Deep South Trip Reflections

Kate


ONE WEEK IN THE SOUTH,
OR HOW MY EYES WERE OPENED

Prologue

I can't remember now why I signed up to go in the first place. It
sounded cool, probably, and I had never been to any southern state except
Florida, which I don't think really counts anyways because Miami is so
incredibly commercial that it's like a northern city relocated to an area
where sunshine in freely available throughout the year. My scant knowledge
of the South, the real South, I mean, came mostly from books and movies.
Gone With the Wind, a 1,024 page volume that I tore though with a
voracious fervor in fifth grade formed the basis of my understanding. I
knew Georgia intimately, I thought. I was on familiar terms with
plantation life, Antebellum balls and "beaux," corsets and hoop skirts,
the hardships of the Civil War, Atlanta and Reconstruction, the Klan and
even the venerable Society For the Beautification of the Graves of the
Glorious War Dead. I knew Mississippi and Alabama from the Roll of
Thunder Trilogy (a school assignment under the tutelage of Mrs. Hollis in
seventh grade) and Louisiana from an obscure book
called New Orleans Legacy, which was set in the 1850s and I believe was
more of a torrid romance than anything else. Other sources that filled out
the breath and depth of my understanding of the South were American
Horizons, an 800 page history text book from my sophomore year that
weighed approximately 11,000 pounds, the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, and
my friend Rachel, who had visited West Virginia for an entire week when we
were freshman.

So, as is probably apparent, I truly did not have a clue what I was
getting myself into. Add to this already skewed perspective what is
probably a typical bleeding-heart Northern notion: the South isn't racist
anymore! They had the Civil Rights Movement, didn't they? Essentially, I
saw Dixie as New England all over again, but warmer with endlessly more
polite people and no Revolutionary War Memorials. Ignorance? Sort of. I
think it was more childish naivete than anything else. Of course, whatever
it was, it didn't last very long.


Exactly three weeks to the day from when I left for Oregon and Washington,
I found myself back at Logan International waiting for another plane. The
past month had been some sort of bizarre travel circus, what with my West
Coast college visits, trips to see two separate sets of grandparents, and
my attendance at my cousin;s (second) wedding. I hadn't spent more than
three nights in a row in my own bed for much longer than I would have
liked, but off I went for another week of hotel hopping and seeing of
sights that were completely unfamiliar. The end of school was a month
away, my history term paper loomed large, and I was not even close to
picking a college. I had left at home mountains of unfinished work on
which my graduation was riding, friends embroiled in further ridiculous
melodrama, a mountain of lines I did not yet know for the LSB Player's
spring production, which was a mere two weeks away, and parents who were
starting to forget what I looked like.

Before I left, I had asked them, in a voice that echoed childish inquiries
made under the assumption that parents knew everything, "What will the
South be like?" Beneath the text book rhetoric and Northern ignorance they
attempted to discharge into my brain, I discovered that really, neither of
them had a clue. So. I would be the first member of my family to see the
"Heart of Dixie," which suited me just fine. It was a bit of unexplored
territory, alien to my father (who had been to Biloxi, Mississippi once on
business and dragged from strip bar to strip bar) and my mother (who
claimed
to have been on a plane in the early 80's that was laid over in New
Orleans, which she maintained felt distinctly Southern even though she
hadn't actually left the airport.) Tennessee, Mississippi,Alabama,
Louisiana, and Georgia were, as far as they actually knew, little colored
squares with unnecessarily long names on the US map.

All this aside, at 1:00 pm EDT on Sunday the 15th of April, we-- meaning
the thirty or so students and four teachers who were journeying South--
sat around Northwest Airlines terminal, reading airport magazines and
listening to music on headphones. I had situated myself between old and
recently made friends and contentedly stitched away at patchwork skirt I
was making while I
waited for our plane. I wasn't thinking about the trip that had, in
essence, already begun. I'm famous for traveling and not really realizing
that I'd gone anywhere until I'm back home again, a disconnected concept
of reality that has caused me to enjoy many a trip far less than I should
have. But while I sat there in that monstrously uncomfortable airport
"chair," I resolved that I would not let another week slip by me,
unnoticed, until I was back to where I'd started from.

When our flight was called, I bid Boston the fond, airport-y farewell that
I was becoming well accustomed to and boarded the plane without looking
back. If I was going to the South, I was going to do it completely and
totally, with my whole heart in it from beginning to end.

