table with the quote “This do in remembrance of me,” and watching light stream through the stained-glass windows felt all too close to home because it reminded me of my own Baptist church in Roswell, Georgia. Hearing the trembling in Dr. King’s voice as he confessed that he too “gets discouraged” was difficult for me to hear because discouragement, dejection, and fear are not concepts that I want to associate with Dr. King, the civil rights movement, or with my hometown. It’s such a strange feeling when home transforms from a place of comfort to one of solemnity and pain, and I found that it also takes a lot of emotional effort to accept this new reality. I guess this is a part of “stepping out of my comfort zone” that I promised myself I would do.

Likewise, Anniston, Alabama conjures these same sentiments on an even deeper level. The epitome of a small, southern hometown, Anniston is the infamous location where a mob of angry whites firebombed the Freedom Riders’ bus in 1961. During my visit to Anniston and the firebombing site, I felt a constant clash between the eeriness of the events that occurred 50 years ago and the desperation of the city’s residents to reconcile with this history. Despite the delicious grits, warm Southern hospitality, and newly designed tribute to the 1961 Freedom Rides, Anniston still has many opened wounds relating to segregation and injustice. No matter how I or anyone else may feel about the painful events in Anniston’s past, I try to remember that about 25,000 people call this place “home,” and I need to respect that.


Day 5: Raising Questions

Friday, May 13th, 2011

By Meghna Chandra

During one of our impromptu conversations about history, one of my fellow Student Freedom Riders made the point that the best way to love something is to critique it. My most beloved professors have encouraged me to think critically about the world. In that vein, several days before I left, student activists came together to hold a teach-in entitled “WTF Penn? Questioning Penn’s Moral Compass” in which we examined the immoral activities our university is engaged in, from research for the Pentagon, to unfair labor practices. A significant theme of the day was “Whose blood and bones are we walking on for our privilege?”

That’s why I must raise questions about this beautiful, crazy, educational, exhausting, and emotionally demanding ride.

Sometimes I wonder if this ride through the south, through communities like Anniston, Alabama and Petersburg, Virginia which are plagued by economic blight, is analogous to a group of students taking a Civil War Tour of the country during the 1950’s, celebrating the victories of the Union, while ignoring the then ongoing Civil Rights struggle.

Before Martin Luther King, Jr. died, he launched a new campaign, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. This campaign was an effort to unite people across color lines to abolish poverty. One of Dr. King’s least known, yet most telling quotes is, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?” The Civil Rights Movement was not only a struggle to end racial injustice, but economic injustice as well.

As we drive through these towns, getting on and off the bus to the very best of Southern hospitality, we must remember that so much work remains to be done, work that will not be accepted by everyone who supports the memory of the 1961 Freedom Rides. However, to follow in footsteps of the Freedom Riders is to fly in the face of opposition to fight for truth, equality, and most importantly, love.


Day 5: Karl Kumodzi

Friday, May 13th, 2011