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.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Day 5: Oxford, MS - Indianola, MS

Miles today: 200
Total: 1300

Mississippi is always a crucial part of the course. By the time we get here, students feel comfortable with each other as well as with the basic trajectory of the CR movement, both of which are necessary to dig into Mississippi. For anyone interested in learning more about the state, I highly recommend James Cobb's The Most Southern Place on Earth.

After spending the night on the wonderful Oxford Square [Square Books is one of the best bookstores I have ever browsed, and I'm quite the connoisseur], we headed over to the University of Mississippi. The university was founded in 1848 to educate slaveholders, who seemed to otherwise be going off to college and questioning slavery. It carries this legacy of white supremacy with it today, as do many of our institutions. James Meredith integrated the university in 1962, and his first day on campus led to a riot in which 2 were murdered and dozens more injured. The federalized national guard ensured his admittance.

At the university, we spoke to Susan Glisson, executive director of the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, and two of her student interns. They outlined their work both in the community and on campus. Outside of the university, activists at the institute have helped communities commemorate Civil Rights sites in different areas of the state (we saw several new postings related to Emmett Till today that were new from just last year), guaranteed that civil rights history is now required to be taught in Mississippi public schools (through legislation passed in 2006), and assembled a team to prosecute those responsible for the deaths of the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, MS over fifty years later. Finally, they are in the midst of creating a Mississippi Truth and Reconciliation Committee in the vein of the South African one. On campus, they are working on a series of initiatives to better integrate the campus socially and to challenge racist traditions that the university and many of its students continue to practice. We all left feeling inspired and also informed about ways to bring these actions into our own communities.

We spent the remainder of the day touring the Mississippi Delta. We toured the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale (a local museum that is always a student favorite) and ate next door at Morgan Freeman's blues club, Ground Zero. We visited the Sumner courthouse where Emmett Till's trial was held, Fannie Lou Hamer's gravesite and memorial garden in Ruleville, MS, and blues-related murals in Tutwiler, among other sites. To learn more about blues in the Delta, check out Alan Lomax's The Land Where the Blues Began and listen to the recordings he made in the 1930s and 1940s that preserved the work of a generation of blues men and women in the Delta.

Day Four: Memphis, TN - Oxford, MS

Miles traveled: 150
Miles total: 1050

We devoted most of today to our tour of the National Civil Rights Museum at the site of the Lorraine Motel, where King was murdered on April 4, 1968. It's certainly the most comprehensive museum of the movement; I only wish that we had had time to include other great Memphis museums related to Civil Rights, such as the Rock'N'Soul museum.

The National CR Museum provides an excellent overview of the traditionally-defined trajectory of the movement. Students always express frustration over the lack of women and gender-based analysis in the museum (they are my students, after all!). They also quickly realize that it portrays the "hotspots" of the movements (the events that received national media attention) and tells little about other areas. They also quickly see that the very site of the museum means that MLK will be (overly?) emphasized; they always like to point out the mere passing mention given to Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and other Black Power-related movements.

The museum contains a rotating photography gallery, and this year's exhibit was stunningly powerful. The exhibit, "Chilean Photography and Human Rights," depicts images from the military dictatorship of Gen. Pinochet in Chile from 1973-1989. They represent a striking picture of life and strife under Pinochet's rule.

Also new this year was the short documentary The Witness. This half-hour film creates a real emotional and intellectual connection to MLK's assassination. It makes clear his commitment to economic equality and does not shy away from the fact that he was killed in large part because he was taking action on the issue of the redistribution of wealth in American society in order for everyone to be able to live a life of dignity.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Day 3: Nashville, TN - Memphis, TN

Miles today: 250
Total: 950

We began the morning at the Civil Rights Reading Room in the Nashville Public Library. The room houses a variety of Civil Rights resources, and large pictures from the movement in early 1960s Nashville envelop the room. Here we met Mr. Donzel Johnson, a World War II veteran who was studying at Fisk during the time period of the Nashville sit-ins. He shuttled those participating in the sit-ins from Fisk to the downtown lunch counters and back. He also gave us some interesting perspectives on his views of non-violence as a strategy at the time (he chose, for example, not to directly participate in the sit-ins because he did not adhere to a strategy of non-violence). He was joined by a fellow Fisk alum, Mr. Rucker, and together, they provided a wealth of knowledge and inspiration.

