Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Deep South Pt 4: "The March To Freedom" - Alabama and the Civil Rights Trail

[I spent three lovely relaxing days on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, a wonderful mix of sand, sea and sun. The food was incredible – I tried oysters, crab and seafood gumbo – and in between stuffing my face with food I read some books on the beach. I never do ‘beach holidays’ so to sit and do nothing for three days was perfect. I left the coast early one morning, and after a quick stop over at a Marine centre to feed and cuddle a dolphin, I drove North to Mobile. This is quite possibly the most random holiday I have been on. The following recounts my experience on the African American Civil Rights Trail.]

“Wednesday 14th August – I reached Mobile in the early afternoon, and plugged in the zip code address for Oakleigh House in my Sat Nav. The town looked very rough and run down, and the house was tucked away in a very small historic district behind the main road. I parked and was slightly disconcerted to see a security guard posted out front. It’s fairly rare to see that, and considering I had all my earthy possessions in the boot (or trunk) of my car I was nervous as I approached the front door. I had a private tour of the house by a girl dressed as a Southern belle – of course. It was home to the Irwin and Roper families, and during the Civil War Union soldiers marched to the threshold and threatened to burn the house down, but Margaret Irwin, who was born in England, unfurled a British flag and declared she was British, and not part of the war. The Union troops backed down and left, despite the fact that Margaret’s husband and brother were both high-ranking Confederate officials. The house was interesting, but my standard complaint with house tours – here and sometimes in the US – is the lack of context. We’re told about the furniture and the pretty paintings but what was happening outside the house and how did it affect the family and the slaves. Or, as this house liked to refer to them, servants. The terms ‘slave’ and ‘servant’ seem interchangeable, even though the meaning is very different. At the end of the tour, the guide showed me a photograph of a slave and declared “all Southerners weren’t bad, and people in Mobile treated their slaves well because they weren’t living on plantations.” This may have been true in isolated cases, but it was such a sweeping generalization with little evidence to support her argument. Apparently because the family had their photograph taken with a slave it meant they were part of the family. In Southern society, a paternalistic system existed where plantation owners would have seen their slaves as their extended family, but of course there was a racial and social divide between the two races. The guide did not or was reluctant to point this out.”

“Thursday 15th August – Montgomery, Alabama. Today I drove into downtown Montgomery to follow the Civil Rights Trail. My first stop was the Rose Parks Library and Museum, which was split into a children’s section and the main museum. In 1955, buses across the South were segregated, and African Americans were meant to sit in the back of the bus and if it was busy, they had to vacate their seat for a white person. One evening, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white woman, and although she was by no means the first to do this, her actions ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Thousands of African Americans avoided using buses, and car-pooled with friends and work colleagues for nearly a year. The photographs of near empty buses proved a powerful moment in the Civil Rights Movement. It was amazing to stand at the site where history was made! At the ticket desk of the museum I wavered over the decision to buy a ticket for the children’s section but it was worth it. The exhibition centered on a bus that acted as a time machine. It was driven by a robot (stick with me), and an actress playing Rosa Parks guided us through key moments in African American history. It covered the origins of Jim Crow, and how the name was taken from a minstrel show; the 1857 Dred Scott decision, a landmark case that basically declared white and black people did not have the same rights; the 1850s where Harriet Tubman and Henry ‘Box’ Brown escaped slavery and demanded abolition; the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation; and 1896 for the Plessy vs Ferguson case. Homer Plessy was a black man who decided to test the 14th amendment that said everyone was equal. He led a direct challenge against the laws of segregation by sitting in a white compartment on a train. Plessy could pass as a white man, but identified himself as black, only to be forced off the train. He took the case to court, but Federal judges ruled that conditions provided on a train (i.e., a white and a black compartment) were “separate but equal.” This infamous phrase confirmed the accepted practice, but it was a huge blow for African Americans. 