* * *

An open mind. It was the most valuable thing I brought with me, endlessly
more indispensable than the $200 in cash that were folded into my CD case
, the last good cup of coffee I had in Boston, or even my journal, which I
am constantly jotting feelings observations into. I made sure I had it the
moment we landed in Memphis, after an uneventful three hour flight during
which I had played a loud game of Slapjack and spent a fair amount of time
standing, unsanctioned, in the aisle of the plane. No, it hadn't gone
anywhere-- I had swept the chambers of my psyche clear of as many
preconceptions as I possibly could have.

About an hour and a half after disembarking in Tennessee, when we had
gotten all of our luggage and figured out where we belonged (one drawback
of group travel-- everything takes AGES.) We made our way out of the
airport and toward a large blue bus with the words "Callahan Charters" and
a quartet of magnolia blossoms stenciled on the side. The bus would be, in
large part, our
home for the next week. It would be the only constant as we hopped motels,
cities, states, and time zones. Our driver was a caricature of the
Northern conception of a Southerner-- Mr. Crowell had fine white hair
combed carefully over the thinning region at the crown of his head, tiny
wire rimmed glasses, and a bristly white mustache. The breast pocket of
his button down shirt
billeted the requisite pack of Marlboro Light 100's, which he would smoke
without fail at every single stop our bus made, including James Chaney's
grave in Philadelphia where even I did not have a cigarette, so caught up
was I in the atmosphere of it. He spoke with a lilting Alabama accent and
called all the girls "Miss" and all the boys "Sir" without a hint of
irony. He also
gave us our first taste of that famous Southern politeness-- helping
everyone with their luggage and welcoming us to the South as if it
belonged to him and he was proud to share it with us. He had that silent,
stoic manner I remembered from Gone With the Wind, a stereotypical
southern gentleman through and through.

Fifteen minutes later, we were in Mississippi. I was shocked. When we'd
learned all the states and capitals in sixth grade, I hadn't paid too much
attention to the layout of the South. I'm really not sure why, but I was
fairly unsure of what bordered what. That Memphis was only a quarter of an
hour from Mississippi-- well, I hadn't had a clue. We stopped at a
roadside plaza and got dinner from a series of fast food places I'd never
heard of-- Steak 'n'Shake, Shoney's, and something called Waffle House
(little did I know at the time that the entire country south of the
Mason-Dixon line is cobbled together by them.) And then there was a motel
(I can't remember which, Days Inn maybe) with an incredibly strong air
conditioner to defend us from the sticky Southern heat. (Which was a nice
change from the snow we had left in Boston.) We went to sleep early,
partially from the heat but mostly from the craze of travel. I don,t care
if you,re sitting all day, if you've been in a plane you're tired by the
end of it.

* * *

The Lorraine Motel. I could remember pictures of it from Post War, and
from the same tired old film strip that was trotted out year after year on
Martin Luther King Day in the ridiculously racist Connecticut town where I
grew up-- a small, run-down motel in Memphis painted aqua and white with a
balcony on the second floor that was wreathed with flowers forever after
Dr.
King's assassination. But standing there in the courtyard of the actual
motel was nothing like seeing pictures or movies of it. My visit to the
Lorraine Motel was my first encounter with a sensation I would grow well
accustomed to by the end of my trip-- the awareness that I was standing
on a place where the turbulent history of the Civil Rights Movement was
written. But, since this was the first time I'd felt that strange feeling,
I was literally left breathless with it. I stood, feeling rather stupid
and useless without a camera to document the moment for posterity or even
anything to keep my hands busy, gazing up at the balcony. He stood there.
He rested his fingertips on that metal rail and looked out over that
street to those buildings. And he died there, in a flurry of gunshots and
a pool of blood.

