We spent Thursday morning in Montgomery, going to the Rosa Parks Museum. It’s run by Troy University and is sitting right on the corner where Rosa Parks was arrested. It’s kind of odd, having a whole museum dedicated to what was about ten minutes of history, but it put the whole event into context.

For example, a lot of the time in schools kids are taught that Rosa Parks was just really tired after a long day and did not feel like getting up. In reality she was the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP and was trained in non-violence. A month or so before her arrest another young woman was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. But that woman was unmarried and rumored to be pregnant, so the NAACP declined to turn her situation into a court case- they didn’t want to give their opponents any ammunition. So, the group was waiting for the chance to test the system when Rosa Parks was arrested.

The museum had a really cool display that consisted of an actual bus with TV screens in each window. It must have been one big screen stretched out, because the idea was that you were standing outside of the bus watching the events unfold inside. So, there were actors on the screen filling the whole bus. Very interesting.

We ate lunch, again, on the campus of Alabama State University. This time we sat right in the middle of the cafeteria, and this time I saw three white students, who looked like they were on the football team. ASU is 10% white.

After that we left Montgomery, on the way to Meridian. Right outside of Meridian is Okatibee Baptist Church, and next to that is the historically black cemetery from my previous post, where James Chaney is buried. Over the years (more than 40 now) since his body and that of his two friends were found, his grave has been abused in various ways. There are now thick steel supports behind his tombstone, because people repeatedly used trucks to pull it out of the ground or to topple it over. His picture, once etched into an oval near the top of the stone, was shot out with a gun years ago. There was once an eternal flame at the foot of his grave; it was destroyed. Now, his mother is interred right next to him, and a chain- broken- surrounds his grave.

The rest of the grave yard (you can scroll down for pictures) is nestled between old trees. Some graves are very new, some very old. Some are still covered in just dirt, some are mounded, others not. Some have elaborate headstones, others- quite a few others- have a simple metal stake stuck into the ground, provided by the funeral home. To the side, the sound of a piano drifts over from the small Okatibee Baptist church building.

A block away the stars and bars of the Confederate flag wave from a pole in front of a mobile home.

That night was spent in a hotel much like the others we have been in all week, and for dinner a group of us went to Bridget’s, a local restaurant recommended by the front desk. As it turns out, the manager of the hotel is named Bridget, and she owns the restaurant. So, not exactly an unbiased review.

What a strange experience that was! It was actually a tiny house, smaller than my family’s in Houston. It was remodeled to be more open, and small four-person tables were set up all around. White table clothes, “fancy” art prints on the wall, the works- but it was clearly a converted house. There were about 16 of us, and we asked if we could move a few of the table together so groups of 8 could sit together. No, they said, they preferred to keep the tables apart so that they could go table-by-table. Never mind that the tables were literally about two feet apart anyway!

There was one lady clearly in charge. I would describe her as a modern hillbilly. She was dressed normally and had a cute haircut, but had this crazy thick accent and had smoker’s skin. The one waitress had only worked there two days. She was so young, but wore a wedding band. And, boy, was she slow! I ordered a crab cake sandwich without the bread, and she stared at me for about 15 seconds before saying that she didn’t think they could do that. I said “Oh, that’s OK, just take off the bread and stick it on a plate.” More staring. Then, “OK, I can ask.” Hm.

Same story with everyone else’s order. Then the manager came out about 30 minutes later to have us reorder with her since it was all messed up. Then we got the original order anyway, when the food came out another 20 minutes later. Then, when we finished eating two tables of our groups had yet to even get their food. When we got the checks, we discovered that the waitress had written little nicknames at the top so she could keep us straight. All four of us. I was “curly”.

All in all a huge waste of money (because, yes, after all of that, it was seriously overpriced).

So, and interesting day on all accounts. The next morning we woke up and hit the road for Philadelphia, Mississippi. Yes, the worst state in the nation as far as race relations was about to get a visit from yours truly. Never thought that would happen!

Montgomery

March 13, 2008

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor not the victim.– Elie Wiesel

Non-violence in fist, in tongue, and in heart.– Martin Luther King, Jr.

