“The best way to send information is to wrap it up in a person.” (J. Robert Oppenheimer) That’s what our experience has been! This group of 15 travelers is learning about the Civil Rights Movement by meeting and talking with veterans of the Movement who can speak of their personal experience with this struggle. So we have the opportunity to not only benefit from being in the place where these events occurred but also to receive the information wrapped up “in a person”.
An early Monday morning walk brought us to Court Square at the intersection of Commerce Street and Dexter Avenue. As the name suggests, commerce truly occurred here: this was the site of a massive slave market. Then about a century later it was the site of the Bus Stop from which Rosa Parks boarded the bus and refused to give up her seat – 368 days later the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended by order of the United States Supreme Court. (We learned from Valda Harris Montgomery later in the day that her father was responsible for the transportation system used to move people during the entire boycott - she called the system of people-making-it-work a “divine system”). Turning to look up Dexter Avenue on this bright sunny day one can see the Capitol of the state of Alabama where the 54 mile march from Selma to Montgomery ended in 1965, and also the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor in the 1950’s.
After a stop at the site of the former Greyhound Bus Depot where Freedom Riders were beaten in 1961, we were looking forward to visiting the State Capitol building only to find it closed on this fourth Monday of April to commemorate Confederate Memorial Day on Capitol Hill; we observed a holiday spangled, still, with Confederate flags and ladies in vintage dresses.
Off to a tour of the Civil Rights Memorial (which is sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center). Learning came wrapped in a person: Lecia Brooks, the SPLC Director, explained their mission: combatting hate, intolerance and discrimination through education and litigation; working for decades not only on issues of racial justice but also LGBTQ issues; and challenges facing immigrants. “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor. Never the victim.” (Elie Wiesel).
A group picture was taken by the memorial fountain: “ . . . UNTIL JUSTICE ROLLS DOWN LIKE WATERS AND RIGHTEOUSNESS LIKE A MIGHTY STREAM.” (MLK). [The Memorial was designed by Maya Lin]
At the First Baptist (Brick-a-day) Church, Joseph Lacey and Howard Davis recalled how in May 1961, Freedom Riders and parishioners were held captive for 15 hours while an angry mob surrounded the church; telephone conversations with Attorney General Robert Kennedy led to troops providing a safe exit.
Before leaving for Tuskegee, we had a working lunch with Dr. Valda Harris Montgomery. She is the daughter of Vera Harris and lived a few doors from the parsonage where MLK and his family lived starting in 1954. She recalled her home being used as a “safe house” for Freedom Riders (including John Lewis and Diane Nash) who strategized in her attic before again boarding busses for Mississippi. We are looking forward to visiting the Harris House tomorrow and visiting with Vera Harris; she is now 93 and was married to R.H. Harris, a Tuskegee airman.
We departed for the Tuskegee Army Airfield where the first class of African Americans was trained for service in the American Air Corps in World War II. Their service was distinguished but they faced continued discriminations and racism upon their return home. While we are familiar with the V for Victory sign, some in the African American community advocated a double V (VV), standing for victory at Home and Abroad.
The evening was topped off with a walk to the Montgomery Biscuits stadium where the Biscuits faced off against the Jacksonville Suns. Our Biscuits lost 4-3! But they are 10-8, a better record than the Twins!