I was roused from my reverie and led inside to the National Civil Rights
Museum, which did not disappoint, as I was sure it wouldn't. It was an
amazing amount of information packed into a tiny space; the walls were
literally painted with words, papered with famous documents, and covered
with pictures. I remember seeing the signs for each exhibit and feeling
like I was walking though my Post War notebook, so familiar were all the
important events. It had a peculiar feeling of walking though history,
condensed into the present and turned on its side so I could walk,
linearly, through it. Perhaps the eeriest part of the entire museum was
Dr. King's room, preserved exactly as he had left it more than thirty
years earlier, with the bedcovers turned down and an unread newspaper
obscuring a partially finished room service meal on the bedside table. I
was lucky enough to enter that particular area of the museum when no one
else was there, and a spent a good
ten minutes lingering, dumbfounded, before anyone else appeared. I will
admit that the same way many of the people I know revere pop singers and
movie stars, I am awestruck (in a way that is actually sort of stupid) by
historical figures, and that I did not truly understand that Martin Luther
King Jr. was a real person until I saw the carelessly tossed roll of
toilet paper and cigarette butts that he had touched in his last hours.

When the room filled up with gawking tourists (who I almost felt were
disrespecting Dr. King by gaping this "memorial" in such a way) I wandered
across the hall and looked down on a model of the garbage workers' strike
(that I did not realize until much later was representative of the reason
why Dr. King was in Memphis in the first place) for about half an hour,
having polite conversations that I do not remember with various other
members of our group and devotees of Dr. King who had made their
"pilgrimage." I was still reeling from that feeling I had experienced in
the courtyard of the Lorraine Motel-- which had grown only stronger as I
drifted through the inside.

We went to Beale Street, "Where Jazz Was Born", and where I got my second
favorite souvenir of the entire trip-- a blue, 25c matchbook that reads "A
Hard Man in Good to Find." After that it was Graceland, all fluff.
Pleasant, appealing, extravagant fluff, but fluff all the same. It both
amazed and amused me that there were people going practically into
religious ecstasies over Elvis (a person so well known, I just discovered,
that his name is in my computer's spell check dictionary.) who was, after
all, just a man. But I suppose their lingering, entranced, in the barn
that housed Elvis' special television costumes was tantamount to my
awestruck, thoughtless, speechless presence at the Lorraine Motel that
morning.

The late afternoon and early evening was spent on the bus on our way to
Clarksdale. When we arrived, we checked into our hotel and struck out for
dinner. Several friends and I settled on Papa Gino's and, after buying a
little plastic cross from a quarter machine for the sheer novelty of the
fact that Mississippi had quarter machines that dispensed only crosses, I
went outside to have a cigarette before our food arrived. No sooner had I
lit it when a small black boy who looked no older than ten appeared (and I
literally mean appeared. One moment I was alone and the next, I was not.)
beside me. He spoke quickly, and with a heavy accent, and I had to ask him
to repeat himself a few times before I understood him. He was asking for a
cigarette, so I gave him one.
"How old are you?" I asked, partially because I had never ever seen
anyone that young smoke a cigarette, and partially because I was curious.
"Fourteen," he answered. Well, he wasn't as young as I had though.
"How
old are you?" His accent still made it hard for me to decipher his words,
but I
worked diligently at it.
"Seventeen."
"You married?"
I was absolutely shocked.
"No, I'm seventeen." I stressed it, just in case he had misunderstood
me.
"My sister nineteen and she been married two years."
I was completely stunned.
"Really?" It was all I could think of to say. He nodded vigorously.
"And dey got two babies and one of dem is named after me, even though
I'se just his uncle."
"That's cool. Have you lived here your whole life?"

He launched into a complicated story about his family, about frequent
moves back and forth between Mississippi and Alabama. It took me a minute
to realize that I had sort of been thinking of them as one state, of the
entire South as one state, really.

I finished my cigarette and went inside, genuinely wondering what I had
just met. Were all the young teenagers in Mississippi like this kid? Or
was he different than the rest of them? It occurred to me, just then, that
I had absolutely nothing to base my judgment on. I knew that one would
stand very little chance of finding a kid like that in the North,but in
the South? I was just starting to realize that I didn't have a clue.
* * *

It was the nicest hotel we had stayed at, and the nicest we would stay at
for the entire trip. We regretted having to leave the Comfort Inn, whose
managerial staff had made us mountains of popcorn and furnished the
conference room in which we were watching movies with the first cappuccino
maker I had seen since we had arrived in Memphis and given us run of the
entire building. But we accepted the necessity of travel if we wanted to
see everything we had come to the South for, so off we went.

