Author Henry Miller once wrote, ” One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” That was certainly the case when I took the Grand Circle Travel trip Let Freedom Ring: A Civil Rights Journey. Of the 48 states I have visited, getting a full dose of the struggles of the civil rights movement in the 1960s was an unparalleled experience. I could have seen the same part of the south and focused on the Blues Trail instead, but the itinerary for this trip was too compelling. So, I truly saw Mississippi and Alabama not just as a place, but as a new and different experience with a spotlight on their troubled history.
We met a freedom rider who had been incarcerated at the age of 13 for simply getting in a bus to fight for equality and to help get people registered to vote amid harsh Jim Crow laws while in Jackson, Mississippi. In Selma, Alabama we met a woman who had crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday and Turnaround Tuesday (when they made a second attempt, but had to turn around), and who finally crossed the bridge successfully with Dr. Marin Luther King Jr and John Lewis. These are moments and people I will never forget.
I experienced numerous travel days any traveler would wish for while taking a deep dive into the south and getting immersed into their hate filled history of racism, bigotry, and slavery. And while educational, it reminded me so much of the struggles we are facing today as a nation. This made the trip that much more meaningful.
It was especially moving for me having lived through so much of the history in the 1960s and 70s. In Birmingham, Alabama, on the way to the pinnacle of the day, the 16th Street Baptist Church, we drove through a neighborhood that had once housed active members of the Klu Klux Klan and Angela Davis at the same time. Many homes had been bombed by them, rebuilt, then set on fire again. The hatred was as fierce as the struggle for equality. Jews, Italians, and Black families even lived in the same neighborhood; all three groups being targeted simultaneously by the Klan. A beautiful Jewish cemetery was close by. Yet just five years prior to the 1963 church bombing, a nearby synagogue had 54 sticks of dynamite placed near it by the Klan in retaliation for the Jewish involvement in the newly formed civil rights movement. Rain prevented the dynamite from gong off.
Information like this made it clear the struggle for equality was not exclusively a black struggle even though the black struggle in the South was the focus of the tour. Several museums and monuments along the way paid tribute to that, with a special nod to the women’s suffragette movement as well. The long view was critical for me to observe since this is the world we have created for ourselves today.
Although the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s underwent its difficulties and nearly collapsed, one incident revived the struggle. Fighting for equality became both timely and essential after four children were killed in a KKK bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the eulogy, and the Civil Rights movement as we know it today was in full swing. This church also stands as a reminder of our current times, with the church signage now displaying the words Black Lives Matter. One struggle for freedom has simply morphed into another.
Powerful. Emotional. Tragic. Uplifting. Historic. These are the words that come to mind after touring the church. We also saw both the site of the actual bomb blast, and the memorial park across the street with all the sculptures of the children killed, as well as representations of the dogs unleashed on members of the Black community. Having lived through both that time as well as the aftermath of the movement itself, amplified my feelings, heightened my senses, and gave the day it’s powerful momentum.
The Civil Rights Institute next to it is an excellent place for people to go to learn about separate lunch counters and water fountains and how the Jim Crow laws were enacted, but the 16th Street Baptist Church was the highlight of the day for me. We sat in the sanctuary and had a discussion about it while two people were doing some work on the organ. But when I heard that organ I thought about the history of the church and the one thousand people who sat in those pews in the memory of those little girls who had died. I almost lost it. It was too powerful for me to sit and think about the tragic history.
There were numerous sobering moments like this. In Montgomery, we visited the Legacy Museum, which honors the entire Black American experience starting from arrival on the slave ships of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, includes the domestic slave trade, goes through the experience during Reconstruction, up to and including the days of lynching in the South. Most compelling is 80 jars of soil to memorialize the lynching of young Black men. The soil in those jars came from the earth where they were hung. Where possible, the names of the people and the locations where they died was labelled on the jars as well. It was practically an “art installation,” yet one that was filled with a deep dark history of American culture many would rather ignore, and sadly, only few pay tribute to. The entire Legacy Museum takes a couple of hours to fully absorb. Its especially stirring since it was built on the same ground where Blacks were forced into labor and bondage. The human trafficking of Black Americans took place not that far away.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice about twenty minutes away from the Legacy Museum, and both part of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) continues to memorialize the lynchings. It is another art installation, designed by various artists and architects. Words by Toni Morrison and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are inscribed on the walls surrounding the 800 columns of hanging monuments that have the names of those lynched along with the cities and states where the lynchings occurred. There are long walkways for reflection and sculpted pieces along the walkways that help enhance the story of the sad reason this memorial exists.
The history of the deep south is filled with travelers: unwilling travelers from slave ships, the underground railroad and those who tried to escape their bondage; the freedom riders who traveled on busses only to be incarcerated; those who traveled great distances to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge, and so much more. There was not always a Good Samaritan to help these travelers, but some saw through the sea of hate and inhumanity that characterized the need for the struggle. We as international and domestic travelers have the vision it takes to be additional Good Samaritans. We can learn, understand, write, and make our voices heard in every way possible. We can also take some sense of consolation from the words spoken by the late Dr. Martin Luther King on the day of the memorial at the 16th Street Baptist Church, when he said, “We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow, we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.” These inspirational words, spoken at such a frightful time, give me pause. While in Mississippi, at lunch we went to a restaurant where everyone sat family style. We were encouraged to introduce ourselves to others at the table. One couple I met lived locally and upon learning I was on a civil rights trip, said it was not as bad as they will tell us. I was stunned. I asked if they had seen any of the footage from the days of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma and all the violence from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. They just said, ” Oh, that.”
Clearly, there is much more work to be done.