Posts Tagged ‘ Day 7 ’
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 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.
By Lu-Anne Haukaas Lopez
I got nothing. Nothing at all. Days on this bus are filled with abstracts—life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. When I arrived in DC six days ago, I was taken aback when many fellow riders asked me, “What did YOU do to get on this bus?” I didn’t know how to answer, so I listened. I listened to fellow student riders describing extracurricular, extraordinary lives of civic service—of registering immigrant voters in Arizona, of marching against mountaintop removal in West Virginia, of donating cafeteria food cards to local homeless shelters. I didn’t realize I had signed up for this. How the hell, what the hell did I do to get on this bus? So I patterned my answers on theirs. I pushed my campus involvement in Alaska Native and American Indian equality issues. I harked back to my years counseling sexual abuse victims in Australia. And then I hoped people would stop asking, would deem me legitimized. But deep down, I knew, that wasn’t, isn’t, why I’m here.
I hate abstracts. Word hungry, I’ll choose the concrete time and again. I want to put color, sound, green and grind to the illusives. But this bus is filled with people who live for the illusive. Riding with Rip or Joan, Bob or Helen, I don’t feel worthy. My nametag brashly brands: Student Freedom Rider, but I know the truth. I’m no Freedom Rider. I get on the bus without fear, sit where I want with whom I want. I go to sleep on a mattress in a room with a shower, an iron, a hair dryer. I lose pencils daily, I don’t smuggle them in under my hair. I’m glad for the Lysol wipes in the bus toilet, I don’t chill or still at their smell. I eat grits, I eat fruit, I eat and eat and eat. The back of my head isn’t black, isn’t shaved, doesn’t show the scars of bars and beating. I’m not a Freedom Rider.
But these are. The Rips, the Joans, the Bobs, the Helens, the Charleses, the Hanks—these are. Sitting here, being here, listening here, a little bit of my “why,” my “what,” is emerging. I am here to be their platform, their perpetuation. I’m not the visionary, I’m the vessel. Yes, yes, I know it’s up to this generation to assume its “place”—I get that. I get that we’re here to continue not to conclude. I get that we represent a virtual flotilla of tweeting, posting hope to the world. I get this. And I don’t doubt that many of us will change this world, will be the next step, the next leap, the next legacy. I don’t doubt that many of us will turn these abstracts, these bus ride beliefs into the contagious, into the concrete. But for right now, for right here, I’m riding for them. I’m riding for the wall of four hundred faces. I’m riding for the long rows of Parchman cells. I’m riding to get to New Orleans. Finally. You see, completing this ride is vastly more than an inspirational experience. Completing this ride is a home coming for this movement and the world. Debarking the bus in the company of our young, expectant faces, the lens of the world will be focused on their legacy, our lineage.
When Charles Person, one of the original CORE thirteen, turned to us in Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist tonight, and spoke into the charged atmosphere still ringing with spirituals: “You are now Freedom Riders. You have been anointed,” I swallowed the ache in my throat. I looked into his weathered face, my eyes filling. Charles, I want to be. I really want to be.