We were starting to bond as a group. Out of the North for only two days by
this point, (and one was spent in the air) the only thing around us that
we really understood, that made sense to us by our own "Yankee" standards,
was each other. So we toured the Delta Blues Museum as a group, joking and
admiring our way through the buildings. The blues, I decided, gave rap
some
credibility. Blues was people talking about their lives, how they thought
and what they felt, and it was sort of the earlier form of the "art" that
would come from "musicians" such as Nelly and Ludicrous, who did pretty
much the same thing. Well, suck as they did, their "music" came from noble
roots.

Back onto the bus (which was starting to feel like home) and on to the
Hopson Plantation, whose only distinguishing characteristic now, in my
mind, is the amazing amount of CRAP in the main barn. It was truly
astounding, really. Everything from vintage barber poles to stolen
fraternity flags to turn-of-the-century children's books to broken records
to empty, antique liquor bottles. Also on the plantation was a painted VW
bus, which Lauren coerced me into taking three pictures of with her
standing in front of it. I was a bit shocked to see it there-- I didn't
really think that hippie
sensibilities had reached all the way to Mississippi. But I rationalized
that probably the plantations owners had bought it to supplement their
collection of crap, well, whatever it was , I wasn't sure how I felt
about it-- that a symbol of a miraculous movement in an era gone by was
being collected on the same level as license plates? It didn't sit well
with me, but, I didn't really get to think about it too much, because we
had to leave.

* * *

It was really a shame that Milburn Crowe was not a dynamic speaker,
because he had an interesting story to tell. Mound Bayou, a black owned
town in the Mississippi Delta, was one of the most interesting things I
had ever heard of, and it was also our next stop. I hadn't the faintest
idea that such a thing ever existed (are we noticing a trend in my
cluelessness?) nor that,
if it had, at one point, that it was still functioning. Established by
freed slaves during Reconstruction and exclusively black owned and
operated forever after, Milburn Crowe, Mound Bayou's mayor (he
affectionately called it "Moun Bie") maintained that the Civil Rights
movement had not really affected his town. Mound Bayou was one of the most
enigmatic places we visited because it felt very cut off from everything I
knew (or thought I knew, or had recently
learned) about the South. In the history of Mound Bayou, there were no
Scarlett O' Hara's, Ku Klux Klansmen posing as respected citizens, no
violent battles for civil rights. Mound Bayou was like a tiny nation of
its own, completely separate from the rest of the south. I sat in the
Mound Bayou city hall with the rest of the group, half listening and half
observing what was going on around me-- as it was a city hall, police
officers, town officials,
and various paper pushers were milling around. Most shocking to me was
the fact that not a single one of them was white. I knew that the town was
"black owned," but it still stunned me when Mayor Crowe told us that the
only white people who lived in the town were nuns. I hadn't really
understood the concept of a place like Mound Bayou, or seen the relevance
of it in todays world. But hey, I also thought a lot of things that were
proved wrong on my trip.

* * *

Jackson was a long way from Mound Bayou, but we had already grown
accustomed to seemingly interminable bus rides. We passed the time playing
a series of extremely loud games and later napping (or attempting to, as
the bus was not the best place to sleep.) It was very strange, really. The
bus was like a little piece of Massachusetts, because when we were on it,
we were
just us-- teenagers from Sudbury and nothing else. Fins and I discussed
the upcoming opening of Mercadet (and the fact that we were woefully
unprepared) and some other seniors and I rapped about graduation and
college and such; we traded CDs and braided each other's hair and read and
worked on homework, discussed prom dresses, ate Pop tarts (actually Sam's
Choice Toaster
Pastries, because that was all WalMart had) and bitched about how short
vacation was going to be and thought ahead to dinner. (Food stops broke up
the monotony of bus rides.) When we were on the bus, we weren't ignorant
Northerners stumbling blindly though a place we knew nothing about but
pretended to anyways. We weren't a tour group to be squired around and
impressed. We weren't white people who didn't have a clue about black life
in the South. Well, really we were, but while we were on the bus, we were
not
as acutely aware of all of these things.

