A few years ago, I had the opportunity to travel from San Diego, California to Raleigh, North Carolina. I was not on vacation, but rather, I was helping my friend, Jennifer, move east to attend Grad School at North Carolina State University. When we began our journey across the country, we wanted to take a route neither of us had traveled before. So, driving a twenty-four foot U-Haul, we decided to travel by way of Interstate 20 for one purpose. We wanted to visit some of the sites where critical Civil Rights events occurred. We had no idea just how moved we would be by that decision.
Excited to get to where we wanted to explore, we quickly made our way across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Well, maybe not so quickly across Texas. Texas takes so long to cross and it seemed we would never get through the state. Finally, on day two, we arrived in Mississippi. Due to mileage restrictions on the U-Haul, we knew we could not venture too far away from the interstate on which we were traveling. That disappointed us. We truly wanted to visit Money, Mississippi. Money, almost two hours north of Jackson, is the site of a horrible crime which turned out to be a catalyst for the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement: the murder of Emmett Till.
In 1955, two men, spurred on by (now known to be false) accusations made by the wife of one of the murderers, pulled a sleeping Emmett, fourteen at the time, out of his bed in the middle of the night. What followed was the torturing and murder of a young boy from Chicago. Till was in town visiting his relatives on summer break. His life would end with his body being thrown, discarded like trash, into the Tallahatchie River with a 75-pound metal cotton-gin fan strapped to his body with barbed wire. The murder, and subsequent acquittal of the murderers, shined a huge light on the brutality of Jim Crow segregation in the South. The importance of the Till murder as early motivation for the start of the Civil Rights Movement cannot be denied. Especially when considering its impact. Till’s murder was ultimately singled out amongst hundreds of racially motivated lynchings as a linchpin for the movement, having been the example given by many as their reason for participation in the Civil Rights protests throughout the South. Till was forever linked to the Civil Rights Movement when, whether consciously or not, Martin Luther King, Jr. chose August 28th, eight years to the day of Till’s murder, to deliver his ‘I have a Dream‘ speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of more than 250,000 Americans.
With Money, Mississippi off the table as a destination, we decided to start our visits at the murder site of a lesser known Civil Rights leader.
Medgar Evers, a Veteran of World War Two (and a survivor of the Normandy Invasion), was a state field secretary for the NAACP in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers was very active in organizing voter-registration efforts, among other protest activities in the state that may have made him a target. On June 12, 1963, a man named Byron De La Beckwith, a known white supremacist and member of the Ku Klux Klan, hid behind a tree across the street from Evers’ home. Medgar Evers arrived home, late into the evening, unaware that his assassin was lying in wait. He exited his car and was shot in the back by a coward with a high powered rifle. The bullet tore through Evers’ body and ricocheted into his home, narrowly missing his wife. Evers collapsed in the driveway with his wife and children by his side. He was rushed to the hospital, where, within minutes after his arrival, he died. The tragic end to a promising life.
As we made our way into the neighborhood, we knew we were going to stand out in our big truck. Clearly, with signs posted, trucks were not allowed down the street, but we had no choice. We made our way with care. I had lived in Jackson, Mississippi for more than a year in the mid-90s and knew we were in an area of town where we might not be welcome, but we believed we would be just fine. As we arrived to the home, the site of the murder, it was as if, in at least one way, time had stood still. Gone was the tree from where the murderer hid, replaced by more houses. All of the homes on the street were in differing degrees of condition, but the Evers’ home, now a National Monument, seemed untouched by time. It was exactly as we had seen it in pictures that had been taken in 1963.
We stood quietly, both in our own thoughts of the unintentional, ultimate sacrifice of one man who was trying to further the rights of a long oppressed group of American people. We had wanted to pay our respects to the memory of at least one, of so many, who would be assassinated in the five years that followed, including a President, a Presidential candidate, and multiple Civil Rights activists and leaders. We were thankful we made the time to stop. The irony of Evers’ murder was not lost on me. Here was a man who lived through the harrowing experience of D-Day and WWII, just to come home and die by an assassin’s bullet, put into his back by a fellow American.
