Friday, May 29, 2009

Day 12: Birmingham, AL - Atlanta, GA

Miles today: 150
Total: 2450
After a night staying in the funky Birmingham neighborhood of Five Points South, we made our way to Atlanta. Here, we ate lunch at one of our favorite spots - Thelma's Rib Shack, a soul food restaurant on Auburn Ave. Then we spent the afternoon at the MLK National Historic Site. In addition to the museum, the site always hosts a temporary exhibit, and this year's was a wonderful collection of artwork from around the world that commemorated the work of MLK. Students also visited the King Center, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the birth home, and other sites of interest on Auburn Avenue. We ended the day with a visit from Connie Curry, an activist who has written about civil rights activists for several decades and who works on prison reform in the Atlanta area today. She also produced the documentary The Intolerable Burden about school desegregation in the Mississippi Delta town of Drew. I highly recommend her newest book, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek, with Bob Zellner.

Day 11: Tuscaloosa, AL - Birmingham, AL

Miles today: 100
Total: 2300

Today, we visited Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama where George Wallace made his "stand" in the doorway to protest court-ordered desegregation of UA. We then traveled to Birmingham to tour the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park. The BCRI has undergone some extensive renovations since last year, and the result is an even stronger institute. It now includes more present-day issues of race relations in the city as well as exhibits on international human rights violations [framed by a wall containing the Declaration of Universal Human Rights], the role of protest music around the world, and an entire new oral history research room that allows visitors to pull up a variety of first-hand interviews. It also tells the story of the recent conviction of some of those involved in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church as you look at the church through a large window while in the museum.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Day 10: Montgomery, AL - Tuscaloosa, AL

Miles today: 100
Total: 2200

This morning, we visited the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University as well as the museum's research center and their children's wing. The museum occupies the block by the corner of Montgomery and Lee streets where police arrested Parks for not relinquishing her seat to a white person (and thereby violating segregation laws). The ensuing 380 day bus boycott of Montgomery buses is viewed by many as the beginnings of direct action campaigns of the Civil Rights movement to eradicate unjust laws or unenforced rights (such as voting) that took place between hte mid-1950s through the mid-1960s. It was also this boycott in which King rose to prominence as an inspirational orator and leader.

We then made our way to the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of my personal favorite sites of the trip. The Civil Rights memorial out front, designed by Maya Lin [who also created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC, with similar effects], memoralizes the deaths of 40 activists killed during the movement.

Inside, a small museum gives further details about the deaths of these individuals through both exhibits and a video. It also chronicles how Morris Dees started the SPLC in reaction to the murder of Michael Donald in 1981. Two Klan members abducted Donald and lynched him in Mobile, AL, and his death is often referred to as the "last lynching." In response, Dees and others started the SPLC, whose primary aims are to promote tolerance through education [they provide amazing curriculum plans around tolerance and social justice activism at no cost to educators nationwide] and legal action. On the legal front, their aim is to bring hate groups to court in order to bankrupt them and thus leave them with little ability to operate. They recently won a case against the largest Klan group in the nation.

In addition, the SPLC memorial center chronicles contemporary hate crimes, including those committed against gay men and lesbians and those deemed "terrorists" for their Middle Eastern looks following 9/11. At its end, the center asks that visitors pledge to promote tolerance by signing the wall of tolerance. While some students always express frustration that mere tolerance is simply too little to ask, they do come to the realization that we have not yet even reached this goal.

On our way out of town, we stopped by the old Greyhound bus terminal, where the Freedom Riders were arrested and beaten in 1961. It's a wonderful outdoor commemoration of this event. [Freedom Riders traveled as an interracial group on bus lines from Washington, DC through the Deep South to challenge the unconstitutional segregation of interstate bus travel practiced by southern states. Riders faced bombings, beatings, and death to make the trip.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Day 9: New Orleans, LA - Selma, AL - Montgomery, AL

Miles today: 350
Total: 2100

After an early morning start from NOLA, we traveled five hours to Selma, AL. Selma is most famous as the site of Bloody Sunday, in which marchers headed over the Edmund Pettus bridge (named after a Confederate war hero, by the name) on their way to demand justice at the state capitol in Montgomery where they met a violent mob on the other side. This history, along with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, is told in detail at the National Voting Rights Museum. It's a great site, but it's name obscures its purpose. It is proudly a local museum, created by locals to remember the "foot soldiers" of the movement - those folks who no one else would likely remember. Sam, our tour guide, led our students around the museum for the third year in a row, and I'm happy to report that the museum is expanding and will soon have a site on both sites of the Pettus bridge. Visitors will then be able to visit the current site, march over the bridge, and tour the new site, which will include a new space to commemorate President Obama's election.