We then walked to the 5th Ave Arcade where the sit-ins took place [a plaque in disrepair that marked the site during our first visit has been gone the past two years] and took some time to tour the campus of Fisk, where we saw, among other things, a series of murals by the famous Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas [pictured here].

After driving to Memphis, we talked with Chuck McKinney at Rhodes College - another one of our favorites from years' past - about ways in which the narrative of the Civil Rights movement gets truncated and simplified, and he encouraged students to think critically about the many facets of the movement. We ended the day with a plate of barbeque ribs at the famous Rendevous.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Day Two: Knoxville, TN - Clinton, TN - Nashville, TN

Miles today: 250
Total: 700

Today, we met with one of our favorite speakers, Cynthia Fleming. Cynthia has met with us every year of the trip, and she's always a student favorite. Cynthia graduated from Knoxville College in the 1960s was active in the Black Power movement. She does an excellent job, among other things, of situating the role of the HBCUs in the Civil Rights movement and talking about gender dynamics in the Black Power movement. A professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, she just completed her newest book called Yes We Can? It chronicles black leadership from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968 to Obama's election this past fall. She based it on dozens of oral histories that she conducted over the past five years; it will be published this fall.

After a quick lunch, we made our way to the Green McAdoo Cultural Center in Clinton, TN - a new stop for us. The center chronicles the desegregation of Clinton high school, the first public high school in Tennessee to do so. It offers details on how desegregation played out in a small town of 4.000. The National Guard had to guarantee the entrance of the Clinton 12 into the school [see accompanying picture of the tank] given the mob that had gathered. While at the center, we met with Jerry Shattuck, a white student who had been the captain of the football team and senior class president during the 1956-57 school year when the school desegregated.

We then drove to Nashville where we had our first of many discussions, and the themes that emerge each year during the course - non-violence as both strategy and ideology, museum analysis of which stories are told and why, the role of MLK, and grassroots activism/organizing strategies - are already some of the most important questions that students are pondering.

Day One: Richmond, VA - Knoxville, TN

Miles today: 450
Total: 450

After an introductory lecture this morning, we hit the road for one of our longest driving days. In the past, we have used this day to visit the Robert Russa Moton museum in Farmville, VA. While we didn't make it there this year due to time constraints, I recommend it to folks who live in central Virginia. It chronicles the 1951 student strikes when students walked out of classes to protest second-class facilities at their high school (which serves as the museum today). It also commemorates Prince Edward County's role as one of the five cases that made up the monumental 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which desegregated public schools. Finally, it recounts the county's decision to close schools for five years rather than integrate. It's especially powerful when paired with talks by local activists from the 1950s who still live in the area.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Welcome to the blog for our third Civil Rights travel course [official title: A Course in Motion: The Civil Rights Movement in the South]. I hope you will enjoy seeing brief glimpses into our experiences as we log 3500 miles on the university van and travel across 9 states.

For those of you interested in learning more about the Civil Rights movement, I occasionally will list some of our guiding texts that we read and analyze along the way. For a general overview of the movement, I would recommend Harvard Sitkoff's The Struggle for Black Equality, especially if you are looking for a general text. Students appreciate that it's a fairly quick read. His bibliographic essay in the updated 25th anniversary edition is essential for more in-depth reading on the movement. If you are interested in exploring some of these same historical sites, consult any of these three excellent companions: Charles Cobb's On the Road to Freedom, Jim Carrier's Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement, or Townsend Davis's Weary Feet, Rested Souls (which is the one we assign and includes excellent map details for hard-to-find places). All three reside on the van's dashboard throughout our journey, and they show the wear from our two previous trips.

While we do not assign the entire texts, we draw heavily on these three essay collections for our additional readings: Ray D'Angelo's The American Civil Rights Movement: Readings & Interpretations, Romano and Raiford's The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory, and Bettye Collier-Thomas's Sisters in the Struggle: African-American Women in the Civil Rights- Black Power Movement.

For those of you who may be interested in learning more about the Civil Rights movement in Virginia, I highly recommend visiting the online exhibit by that very name on the Virginia Historical Society's website.