The Jackson you see pictures of and hear about on TV is only about four
square blocks. The capital building is right in the middle, flanked by a
few streets of government buildings, lucrative businesses, and a few
luxury apartment complexes. Literally about four blocks out, the ghettoes
begin. Houses with windows shot out and doors torn from their hinges and
replaced
with sheets of plywood line poorly tended streets. Stores with rusty neon
signs stood on street corners, their metal grating pulled down over the
windows even in the daytime. I remembered what my father had said when
we'd been in Olympia a month ago, about the capitals of states always
being nice, even if they were small. Well, he had never been to
Mississippi. We parked
the bus and Mr. Crowell got out to smoke a cigarette (I feared for him,
that scrawny little white man wandering a Jackson ghetto) while we
proceeded inside. In the basement of a building with bullet-proof windows,
Hollis Watkins awaited us, sitting patiently in an orange plastic chair.
Mr.
Schechter attempted to introduce him as a "freedom singer," but Mr.
Watkins quickly made it clear that he did not identify with that title--
he had just been in the right place at the right time with a nice voice.
His quiet, commanding voice laid down for us the story of an idealistic
teenager who
grew into an equally idealistic man at a time of great social and
political upheaval. He spoke of his first protests, his arrests, demos
he'd participated in and songs he remembered. Every so often, we paused
for a song break, and Mr. Watkins would rise to his feet and sing for us,
dancing along
to a rhythm that came from deep inside of him somewhere. For the last
twenty or so minutes we were there, Mr. Watkins coaxed us to our feet to
sing and dance along with him. I wondered, as I stood there, what he
thought of all of us. Were we, to him, as out of place as I felt? I judged
that we had no right, really, to be singing songs like "We Shall
Overcome," because, in reality, not a single person in the room
(excepting, of course, Mr. Watkins, and perhaps one or two of the
teachers) had a clue what the song was really all about. What can rich
suburban kids have to overcome? Family problems, surely, rough friendships
and school, but could that even remotely compare to a struggle for basic
human rights? I didn't think so. All the same, Mr. Watkins appeared to
have enjoyed our company immensely. He shook hands with or hugged each of
us as we filed past him out the door. It was, if I remember correctly, a
very quiet bus ride to our next hotel. I would really have liked to know
what some of my fellow travelers though about the whole Hollis Watkins
thing-- did they feel justified in singing his songs with him, or like
they were trespassing, unbidden, on sacred ground, as I felt we might have
been? I didn't get to ask. We were all completely absorbed in our own
activities, from school work to sleeping to staring vacantly out the
window, as I was doing. The answer to that question is one I never got,
not even after we got home.

* * *

There were A LOT of churches in the South. Most of them were Baptist, but
I saw a few Pentecostal and one or two Catholic. Most of the small towns
we'd passed through, even the ones with a couple of stores (usually pawn
shops) and a run down bar comprising the downtown area, had at least two
churches. If Jesus were to be resurrected today, I'm sure the Southern
towns we passed through would have no trouble making him feel right at
home. But in New
Orleans, a two hour bus ride from Jackson, there was not a single church
to be found. But there were (and this is only a partial list) at least
twenty strip clubs, more bars than I could have counted, hundreds of tacky
souvenir stores, three head shops, a series of art galleries, an
outrageously
overpriced boutique called Violets that had only one article of clothing
not decorated with rhinestones (a sock, hidden behind the register) tons
of restaurants, two voodoo shops, a witchcraft bookstore, cheap
cigarettes, a lot of drunk frat boys (yes, even on a Wednesday afternoon)
and a vague longing for something I couldn't name. "Nu Awlins" was a
mindless day, filled with excessive running around and excessive buying
and excessive eating. (It's funny, I very clearly remember the spectacular
(vegetarian) red beans and rice I ate for dinner that night. I had never
even seen that on a restaurant menu before. Damn, there were definitely
things the North was missing out on!) At that night's hotel, I got my last
decent sleep of the entire trip. There was just too much else to do.

* * *
The next morning, it was on to Philadelphia. Philadelphia, Mississippi was
a name I knew, whose letters I always imagined decorated with dripping
blood like the titles on all those trashy Christopher Pike horror books I
used to collect but never read. But it was just like most of the other one
horse towns we had visited while we had been in Mississippi-- a few
streets
of shopping (but Philadelphia had the $10 Store which set it apart from
the rest, a bit. That was one cool store.) with a parade of older cars
traversing the pockmarked roads, and, of course, a Baptist church. While
we were sitting in the "city square" (really just four benches arranged
around a skeletal tree that was magically growing up out of the pavement.)
Tracy harassed various locals (who, I can say here, attempted to look down
her shirt while she spoke) about the now-infamous killing of three civil
rights workers in the late 60's that had made Philadelphia a universally
known name. No one really answered her, but one man did say, about black
people: "I'll stay in
my place if they stay in theirs." (at this point, and I swear I am not
making this up, he adjusted his suspenders and spat at my feet before
walking away.) We walked down to the Philadelphia library after that,
where we gathered around the children's reading area to speak with the
editor of the Neshoba Democrat, Philadelphia's newspaper. A soft-spoken,
surprisingly liberal
Southern gentleman, he introduced me to an aspect of the
Goodman/Schwerner/Chaney episode that I had never really considered-- the
time between, the forty-four days from their disappearance to the
discovery of their bodies. Rumors, he told us, were not flying as thick
and fast as one
might have expected. The entire town of Philadelphia, while vaguely
curious, had known it was one of their own, and had sat back contentedly
to the rest of the country to deal with it.