The National Park Service is developing the Selma-to-Montgomery Trail, which currently includes the Lowndes County Interpretive Center. While we arrived too late to tour it this year, it's on our future agenda. Lowndes was the site of much violence in the movement [including the murder of Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Detroit who the Klan killed as she was transporting an African-American man back from the march's end in Montgomery]. Organizers created a Black Panther party in Lowndes County when neither the Republicans or Democrats wanted to recognize Black voters following the 1965 Voting Rights act.

For a wonderfully complex reading on the impact of Viola Liuzzo's murder, consult Mary Stanton's From Selma to Sorrow, which I will be teaching in a course on activism in the South this fall. Black in Selma provides a history of the life of lawyer/activist J.L. Chestnut. For more on the Panthers, formed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, CA (1966), check out Curtis Austin's Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party.

Day 8: New Orleans, LA

Miles today: 50
Total: 1750

Today, the students had the morning to explore the city and sip cafe au laits and eat beignets at the world famous Cafe du Monde. In the afternoon, we toured a variety of sites hit by hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee breaks and flooding. We have been coming here for three years, and we still see little progress in the Lower Ninth Ward. Here we talk about contemporary issues that intersect with race, class, environmental justice, health, and government responsibility. For recent reflections on these intersecting concerns, I recommend the excellent essay collection: Race, Place, and Environmental Justice after Hurricane Katrina. While we have not yet had the chance to meet with the folks at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice Center, it's one of our future goals. [And it's housed at Dillard University, an HBCU in New Orleans.]

We also toured several CR-related sites around the city, including the McDonough School, one of the two elementary schools in the city that became the first in the Deep South to integrate. McDonough is where federal marshalls escorted the young Ruby Bridges to class, a site made famous by a Norman Rockwell painting [see above].

Day 7: Jackson, MS - New Orleans, LA

Miles today: 200
Total: 1700

Touring around Jackson, we saw the bus terminal where the Freedom Riders were arrested in 1961. We walked around Jackson State (a public, historically Black university), where two people were killed after the National Guard fired dozens of rounds of ammunition into a dormitory in the wake of Vietnam war protests around the time of Kent State (but much less known), and Tougaloo (a private HBCU).

We then headed to McComb, MS. McComb was a new stop for us this year, and we learned so much. McComb is located in southern Mississippi near the Louisiana border. It was a hotbed of violence and activism, and much of the voter registration activism around the 1964 "freedom summer" happened in and around McComb. Activist Anne Moody worked in this area, and her experiences that summer are chronicled in her autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi (she also attended Tougaloo for a couple of years).

McComb was a real inspiration to us not only because of the people we met but also because of their great efforts to commemorate the movement and the community that's formed behind that commemoration. We met with a half dozen activists at the wonderful Black History Gallery, a house filled with personal memorabilia that folks have collected and donated for this purpose. It's a great look at what community members can do to preserve and tell their own histories. They also have a wonderful brochure for CR sites for a driving tour, and I would highly recommend this stop for these movement veterans' overflowing hospitality and inspiration. Sitting around the living room with movement veterans scattered between us will stay with us for a long time.

Day 6: Indianola, MS - Jackson, MS

Miles today: 200
Total: 1500

On Saturday, we visited the new B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, MS. This museum is new, and we had been anticipating its opening since our first trip in 2007. It has a number of interactive features, and visitors could get lost in all of the interactive music features scattered throughout the museum. It's a fantastic place not only to learn about B.B. King but also to learn more about the Delta in general and what role music played in the Civil Rights movement. B.B.'s career shows the segregration and discrimination he faced when touring in the 1940s and 50s, and the changes that integration brought in the late 1960s and 1970s, as he hit his status as a worldwide icon with integrated audiences.

We met local legend Mary Shepard (who we again met by chance, as we did on our first trip), who owned Club Ebony, where B.B. got his start, for several decades. We then headed over to Money, MS to see the grave (one of three possible sites, I should say) of blues legend Robert Johnson and the dilapidated store front where Emmett Till said something to a white woman and wound up mutilated, died, and tied to a cotton gin fan in the Tallahatchie River a few days later. Finally, we stopped by Greenwood, where Stokely Carmichael called for "black power" in the mid-1960s in response to the nearly ceaseless violence and death that Civil Rights workers faced in Mississippi and across the South.