I have provided below my complete blog written during the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour I went on between June 11-19, 2011. I was accompanied on this tour by 4 colleagues from Messiah. Their own blogs can be found at http://blogs.messiah.edu/2011_civil_rights_tour/
So here goes…
DAY ONE ON THE CIVIL RIGHTS TOUR, 12 June 2011
We left for Beaver Falls after an overnight stay at the Chapel Valley Estate bed and breakfast in New Oldfield. The Bus left at 6.00am with a group of nearly 30 persons and headed out to Greensboro, South Carolina. Dr. Todd Allen of Geneva College has been leading this group for 10 years (http://www.geneva.edu/object/faculty_todd_allen). The nearly eight hour journey was punctuated by a documentary on the music of the Civil Rights movement showcasing songs like “wade in the water,” “which side are you on,” and “we shall overcome.” Another documentary charted the course of the civil rights sit-ins at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University at Greensboro. Both videos revealed the broad popular base of the Civil Rights movement and how spontaneous acts of everyday resistance triggered wider movements across the country. The sit-ins by 4 North Carolina A&T University’s freshmen in 1960 at Woolworth’s store broke the practice of segregation at food establishments and sparked off similar protests across the south. Today that Woolworth’s store is the site of the recently built International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro (http://www.sitinmovement.org/). It has a fascinating collection of artifacts representing various aspects of the African American experience under segregation, the struggle for civil rights, and recognition of civil rights movements around the world. It was sobering to get a brief glimpse into the struggles of various racial groups in the United States, the contradictions between the ideals and the lived realities of everyday life for African Americans, Native Americans, and women.
Perhaps, traveling on a civil rights tour is in many ways a pilgrimage—to visit the past of the United States, discern it promise, its brokenness, and hopes for the future. As the 21st century advances and the living record embodied in the participants of the Civil Rights movement dwindle in number all we will have left are memories enshrined in our minds, in artifacts, and images. I suppose, that is what makes a popular movements like the Civil Rights so important and of continual relevance to human beings long after the participants have passed on. Perhaps it will become part of an unfolding global story of human struggle, endeavor, sacrifice, faith in action, and hope for a better future.
AN INSPIRATIONAL DAY IN ATLANTA, GA, 13 June 2011
Today we traveled to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta administered by the National Park Service. This site contains the Ebenezer Baptist Church (where King pastored), the MLK Jr. Visitor Center, and the King Center (where King and his wife Coretta Scott King are buried). King’s connection with India was strikingly revealed in the statue of Gandhi placed in an open plaza along with his notations in E. Stanley Jones Gandhi: An Interpretation. Jones was an American missionary who worked in India and whose writings on Gandhi inspired King. After a quick lunch at a local favorite called The Varsity (where orders are taken with gusto prefaced by a “What’ll ya have?”) we traveled to the University of Georgia where historian Dr. Glen Eskew gave us a succinct overview of the Civil Right Movement. The highlight of the day was a meeting with Juanita Abernathy wife of the late Rev. Ralph David Abernathy (1926-1990) a prominent Civil Rights activist and close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. Juanita Abernathy spoke eloquently with wit, and with a passion that was hard to resist. The courage, sacrifice and persistence she and many other like her displayed was what was inspirational. The courage of ordinary civil rights activists, in the face of impossible and unpredictable odds, and even death is something that is sobering and certainly needs to be remembered.
In the bus we heard a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr from a collection of his sermons titled Knock at Midnight. The sermon touched on many themes, including the “midnight” (King’s dark night??) that King saw pervading the social, psychological, and moral order. It is clear that his involvement in the civil rights movement did weigh on him, but he left his audience with three loaves—faith, hope, and love. A History Channel documentary called King gave us another glimpse of the life and work of King. Finally, a movie on the Rev. Vernon Johns (1892-1965)
gave a poignant insight of the daily grind of racism in the south, especially in Montgomery, Alabama that African-Americans endured, long after the Civil War had ended. John’s suggested long before Martin Luther King Jr and others, the possibility of a mass bus boycott to make a dent in the system of segregation in Alabama.
We ended the day in a hotel in Albany, GA and tomorrow we will move to Montgomery, AL.
SONGS OF SURVIVAL, HOPE & RESISTANCE, 14 June 2011
Our journey today started off with a memorable visit the Albany Civil Rights Institute in Albany (GA). On the way we heard songs sung by the Rutha Harris of the Albany Freedom Singers which were inspirational. Music was critical not just to the activists of the civil rights movement; it had always served as a vehicle by which African Americans recorded and remembered their past, their struggles, and hopes for the future. These were songs of survival, hope and resistance. As Rutha Harris, one of the Albany Freedom Singers told us, “The music kept us going, kept us from being afraid.” During the civil rights movement freedom songs raised the social conscience of blacks and were made up of songs from the slave era, spirituals of the black churches of the South. The lyrics of one song ran “Aint gonna let nobody turn me around….I’m gonna keep on walking, keep on talking…marching onto freedom land.”