The capitol of Alabama! Here we met Bob Graetz, the only white minister involved in organizing the Montgomery bus boycott. His house was bombed twice, and his children threatened. But he stayed and helped, and was accepted into the black community. What a great man! He came to speak to us with his wife, who would butt in and remind him of details he was forgetting. Later, the two of them joined us for a dinner on the Alabama State University campus. I went to meet them and shake their hands, and told them they were a beautiful couple. He said that he could not do a thing without his wife. That is a lucky woman. What a special chance to meet someone who will not be here much longer.

Also at dinner was Vera Harris, the King’s next door neighbor. Her children grew up running in and out of the King’s parsonage, and she his the Freedom Riders for 5 days when they passed through Montgomery and were beat up at the Greyhound station. She is 89 years old and as “spicy” as ever. She, too, is a piece of living history- and there we were, chatting her up over iced tea. The most moving thing was hearing her describe the riders gathering at the foot of her stairs for a final prayer before walking back to the Greyhound station once again. “They were like lambs going to the slaughter”, she said. “I could not help but feel that way, knowing what they went through at our station and knowing that they could be facing the same thing at the end.”

We visited Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. It was small and simple. It’s still a very active church, and well loved. I loved the windows- they are copies of the originals, though the top part is original. I just love them!

Then we saw the parsonage that King, his wife, and his two eldest children lived in while he was the minister there. It was small but beautiful. In the front rooms the side tables were covered with white doilies, edges starched upright into something like a bowl shape, but with pleated folds around the sides.  Very odd- I had never heard of anything like it. Our guide said that that was exactly how Coretta Scott King kept it. In fact, when she was alive she came to the house and made sure it was set up just right. My favorite part of it was kitchen- not only were the chairs amazing (!), but it was where King would retreat each night to pray about his involvement in to movement, and where he believed that God spoke to him.

Next was our visit to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Very interesting. The man who founded SPLC is Morris Dees, and his best friend from college founded Habitat for Humanity. They basically make it their business to prosecute and track hate groups all over the country. They have a beautiful Civil Rights Memorial outside of their building, designed by the girl who designed the Vietnam Wall.  Their website has a Hate Groups Map, that shows any known hate groups in each state. It’s definitely something I don’t usually think about. I disagree with some of their stances, but they do good work prosecuting hate groups on behalf of victims.

What a long entry…this was by far the busiest day that we had. We were all glad to be along for the ride but exhausted by the end of the day. I’ll by saying how interesting it was to be on the ASU campus. ASU is a historically black college with about 6,000 students. It is public, and so gets state funding, which explains why it is so much larger and better maintained than Dillard University down in New Orleans. It has a much bigger campus than SMU, and a much nicer cafeteria (formerly their basketball stadium!).  They just opened a brand new Forensic Science building, too!

What I thought was most interesting on the campus (which was big, but not at all beautiful)  were the Greek “plots”. There was one for each of the historically black fraternities and sororities. Basically, in front of a building a tree would be painted in the group’s colors, and painted benches would sit around it. Painted rocks would be arranged to spell out the Greek letters of the particular group. Some even had statues of their shields, or a garden in the shape of their letters, or a painted trashcan. It was very odd, and kind of tacky but also very cool. It made it seem like everyone on campus must be Greek, but I suppose that is not true in the same that it isn’t true at SMU.

As a closing note, did you know that while giving his famous speech at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march, MLK stood on the exact spot that Jefferson Davis stood on when he was inaugerated as the president of the Confederacy? I am telling you, history is full of ironies.

More on our second day in this city coming soon.

Monday was our second whole day in the wonderful town of Selma, Alabama. The Voting Rights Museum and Institute was the sponsor of the Jubilee festivities, and we drove straight over there first thing in the morning. It is a storefront place, modestly marked with maroon letters and a small awning. Inside there is a low ceiling and worn carpet. In the front room, one whole wall is covered in mirrored panes, etched with a picture of the Edmund Pettus bridge. Another whole wall is the “I Was There” wall. Those people who took part in Bloody Sunday in any capacity fill out cards describing their experiences, and those cards are tacked to the wall. Rosa Parks is up there, so are the mayor from that time, and even a couple of men who, as Alabama state troopers, attacked marchers on that day.

Our guide at the museum was Laurence Huggins. It really amazes me every time we meet someone who was a freedom fighter during this time. I spend so much time studying history from literally ages ago – ancient or medieval Europe, the foundations of Christianity. I feel like someone had splashed my face with cold water- it is that rejuvenating and surprising to actually touch and talk to people who lived history and made history and are history. Of course, they didn’t think anything like that at the time. They just did what they had to do, what they knew was right.