For those who do not know this story, it took three trials and thirty years to finally convict De La Beckwith of murder. De La Beckwith was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. After several failed appeals, including one to the U.S. Supreme Court, he died in prison in 2001.
If you are interested in this story, and learning more, the film, Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), tells the story of Evers’ murder and the trial that finally put the murderer in prison.
Also, I recommend the book, The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero’s Life and Legacy revealed Through His Writing, Letters and Speeches (2005), edited by Evers’ wife, Myrlie Evers-Williams.
Bob Dylan released the song, Only a Pawn In Their Game (1963), in which he denounces Evers’ murder and the overall racial environment of the South.
Medgar Evers was buried, a hero, with full military honors, in Arlington National Cemetery.
We continued our way through Mississippi and, because of new, at the time, iPhone technology, we googled every historic marker we drove past so we could learn about stories we would never have known if we hadn’t traveled past the area. We learned about Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Henry Schwerner, three Civil Rights workers, who disappeared on June 21, 1964 while traveling to investigate the burning of a Black church. Their bodies were discovered, at the end of a six week search, in individual shallow graves. The search, headed by the FBI, was detailed in scope. The three young men had been followed and then lynched by two men and their KKK posse. The lynch mob was determined to kill the three young men. More than likely the murderers were angered when the black man, Chaney, was seen riding in the car of two white men, Schwerner and Goodman. Schwerner was shot in the heart; Goodman was shot in the chest near his shoulder; and Chaney, who tried to run, was shot in the back and head as he ran.
The murderers buried the three young men in shallow graves and piled river mud on top of them in a manner to look like a beaver dam. The graves were discovered when an FBI agent realized the “dam” was not holding back any water. Of the men who were involved in the murders, only one was convicted and served only six of his ten year sentence.
Our first major stop was Birmingham, Alabama. We followed the signs for the Civil Rights Trail and we found ourselves in the heart of history. We walked along the street and saw a statue of a man being honored for his participation in the Movement. His name we were familiar with: Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.
We then saw a beautiful church across the street. We walked toward it and realized it was the 16th Street Baptist Church. This was one site we did not realize we would see. The church was not holding tours that day, which was a disappointment, but with our handy iPhone, we were able to walk the exterior of the building and learn what happened that day in September 1963.
On Sunday, September 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted sticks of dynamite, some estimating the number was somewhere close to fifteen sticks. The dynamite was placed under some steps on the east side of the church that led to the basement. The basement was where Sunday school was held and where the choir robes were kept. We were able to Google images of the aftermath of the bombing and we located the spot where the blast occurred. We stood at the spot imagining the horror of that quiet Sunday morning, as the sounds of children gathered for church service was interrupted by the explosion.
The blast, which was detonated by a timing device, occurred at 10:22 a.m. The dynamite created a hole seven feet in diameter in the exterior wall, and left a crater five feet wide and two feet deep in the basement. Cars parked along the street were destroyed, as well as the windows in homes and businesses as far as two blocks away.
In the end, four young girls were killed and twenty-two others were injured. The girls, Addie Mae Collins (Age 14), Carol Denise McNair (Age 11), Carole Robertson (Age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (Age 14), were attending Sunday school and putting on their choir robes preparing to participate in the service being held just minutes later at 10:30 a.m. Just being there, we felt emotionally moved and we were both holding back tears as we read the details of that morning. The memorials around the church are also very moving.
We walked all the way around the church. We could see into the church and saw a bunch of flowers that were placed on a table inside. We read online that those flowers have been there, dried, since the morning after the bombing.
Those responsible were later charged, but only one was convicted. He served very little time. I hope to go back to this church one day to do the tour.
If your interested in learning more about this event, I suggest the following books:
Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case (1991).
Long Time Coming: An Insider’s Story of the Birmingham Church Bombing that Rocked the World (1994).
Joan Baez released Birmingham Sunday in 1964. The link provides a powerful picture montage that is both beautiful and poignant.