It was a really good visual display, with the bus moving side to side when you travelled ‘through time.’ Apparently the museum gets a lot of visitors from the state, as well as London and Paris! It was very enjoyable and so well presented. The main 'adult' section of the museum focused on a dramatization of Rosa Parks’ stand on the bus, and an exhibition contained documents of when she was arrested and how the Montgomery Bus Boycott evolved into an incredibly organised movement. Volunteers such as Joanne Robinson worked through the night to print 52,000 leaflets, distributing them across town to families and churches to warn them off the impending boycott. Money was raised for those who could not get to work, and just under 400 cars were purchased to transport people to and from work. The state tried to class them as taxis, as you would need a business licence to operate them but the activists cleverly painted churches on the side of the car – you could not class a church as a business. There were some excellent facts that I had never come across before.
After a brief visit to the Dexter Memorial Church where Martin Luther King preached and the Alabama State Capitol, I briefly walked around the Jefferson Davis Home (below). Davis was the President of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and he resided in Montgomery for a few months until the capital of the Confederacy moved to Virginia. The house was free to go into, and it reminded me of a typical National Trust site. The Home had preserved the furniture and had some written info on where the chairs and paintings were from. Unfortunately there weren’t a lot of interesting anecdotes, or stories. This is the main failure of many National Trust sites, and I find places less interesting when you don’t feel connected to the person that lived there. Why does it matter where the carpet is from, when you can focus on the life of Davis instead?

Returning to the African American history trail, I booked a short tour around Martin Luther King’s house. This was such a memorable experience. Before the tour of the house, the manager, Shirley Cherry, gave a short introduction to the Civil Rights Movement. She told some horrific stories of the violence suffered by both black and white activists; a school friend of hers was shot in the head for refusing to use a ‘coloured bathroom.’ 

This house (below) belonged to MLK for several years, and it was here that the KKK tried to assassinate him and his family. A bomb blew up the front of the house, shattering part of the floor and the front window. Luckily, his wife and daughter were at the back of the house and escaped unscathed. The house is also important historically because it was the place where MLK experienced his famous epiphany. One night, after several late night phone calls threatening the lives of himself and his children, MLK sat in his kitchen and contemplated giving up. He prayed, and thought he heard the voice of God urging him to “seek righteousness, seek justice, and seek truth.”  I stood in that kitchen, listening to an audio recording of MLK describing that moment, and chills ran down my spine. It was immensely powerful, especially because the tour guide knew MLK personally. At the end of the tour, I asked her what he was like. She paused, and said with a smile on her face, hearing him speak was “marvelous.” He had a great personality, and refused to talk down to anyone. Watching the pride and love in her face was a special moment for me; I had never dreamed of meeting anyone who could tell me what it was truly like to hear MLK speak.

Friday 16th August – Today I drove to Selma to learn about the famous Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery. In 1965, Civil Rights activists marched along the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were beaten back by the police. In outrage, another march was scheduled, and men and women, black and white, marched 54 miles to Montgomery to demand the right to vote. A short video made by students at the National Park Site focused on the events of that year, as well as the importance of voting for new generations. The video highlighted some individual stories, namely that of Viola Liuzzo. Viola was a white woman, a mother of five children, who drove down from Michigan to attend the march. As she was driving some of the marchers home, Viola was shot and killed by the KKK. 
I started chatting to Michael, the park ranger at the site and he told me some fascinating and disturbing things about Selma. The museum has had several threatening phone calls from the white community, demanding the National Park Service shut it down immediately. Michael explained that many people in Selma don’t understand the significance of the march or the Civil Rights Movement in general. This was proved by a visit to a town house in the afternoon. Sturdivant Hall is a short drive from the Selma museum, and is a beautiful example of a Greek Revival home. It was a stunning house, but the tour guide was the most interesting thing about it. I mentioned I had been to the Selma Museum and she made a comment I couldn’t ignore: “they don’t tell you everything.” Intrigued, I asked her to explain. She then launched an attack on the Civil Rights Movement, dismissing their objectives and questioning why it was necessary when Selma faired well in racial terms compared to other cities in the South. (I considered telling her about Jim Clarke, a notorious sheriff from Selma who from want of a better word, was a tyrant). The Selma museum was “propaganda rather than history” and the Movement used the killing of activist Jimmy Lee Jackson to their advantage, in her words, they wanted someone to get killed. (Jackson was actually shot whilst attempting to protect his mother and grandmother from a violent white mob.) Apparently, “things weren’t that bad in Selma.” The tour guide was young, possibly early 30s, so it’s interesting to consider her attitude. Had she grown up with these ideas or was this something she had developed on her own? She was very defensive throughout, although I didn’t push her – sometimes it’s best to let someone talk rather than interrogate someone. Regardless, it was clear she had no respect for the Civil Rights Movement and was not impressed with the memorials and museums. 