Two pictures of Laurence: one from Monday, and one from the front page of the Selma paper, more than 40 years ago. That is Sheriff Clarke shoving him in the stomach with a baton as he stands outside the Dallas County Courthouse demanding the right to vote.

The museum was shabby and small and very earnest. Everyone who worked there was a freedom fighter. Every photo- and, oh, what photos!- was carefully researched and collected. Every name carefully highlighted, famous or not. One room celebrated African-American women throughout American history- that is, pre-Movement history. So many strong women! Another room displayed the pictures of freedmen Congressmen and Senators from all over the United States, all elected in the year immediately following the Civil War. It was a moment in the sun for educated blacks, before segregation and Jim Crow kicked in. I had zero knowledge of this. Amazing.

From there, we met Joanne Bland, this hilarious, strong woman with a huge attitude, who was 8 years old at the time of Bloody Sunday. She grew up in Selma and has lived here her whole life. She was our tour guide throughout the city. “This is MLK Street”, she said as we turned down the street by that name. “Every good city has one, and this is ours.” As we stood, once again, on the steps of Brown Chapel AME Church, staring at the Section 8 projects across the street, Joanne told us about coming mass meetings and hearing Dr. King. As cars drove by they would slow down and wave at her, and she would yell “Hey baby!” and wave back. She knew everyone. Then, a man walked up and gave her a big hug- this was yet another marcher who grew up in Selma. He had just stopped to say hi, and then told us his story, too.

As we walked down the street, Joanne waved hi to some men unloading their car, and other men walking down the street. “That’s the beauty of living in Selma”, she said over her shoulder. “You just see civil rights workers walking down the street, all cool.”

Then Joanne taught us how to say “po”. “Not POOR, po! This is the hood. We can’t afford the ‘r’.” She really has the gift of oral transmission. That is, she has absorbed the oral history of Selma, its homes, its people, its neighborhoods, and transmits them all by storytelling. And what a storyteller! As we drove around she would ramble off who used to in what house, who lives there now, her own stories from playing there as a kid. These stunning, just stunning homes in Selma’s historical district (the largest in the country) are slowing being renovated and restored one by one. She pointed out one house, freshly painted decorative wooden trim around the wrap-around porch and at the top corners of the bannisters. Decorative shutters. Picket fence. “It’s expensive to buy a house in these parts”, she said. “That one there was just bought for $175,000.”

$175,000. For a huge historic home in Selma, Alabama, built in the 1930’s. My.

In the 8th ward, Selma’s poorest neighborhood, the homes were smaller but in the same style. Horrible to say, in some ways it looked like New Orleans’ 9th Ward. Except for the fully grown trees and lack of water damage, there were many similarities. Broken glass, boarded windows, trash and broken furniture stacked in front yards, stray dogs. Old men sitting on empty porches, chain link surrounding 5-yard wide front yards, once bright colors faded and peeling. Historic decorative details missing or in disrepair. Broken cars parked in the street, in the yards, in the driveway. Closed business, one after the other after the other after the other.

No, truly, there were more closed and boarded up businesses in the entire city than there were open. This is not in the “modern” strip shopping centers on the freeway side of town. You know, the place with the fast food and Walgreen’s for all the drivers passing by or the tourist coming through. This is Selma. Selma by the river and by the tracks. Selma, where 70% of the population is black and the economic power of the town lies largely within the 30% of population that is well, not black.

Selma is home to three universities: Selma University- an historically black college with an enrollment of 287, Concordia College- another, larger, historically black college, and George Wallace Community College of Selma- named after the governor of Alabama during the years surrounding Bloody Sunday. His motto? “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. Selma is “ideally is located right in the middle of nowhere”, says Joanne. Selma is the only place where Jefferson Davis and Martin Luther King, Jr. will ever meet, in this life or the next- their respective streets intersect right at First Baptist Church, the church to which state troopers chased marchers, beating them and trampling them with horses. Selma is the city that re-elected its white mayor, who resisted desegregation, to twenty more years in office after the 1965 march, and in 2000, when the first black mayor was elected, Selma’s whites starting leaving in droves.

Selma is full of ironies. Selma is beautiful.