Director Spike Lee, in 1997, directed a historical documentary titled, 4 Little Girls, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. The link will take you to the film on YouTube.com.
Here are a couple more pictures of the church and the memorial dedicated to the four little girls.
As we turned to look around to see what else was nearby, we saw a park on the opposite corner, across from the church. We had no idea what we would see or experience there, but we walked across the street and were welcomed to the park by a statue of MLK.
As it turned out, Kelly Ingram Park was a very emotional experience for us. The historic events depicted in the installations there were meant to provide exactly that. If you have read my prior posts, then you will understand when I say we truly felt history in that park.
The walk through the park is set up specifically so that visitors will experience a sense of being there, back in time, when the brutality shown toward the Civil Rights protestors (remember, these were non-violent protests) was so abhorrent that Americans living outside of the South, seeing what was going on for the first time on their television screens, began to want to help advance the cause of Civil Rights. The images depicted in the park are powerful reminders of just how abhorrent the brutality was for those who were there.
Visitors of the park are guided along by a sidewalk that takes you through each experience. The trail is called: Freedom Walk
This is a far different experience than the Freedom Trail in Boston, Massachusetts that honors our patriotism and the fight for independence from the British Crown. The Birmingham walk reminds each person who travels along this sidewalk that true freedom for some Americans came at a huge cost. It was unimaginable that the imagery we were witnessing in sculptures had actually happened to so many of those who fought for equal rights. Every day people who just wanted the right to vote.
As we left the fire cannon installation, we walked toward two walls. We could see that we were meant to walk between these walls. But we could also see the danger the installation was simulating.
As you walk through this installation, you can feel the fear that those who were protesting, again, non-violently, must have experienced facing these dogs. The teeth are totally pronounced and their gums are showing. There is saliva drooling from the dogs and they are in full attack mode. It was intimidating, to say the least. It was easy to imagine the shear terror of these dogs getting their teeth on your limbs and the pain that was inflicted on the flesh and bones of human beings.
The purposeful details of this installation were very overwhelming.
I can remember how we just stood there taking in what the artist of this sculpture was trying to tell us. As I looked at every detail, I was overcome with a sense of the solemnness of this park as a way to spend time. But I also understood its importance.
The person who created this installation wanted to make sure that the visitors understood that these dogs were being handled by the Birmingham Police. That detail was striking to me. The police are supposed to aid in preventing harm against the citizens of their city. These police were willing participants in the brutality.
This sculpture truly made me feel uneasy. I stood looking at it and I was desperately trying to put myself in this young man’s shoes. He is in a totally submissive position, yet the dog is in full attack mode. This installation is called “Foot Soldier” and it depicts an actual event. In the actual news image of this young man being grabbed by the police officer, it is apparent that the dog is biting the man’s stomach. I spent twenty minutes looking at this from all sides. I could not see one aspect of this sculpture that justified the viciousness of that dog. To say it disturbed me is a mild statement to how I was feeling.
There was a sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr. that greeted us as we entered the park.
This installation seemed very real to me and would stay with me until my visit to the MLK National Memorial in DC just a few years after this visit.
We walked all the way around the park. We talked to a man who showed us other sculptures in far corners that we might have missed. He knew a lot about the park. He also knew a lot about the history the park was presenting. He told us about stories his mother, who had lived in the area when this history took place, had told him of those days. His stories were as important as any sculpture we had just viewed.
Suddenly, I realized that there were no sculptures dedicated to the successes of the Movement. It was one grim reminder after another of the struggle for rights that were afforded to every other American. It was sobering to be there, and I was respectful in my appreciation for the story told by the installations. But yet, after walking through these emotionally charged installments, I longed to see something that said hope was coming.
I do not want to make it seem as if you should not visit. On the contrary. You absolutely should visit and take away your own experiences.
The park was a very moving experience and we spent a lot of time there. Every sculpture left an indelible memory that has stayed with me. I believe it is important for Americans to visit these memorials, specifically Americans who have not lived in the South, but especially those who grew up in the South and have been taught a different narrative to the reality that was the Civil Rights Movement.