It was terrifying, really, to conceptualize that those three boys had been
pulled of the same highway we had driven, beaten and slaughtered in the
woods now right before our eyes, and lost there for more than a month.
Spanish moss climbed lazily over thick, drooping branches that extended
from tress with wide, rough trunks. Tiny green leaves sprouted from
everything,
and it was quite easy to see how the area off the highway had been
obscured. All the same, it literally made me shiver.

We were hustled back onto the bus after that and led off to James Chaney's
grave back in Meridian. James Chaney was the only Mississippi native among
the Freedom Summer participants who were butchered that night in
Philadelphia, and, after a lot of controversy, was buried in a black
cemetery (as no desegregated ones existed at the time.) Everyone was hot
and cranky
and no one really wanted to get back on the bus or go another minute
without eating, so I think it was with grudging acceptance of our fate
that we allowed ourselves to be taken up a steep hill after picking up Mr.
Obie Clark and a little girl (probably his granddaughter or some such) to
visit James Chaney's grave.

This being the case, I don't think anyone was prepared for the grave. It
was in a secluded little spot just off the road, a simple headstone with a
granite burial slab over where the casket had once been lowered into the
ground. I read somewhere that the reason people can get all patriotic
about
the American flag is because so many people have looked so passionately
towards that symbol for hundreds of years to instill them with patriotism
and love for their country, and have filled the flag with those energies.
The air around James Chaney's grave practically crackled with the violent
clash of energies that had surely surrounded it. Obie Clark did not speak
much, but left us to ponder the electric silence in a stupor that I'm sure
he got a lot from people that went up there. I stood, once again,
completely dumbfounded, trying to feel James Chaney's restless spirit and
to understand what it could possibly have been like for him to die in the
way he did for the reasons he
did. While the people around me snapped photos and whispered to each
other, I stood stock still by the grave, reading the inscription on it
over and over. I can't remember it now, but I remember that it, very
tritely, I admit, brought tears to my eyes. Before we left, Mr. Clark told
us that he was in the phone book and that if we were ever in Meridian
again, we should look him up. It took me aback, partially because no one
had ever really said anything like that to me before, and partially
because, even if they had, they would not have meant it, as this man did;
it would have been mere polite formality. I was quickly catching on to the
fact that the Southern mentality was much more honest that the Northern--
they didn't seem to mess around with conventional crap, but instead came
right out with whatever they wanted to get across. (and I met the epitome
of this philosophy later, but that will come in its place).

We were supposed to do a lot of other things that night. We were supposed
to go to Selma and walk the Pettus Bridge, visit a variety of museums, and
even meet with the mayor. But it wasn't going to happen. Instead we
checked into our hotel early, went out for fast food, and crawled back to
our rooms to watch TV and talk and be teenagers again. The sobering
realities of this trip got to you sometimes, they really did. But, all the
same, even curled in the covers of our motel beds wondering what it was we
had been experiencing for the past five days, I think we were staring to
forget the context of our lives. It was a strange feeling.

Early morning again, and we were in downtown Selma to walk the Pettus
Bridge. It stretched across the Alabama, which was deep blue accented with
swirling eddies of brown and lined with great weeping willows, and visible
for a few miles to our right and left. Four lanes of traffic raced by us
in two directions and, as I stepped onto the bridge to begin my crossing,
I tried to imagine myself on that very spot several decades earlier,
attempting to follow Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery. It didn't work.