From Selma, I drove to a former Confederate Soldier’s Home in Marbury, about 40 minutes from Montgomery. The sites consists of two cemeteries and a museum, and is fairly unique in the US. At the turn of the twentieth century, former soldier and businessman Jefferson Manly Faulkner gave up some of his land to be used as a soldier’s home for Confederates. At its peak, 102 veterans called this place home. After the war, the Federal government only granted pensions to veterans of the Union cause, so Confederates depended on payments from the state. Homes nicknamed “Boys of ‘61” sprang up across Virginia, Louisiana and Arkansas, but the site in Marbury was thought to be more permanent. Veterans could bring their wives, and were provided with food and medical care on a daily basis. Veterans could tend to vegetable gardens, and every year in April the United Daughters of the Confederacy celebrated Confederate Memorial Day. In 1934, the last veteran died, and a few years later the state officially closed the home. Today, Marbury is the final resting place for 313 Confederate veterans and widows.

Saturday 17th August – I left Montgomery in the early morning to arrive at Birmingham for 10am. After a confusing altercation with a parking metre, I found the Civil Rights Museum and managed to bag myself a free tour of the state park opposite. (It pays to get up early). It was a fascinating tour of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, a city well known to activists as a hot bed of racism and segregation. The tour mainly focused on the events of 1963, where MLK and Reverend Fred Shuttleworth led numerous rallys against the system. Both men organised ‘Project C’, an initiative which centered on the confrontation of racism and violence. At this time, African Americans couldn’t use public parks, or gather in any place apart from their own churches. Violence was rife, and the infamous city commissioner, Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, ruled the city with an iron fist. Connor used his immense power to crush black resistance and arrest hundreds of activists and ordinary citizens. He had MLK arrested, and had the audacity to defy President Kennedy when the latter demanded to know why MLK had not been allowed a phone call. During a march in ’63, Connor ordered the fire department to hose protestors – mainly teenagers and young people – with jets of water so strong it could shave bark from the surrounding trees. One woman claimed parts of her hair have never grown back because of the force of the blast. (The infamous picture of a dog attacking a protestor happened here, and is immortalized in stone in a small memorial). Connor ensured the police dogs were trained to bite and never let go, and typically, his dog (named ‘Nigger’) was the most violent dog on the force. After a peaceful march organised by King and Shuttleworth, Connor locked children up for days in jail with little food, and when he ran out of space, he used pig stys. He often released children at 3am and told them to make their own way home; worried friends and parents often worked in shifts at street corners to pick up wandering children. The media coverage of the march shocked the nation, and when a second march was scheduled the fire department refused a direct order from Connor to use the jets of water again. 

The tour guide also focused on the bombing of 1963: four little girls were killed when a bomb blast tore through a church in the city. On the same day, two black male teenagers were also killed in separate racial incidents, one shot by a 16-year-old member of the KKK, the other by the police. (This was covered up at the time as the police didn’t want to take responsibility for this at the time of the church bombing). The tour and my subsequent visit to the museum reinforced my sense of awe at the activists’ bravery and their unwillingness to surrender their cause. This history can never be forgotten.
In the park there were several memorials to the Civil Rights Movement. The guide explained they are products of their time: one statue depicted the attacks on the protestors but showed the jets of water with no one operating them. The fire department didn’t want to be associated with the violence, so were conveniently removed from the park. Likewise, statues of dogs are sculpted launching out of a wall (left), but face inward towards the cetre of the park so passers by or cars cannot see them from the road. This was really interesting, and something I would have loved to study for my Masters in Public History. This level of memorialization and forgetting shows us that public memory is often abused to distort the past.

But the most interesting fact I learned? One that, if I had known, I would have shoved it in that lady’s face in Selma? In the 1930s, Hitler sent agents to the South to study the segregation laws, and used them as a base for his Nuremberg Laws. Hitler copied the South, and people still don’t think there was a problem.

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