If you are interested in learning more about the events depicted in sculpture at Kelly Ingram Park, I suggest the books:
Carry Me Home: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution – Birmingham, Alabama
The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Landmark.
The lyrics of a Bob Dylan song comes to mind here. The lyrics strongly hint to the struggles at that time in America. Musicians were thinking and singing about the Vietnam War in protest songs. Civil Rights was also on their minds. Bob Dylan sang several songs dedicated to the plight of Black Americans. His protest against the war and his absolute support for Americans fighting for Civil Rights is apparent in these lyrics.
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must the white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
How many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind
The answer is blowing in the wind
Before it’s washed to the sea?
How many years must some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
And how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see the answer
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind
The answer is blowing in the wind
Before he sees the sky?
How many ears must one person have
Before he can hear people cry?
And how many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind
The answer is blowing in the wind
Oh, the answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind
The answer is blowing in the wind
As we drove away from the church and park in Birmingham, we were quiet. I do not remember who spoke first, but we began sharing our thoughts and feelings about what we had just seen and experienced. We agreed that the trip was far more worth our time than we ever would have imagined when our journey began.
Because we were viewing a part of history in a way that was truly unexpected, and very emotional for both of us, we became excited to get to the next location. In order to get to our desired destination, however, we were going to have to drive south and away from the I-20. Determined to see more history, we decided we would pay any extra U-Haul mileage fees, happily, and headed south to Selma, Alabama. We wanted to see THE Bridge….what bridge? The Edmund Pettus Bridge!
We were driving along and all of the sudden, without any real warning, there it was in front of us. The speed of traffic over the bridge was very fast and I was driving the U-Haul and trying to get my camera out so I could snap the picture without wrecking the truck. There was only going to be one chance and I had to get the shot. I knew we could not turn around and come back if I missed it. Hurrying, and trying to keep our truck in one lane, I pointed my camera through the windshield and snapped a blind picture. I say blind because I could not put my eye to the viewer for fear that I would get into a wreck. I would not know if I was successful until we got to the hotel that evening. This is my one and only picture of the history rich bridge.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge was the site of Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, and called this because of the beatings non-violent marchers suffered, Maryland United States Senator, John Lewis among them, as they were stopped by violent and brutal force as soon as the marchers crossed over the county line. A second attempt to march across the bridge and on to Montgomery, in the name of voting rights, happened on March 9, 1965. MLK was leading the march that day and, although the marchers were able to get across the bridge, the state troopers had the road blocked. Believing harm would come to the marchers, and facing a restraining order, King turned around and led the 2,000 plus marchers back across the bridge. Although he would be criticized for this decision, ultimately, it allowed the organizers of the march from Selma to Montgomery to regroup and support from the President of the United States to be obtained.
On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson went on television and made the following statement to all Americans. “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negros, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
On March 21, 1965, more than 2,000 people set out, once again, to march from Selma to Montgomery. The marchers traveled upwards of 12 hours each day, finally reaching Montgomery on March 25, 1965. The marchers were met by more than 50,000 supporters, both black and white, as they waited to hear King, and other leaders, deliver remarks at the state capitol.
The impact of this march and the violence leading up to their successful arrival in Montgomery, as well as other efforts across the South, led President Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965.
Jen and I traveled the same road the marchers walked. Hwy 80, or as it is called today, the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. The historic trail is comprised of the entire 54 miles between the two cities.
Along the way we stopped at two sites that were, again, not known to us. We first came upon the NPS: Selma to Montgomery Trail Interpretive Center. This was a very informative museum. We were provided imagery and information for every moment of the march. We saw images, many very graphic in nature, that we had never seen before. The stories depicted were of the march itself, drive by shootings into the Tent City locations, the slaying of Viola Liuzzo, and so many more were all on display. The Center had actually recreated one of the tent cities along the march. The horrific stories told in there were distressing. There were background sound effects playing overhead and different sounds started up as motion sensors triggered our presence. The sounds of people talking, fires crackling, tin plates and pans being clanked together, and then, all of the sudden, gunfire. The sounds of gunfire occurred as we arrived at the images and information panels discussing the drive by shootings that were perpetrated against the marchers, almost nightly, by KKK members.