We crossed the bridge without incident (lost no one into the river or the
street. This is quite amazing considering how tired we all were.) and,
when we reached the other side and were about to slingshot around to make
our way back, I caught sight of an innocuous street sign, green and white
like on all of America's state highways. Above several other city names on
the relatively
small sign, reflective metal letters and numbers spelled out "MONTGOMERY--
57." I had seen that sign before. In pictures, on movies, in history books
and in several of the museums we'd visited. The marchers on Dr. King's
famous Selma to Montgomery March had attempted (and failed) to cross the
Pettus Bridge twice before they actually made it to the other side on
their third try. That picture that I was so familiar with was an image of
triumph, and here it was, not a hundred feet away from me. Back came that
strange
sensation that I was traversing history, the sensation that I had first
experienced at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and grown well accustomed to
by the time we arrived in Selma. (I think I had goosebumps for a good 75%
of the
trip.)

I was in sort of a daze on my way back to the bus, half walking half
floating along, my mind spinning with all I had seen in the past few days.
I did a lot of wandering while I was in the South. I don't exactly mean
physical wandering, although I did that too. My mind meandered aimlessly--
when I was in a big group or all alone, whether I was talking to people or
writing in my journal-- all the time. I was sort of traipsing though the
caverns of my mind, digging out bits of information about the Civil Rights
Movement that I had long since pigeon-holed away and was sure I had
forgotten, dusting them off and reexamining them as if they were suddenly
of the most dire importance. (Which, in a way, they were.) I was floating
along, my mind on just such a journey, when I found myself shepherded into
what looked like a small office building on the left side of the street.
My reverie had slowed me down enough that I was at the back of the group
and so
it took me a little while to catch on to where we were and what we were
doing. I really didn't think I was going to care about anything called the
Voting Rights Museum, but I was proved wrong probably about fifteen
seconds after I thought it by a wall to my left. It was made of smooth
mirrored panels covered with what appeared to be little white post-its.
Upon closer inspection, I discovered them to be little notes written by
people who either had or were family members of people who had been on Dr.
King's Selma to Montgomery March. There were a few lighthearted comments
about the museum and the Movement , but most of the notes were more
serious, such as this one, whose text I copied into my journal:
I was there.
I was clubbed by a police officer
And I stayed on my feet.

We have been standing in that front room no more than a few minutes when
someone entered to take us around. She was tall, but not too tall,
standing probably about 5' 10" in heels. Her ample figure was clad in a
lime green dress and matching jacket, and she spoke with authority and her
hands on her hips. She explained in clipped, businesslike sentences that
she had been "there:" at the Selma to Montgomery March and at various
other battles of the movement, and that she had opened the Voting Right
Museum to tell her story to others so that it wouldn't be forgotten. This
woman, this loud, brash, no-nonsense woman, directed us around. Through a
variety of clever
demonstrations (such as fitting forty people into a tiny room that she
said was roughly the size of the jail cell she and about fifty others had
been held in when she was first arrested, and commanding a roomful of
people to sit flat on the floor and, when people did not comply,
compelling them to with a single look to do so in order to demonstrate
true power.) she
explained to us the messages behind the exhibits, from the "memorial" to
those slain in the Movement to plaster casts of the feet of the
"everyday" people who accompanied Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery to the
actual full dress "uniform" of a Ku Klux Klansman to a room with portraits
of black politicians elected to Congress during Reconstruction. In ten
minutes, this
woman managed to cut though all of the bullshit and present the Movement,
as she saw it, to us straight-- without any PC-ness or evasion of
important issues. She was an absolutely staggering individual.

But she had another group to tour, and so she deposited us in a small room
off the central corridor and left us to wait for Rev. F.D. Reed, who was
due to speak with us briefly before we left Selma for Birmingham. He
appeared several minutes later, well dressed and smiling widely. He spoke
to us for only about fifteen minutes, but he spoke very well, (Most
priests speak well, in my experience.) showed us a famous picture of the
frontline of the Selma to Montgomery March(where he walked, a few spaces
over from Dr. King) and told us that if there was anything the Movement
could teach us, it was that God will be there when he is needed. I am not
religious in the least, but this speech sent chills through my body. It
was all very surreal, I reflected, as I shook Rev. Reed's hand and exited
the building. After a whirlwind morning that had taken less than two hours
but had felt like an entire day, we were back on the bus, this time
heading East. Selma? It was if it had never happened, except for that
feeling that I had been sucked up into a tornado and dropped back to the
ground again. But by this point, I was getting used to it.