If you ever have the opportunity, or create the opportunity, to drive this route, you must make the time to stop at the Center. I feel as though I learned the most there and I absorbed as much information as I could. To say the experience was emotionally impactful would be an understatement. I literally read every panel and looked at every picture or sculpture.
It was artifacts like this that were head shaking and mind blowing to see. To realize the terror and pain human beings suffered just for the opportunity to have the same rights afforded to every other American, was disturbing. Especially because it had been 100 years since the end of slavery, and that made this kind of treatment of human beings hard to get my head around. I felt shame as a white American as I strolled along looking at one hard to understand exhibit after another. But by the end, I felt I had grown as an enlightened American as a result of this visit. This is a MUST SEE location.
One of the stories that I heard about in college that never left me was the story of Viola Liuzzo.
Liuzzo was a wife and mother of five from Detroit, Michigan, moved to action after witnessing the events of Bloody Sunday on her television. She left her family and traveled to Selma to join the march to Montgomery. She was not brand new to the Civil Rights cause. Liuzzo was a member of the NAACP in Detroit. She helped organize protests in Detroit, attended Civil Rights conferences, and did work for the NAACP. She was driven by a desire to make a difference and the bigger the scale, the better for her. She was also one of many white protestors who joined Civil Rights protests throughout this period.
Liuzzo successfully marched to Montgomery and was assisting marchers back to Selma from Montgomery in her car. She, and an African American young man named Leroy Moton, who was in the car with her, often found themselves being followed by anti-protestors in other cars. The intimidation was overwhelming.
At one point, as Liuzzo and Moton were traveling to Selma, their car was almost forced off the road. At another point, even later, as the two headed back to Montgomery to assist more marchers, they stopped for gas, and endured verbally abusive language by local whites. As they continued their drive back to Montgomery, they stopped at a red light. A car, with four KKK members inside, one being an United States FBI agent, pulled up alongside Liuzzo’s car. Seeing she was a white woman with a Black man in her car with her, they chased Liuzzo down the road. She tried to outrun them, but the other car caught up to her and shots rang out. Two bullets hit Liuzzo in the head. Her car went off the road and crashed into a fence. Moton, covered in Liuzzo’s blood, but unharmed, laid motionless as the shooters got out of their car to ensure their work successful. Believing the two were dead, the men left. Knowing he was safe, Moton flagged down a car driven by another Marcher to get help for Liuzzo and himself.
Liuzza’s funeral, in Detroit, was attended by many prominent people in the Civil Rights Movement, including MLK. Jimmy Hoffa also attended her funeral. Liuzza is buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield, Michigan.
We spent about four hours inside the Center. We left feeling as if we understood more about the Selma to Montgomery march than we could have ever learned by just reading about it or sitting in on a college lecture.
As we continued driving toward Montgomery, we saw a marker for Viola Liuzzo. We had almost missed it and had to park on the shoulder of the road and walk back a short distance. What we saw created several moments of differing waves of emotion.
At first we thought it was great that there was a memorial dedicated to this martyr of the Civil Rights Movement. But then, we realized just how little had changed since Liuzzo’s murder. We read a marker that told us the memorial had to be repaired and replaced multiple times. White supremacists driving by shoot at the stone marker, and have done so so many times that the damaged memorial has been repaired multiple times. A fence was erected around the memorial after vandals had pushed the granite marker over and damaged it beyond repair and a replacement had to be made.
I was moved by Liuzzo’s story when I heard it in college, but to stand at the spot where she lost her life, at the age of 39, was stirring. I felt honored to be standing there. I understood her passion for doing the right thing and I admired that she was willing to face the danger, knowingly or not, that came with being a supporter of a greater good.
I plucked a leaf from the tree that shades the memorial and I have kept it safe all these years since. I felt the weight of the short distance in time we Americans have traveled, although it has been many years since the events of that fateful day, in reaching true civil equality in our country. Sadly, as I type this, in many ways, we are currently headed backwards.
If you are interested in learning more about Viola Liuzzo’s story, I recommend the following books:
From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo (2000).
Murder on the Highway: The Viola Liuzzo Story (1994).
The song, Viola by Arlan Feiles is a song of despair over the assassination of Liuzzo.
We finally reached Montgomery, Alabama too late in the day to venture out to see any more sites. We got a hotel and decided to use that handy iPhone to look for places we might be interested in visiting the next day.
The first place we visited was the Rosa Parks Library and Museum. To be honest, we had no idea this museum existed. We accidentally found it on the internet and determined we had to check it out. We were so glad we did. Jen was going to grad school to study Museum Studies. This was the perfect introduction for her to see new ideas in presenting history.
This was an incredible experience. The entire museum can be toured in a little more than two hours, but the time spent is highly impactful.
I really do not want to give away how this museum tells the story of Parks’ refusal to give up her seat. I will tell you, however, that how they do it is incredibly inventive and it absolutely gives the viewer what feels like a seat on the street as you watch the drama unfold. I have never seen a more creative telling of any historic event. I will share with you that the drama is played out using lighting. That’s it. That is all I will say. You have to go yourself to actually experience this exhibit.
Outside the museum, there is more history displayed on the exterior wall. Each panel depicts every step of the bus boycott after Parks was arrested. Each etching tells a part of the story, beginning with the fingerprinting of Parks.
If you are interested in learning more about Rosa Parks and her life, I recommend these books:
Daybreak of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott (1997).
Rosa Parks: Mother of the Civil Rights Movement (2003).
Rosa Parks: My Story (1999).
Our next stop was the state capitol building across town.
The architecture is as impressive as the US Capitol Building. Massive steps and a wrap-around walkway are truly gorgeous features of this beautiful example of Greek Revival architecture. The grounds, beautifully landscaped, are plush and create wonderfully cool shaded areas for visitors who want to get out of the Southern heat.
As we made our way around the capitol, we found several memorials dedicated to Southern history. Now, let me say this here. I am not a supporter of ripping down statues and memorials. I do not believe these monuments and statues should be hidden away from view unless visited in a museum. These are depictions of history. An ugly history, to some, but history nonetheless.
As a history student I was taught that we cannot assign current morals and values to the past. If we do that, we are unable to look at history with objectivity. Objectivity is what brings honesty to the study of history. With that being said, I was in awe of some of the sculptures honoring Southern Civil War heroes. After all, the dead soldiers from the South were as important and as loved by their families, just as the Northern dead soldiers were loved by their own. I honor the history because it is history. The word history denotes it is in the past. It is not present day. We can look to this history and learn from it. I honor the sacrifice made by those fighting for a cause they believed in. It matters not if I agree with the cause for which each man fought. I only care that men died in a horrible war fought on our own soil, brother against brother. I honor them. The men who died and the historic times they lived.
We walked around this massive marble memorial and looked at every detail. As we were making our way around to the fourth side, we noticed a corner stone and its dedication.
The corner stone of the memorial was laid by none other than Jefferson Davis in 1886. We found that to be meaningful as it was something of value to the people of Alabama and the South as a whole.
We walked around the grounds and noticed a historic marker in front of a home across the street. It wasn’t too far from where we were so we walked over to see what it was denoting.
What we saw was incredible. We had no idea this place even existed, as we had already visited the “White House of the Confederacy” in Richmond, VA and had no idea another, or “the first White House” existed.
We were able to walk up to the front porch, and of course, we took turns taking our pictures in front of the home.
We could find no touring information online and wished we had been able to visit the inside. But, we couldn’t so we admired it from the outside and moved on.
If you’re interested in planning a trip to the White House of the Confederacy, click the link and it will take you to information for your visit.
If your interested in visiting the State Capitol of Alabama, click the link and a full range of information is available to you. This entire journey is a valuable history lesson for the entire family and it should be explored in person.