* * *

Birmingham. Bombingham. We were in the South visiting towns and cities
I had only been sure existed in books, and it would not have been complete
without stopping in at the site of some of the most violent protests of
the entire Movement. The park that took up an entire city block across
form the Birmingham Institute was scattered sculptures that commemorated
the bloody
fight-- the most powerful, in my opinion, one of four large, fairly
life-like, blue metal police dogs that appeared to be propelling
themselves across the pathway that snaked through the park. The museum,
while endlessly better funded than any of the other museums we had seen,
was rather
disappointing, save for one intense exhibit. Metal ramps led through a
cement room "decorated" with long plastic sheets with pictures of people--
housewives, baseball players, nurses, businessmen, etc. etc. etc. From
every direction inside the room, hidden speakers blared all sorts of
racial slurs. I also will admit that I rushed a bit through the Birmingham
Institute because I am not overly fond of being filmed and we had a local
news station documenting us that day- unfortunately, the camera man had
decided to attempt to follow me, so I missed more of the museum than I
meant to. A few blocks away was the 16th Street Baptist Church. I was
just getting used to the way history seemed to have arranged itself around
areas. I had always thought of all the things that had happened in
Birmingham during the Movement as separate entities, but it was time I
comprehended that they were linked by time and place. The 16th Street
Baptist Church was beautiful, with huge stained glass windows, sturdy oak
pews, and crimson carpets. It struck
me as very sad that an entire Baptist Community was forever scarred by
what had been done to their house of worship more than thirty years ago.
Acts of hate do not recognize time limits-- they cause damage for as long
as they please.

And after that, we drove to Atlanta. That evening, while locked deep in a
philosophical religious conversation with Mr. Schechter, Kristina, and
Reem that ended up lasting more than three hours, I noticed my brain
attempting to wander back to the day I had just had, only to discover that
the entire thing had already melted in my mind. It was a strange
phenomenon, really, the way I
was starting to forget things as soon as they occurred. Looking back even
now that I've been home for more than a month, the days are exactly as
sun-bleached and faded as they were three hours after they were over.
* * *
Atlanta and shopping, a visit to the beautifully executed King
Memorial, (I have never seen a more beautiful monument in my life.) a
Baptist church service and another day in the sky. I honestly have no
distinct memories from our last day and a half in the South, just a lot of
impressionistic images that I would paint if I had any artistic talent at
all. So many colors,
images, smells, and sounds, and then the next thing I remember is the
airport.

Epilogue

And then, all of a sudden, I was conscious of being home. Suddenly, it
was over, and I was back in a land without grits, 1,000 miles from the
nearest decent biscuit. For perhaps a week, I avoided thinking about my
trip to the South, not because I didn't want to think about it, but
because I knew that I had to, and once I started, I was going to need a
good long time to make it to the end.

The Thursday after we returned home, I went to bed early with a notepad
and scrawled thoughts down, in list form, for nearly three hours.
Everything that popped into my head, no matter what it was, got written
down and read aloud into my empty room when I was finished so I could
laugh, cry, and think.

I came to one major conclusion about the whole thing-- it opened my eyes.
I went down to the South with a vision of a place that simply did not
exist, and in seven days, had that picture completely obliterated and a
whole new one erected in its place. I met people who were like no one I
had ever
imagined, seen places that I hadn't ever dreamed were real, and realized
what it was to be in a place where history was made. I had never
appreciated Boston before in the way I did when I first journeyed downtown
after I got home from the South.

But the greatest thought I had about the whole episode occurred to me
after I got home, #142 on the list I made. Right after my realization that
when you are with a group of people in such foreign surroundings for more
than a few days, you lose sight of everyone else you know, and before the
wry joke I made about Cracker Barrel and my oral fixation, I wrote these
words: "Unless you can feel a thing, you can never guess its meaning."
It's a quotation that's hung in my history classroom since the beginning
of the year, one I always looked at and never though much of. But
suddenly, it made a lot of sense. We went down South to try to understand
it on a level that no book or movie ever would have given us. To
understand the South, and the Civil Rights Movement, and what it all
really meant, we simply had to be there.

So that was my trip, documented not so much through where we went and what
we did, exactly, but through was what I felt and what I thought. But isn't
that, after all, all the human experience really is?


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