We rounded the corner and saw a very large sculpture across the grounds. We needed to head toward that direction to get to our truck, so we made the detour to see which person in history the statue was honoring. As we walked we could not even guess who it was. The figure was wearing a long cape, you know, like the one President Andrew Jackson was known to wear. But we knew this larger than life structure could not possibly be Jackson.
We got there and it all made sense. The person was none other than Jefferson Davis.
We found the positioning of Davis’ concrete gaze very interesting. If you look closely you will see a red brick building in the center of the picture. Jefferson Davis spends his days looking toward the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.
Martin Luther King, Jr. served as pastor of this church from 1954 – 1960. It was from this church that MLK called for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
This particular boycott was incredibly effective. The bus boycott continued until the United States Supreme Court ruled, in November of 1956, that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. With that decision, the bus boycott peacefully ended having made a major historical impact.
Why we found the view for Davis interesting is that for as long as his memorial stands there, he will forever be looking to the church where a Black man, similar to those once oppressed by men such as Davis, called for a boycott that changed laws, giving Black people more rights than ever before in history. The end of segregation of public buses was just the beginning of the undoing of the treatment of Black Americans that was so entrenched in the beliefs and politics of Jefferson Davis and Southerners, alike.
If you are interested in reading more about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, I recommend the following books:
Freedom Walkers (2006)
The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women who Started it: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (1987)
The Thunder of Angels (2006).
We read that the Greyhound bus terminal where the Freedom Riders were attacked as they pulled into the bus station was still open and used as a terminal. We headed over there quickly because we were getting late in the day and losing daylight.
The violence that occurred here in 1961 is unfathomable. The exterior of this building is well preserved and there are museum-like information panels all along one side of the building providing the details of those days in May. The pictures are graphic and hard to view. Here are just a few examples.
The very best book I have read about this event in history is Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2007). This book offers so much information about the creation of SNCC and those who were involved in organizing the Freedom Rides. This book also allows you to gain a total picture of the build up and aftermath of Freedom Summer.
The last place we stopped on our incredible journey was to the Civil Rights Memorial Center. We had seen the memorial in front of this building when we drove to the capitol so we decided to make our way back there.
What we found there was a memorial dedicated to all of the most important, and deadliest, moments and events in the Civil Rights Movement.
This table is a fountain-like structure made of granite. The water comes from the center and flows over the history that had been so important to making change happen, as well as those people whose lives were lost in the fight. You can see engraved writing on the table’s surface. Each line is an event and the date and location where that event occurred. There is a guard who is on post 24/7 to ensure no harm comes to the memorial.
We walked around the table in silence. We were on opposite sides and we were blessed to be there alone. We were able to read each monumental event, some we had just learned about over the two days in Alabama, and others we learned about while researching online the historic markers along our journey. There were even more events that we had not learned about and we vowed to do just that. I felt the need to touch, to rub my finger along the names of those whose sacrifices were total. Emmett Till, Viola Liuzzo, Lamar Smith, Herbert Lee, Paul Guihard, William Lewis Moore, Medgar Evers, Addie, Denise, Carole, and Cynthia, Rev. Brice Klunder, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and a total of forty people. There were more who gave all for the fight for Civil Rights. The list and crimes against so many Americans is staggering. Here, we stood at a memorial acknowledging their sacrifice.
The architect of this memorial was Maya Lin, the same young woman who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. She wanted to ensure that the Memorial honored 40 individuals who died fighting for equal rights between 1954 and 1968. These dates were the book ends for the memorial starting with the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 and continues until the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968. Lin’s concept is based on the soothing and healing effect of water. The quote on the wall is from MLK’s speech ‘I Have a Dream.’
We spent about forty-five minutes at the memorial and we were so glad we returned. This is a memorial that should not be missed. Actually, every place we visited is important and should be visited. One day I hope to bring my niece and her children to retrace this trip so they will learn and see more about this history than they will ever learn in a classroom.
We got into the truck and headed to Raleigh. I have never forgotten this journey and those who know me will say this is probably my greatest passion in life. I was humbled by this experience.