This music and perhaps many sermons of the time were about freedom, overcoming distress,
A movie on Rosa Parks kept us engaged as we traveled to our next stop—Montgomery Alabama.
Perhaps one of the most memorable things that I read about today was the story of Kay Smith Pedrotti and Gloria Ward. Both stood on opposite sides of the civil rights movement, the former being white and the latter black. Pedrotti supported segregation while Ward championed full integration of African Americans in everyday life. 35 years later, in 1998 Pedrotti and Ward finally met and reconciled with Pedrotti saying that “It took 35 years to find Gloria—and forgiveness of my racist past” (cited on a poster in the Old Zion Baptist Church, Albany, GA).
Later in the day we visited the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. This nonprofit civil rights organization was founded in 1971 by civil rights lawyers Morris Dees and Joseph Levin Jr. The SPLC is internationally known for tracking and exposing the activities of numerous hate groups most famously the United Klans of America in 1981. Its activities resulted in the United Klans of America going bankrupt. Our group also learned about Viola Liuzzo a white married mother of five and civil rights activist who lived in Minnesota. In the early 1960s she saw what was happening in Alabama and left her family and traveled alone to Alabama in her car and helped out in the civil rights movement, joyfully ferrying activists from place to place. Her activities came to a tragic end when she was hunted down by KKK activists and brutally murdered in 1965. I was told that the then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover planted misinformation on her to question her integrity a perception that many believed in, including her children, and it was only in the last 10 years that they came to learn the truth about their mother. Viola Liuzzo’s story has been portrayed in a documentary called Home of the Brave. What amazed most of us in the group was the continued persistence of racist and hate groups which have apparently proliferated after the election of the current President Barack Obama. The SPLC’s continues to vigorously pursue such groups by taking them to court.
Outside the building is a simple yet powerful memorial to 40 civil rights activists who gave their lives in the pursuit of civil rights agendas. Designed by architect Maya Lin (of Vietnam Memorial fame), the circular black marble base with a fount of water at its center was built in 1989. The water flowing over the names of the activists is inspired by Martin Luther King Jr’s paraphrase of Amos 5:24 “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
This heavy dose of religious faith, activism, violence, tragedy, and triumph made this third day of our tour a rather heavy one to process. I was particularly moved by the well-known case of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh from India, who was gunned down in the wake of 911 because his assailant wanted to “kill a Muslim.” Sodhi’s death reminded me of the worry experienced by members of my own family, living in New York, in the wake of 911. Was Sodhi a victim of 911? Apparently, the state of Arizona did not think so and for some time toyed with the idea of removing his name from a memorial for victims of 911. In May 2011 the state backed down in deference to the wishes of the Sodhi family and thousands of individuals who had petitioned on their behalf. That is where the matter rests, for now. More details are available at http://www.saldef.org/news/victory-arizona-governor-vetoes-anti-sodhi-memorial-bill/
Tomorrow will be another day.
SELMA, ALABAMA, AND MUCH MORE, 15 June 2011
Today we visited sites of civil rights protests in Alabama, mostly in Montgomery and Selma.
The first was the Lowndes County Interpretive Center, in White Hall, AL. In 1964, this county was the site of intense racism, inequality, deprivation, intimidation, and violence. While 80% of the county was made up of African Americans, it did not have a single African American registered voter! The interpretive center is administered by the National Park Service.
Immediately thereafter we went to Wallace Community College to meet with Rev. Frederick Reese who was President of the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) who spoke to us about his experiences organizing voting marches and protests and trying to increase the number of voters in the county (the real increase in numbers came later with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964). Sprightly, articulate and looking a youthful 82 years, he gave an account of the teachers march in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Central to his protest and demand for equality was his Christian faith and he made no excuses for it. He remains convinced that it was his faith that sustained, motivated, and empowered him to act as he did. He figures prominently in surviving videos of the civil rights movement in Selma. We also met James Perkins the first African-American mayor of Selma (2000-2008).
Lunch was at a soulfood buffet on Highway 80 called “Plantation Inn” and provided a rich fare of corn, okra, collared greens, fried & grilled chicken, pork, black beans, broccoli, mashed potatoes, macaroni & cheese topped off with peach cobbler, bread… The story of how this repertoire of culinary meanings and practices that make up soulfood was assembled is a fascinating one, but its retelling will have to await another occasion. But you might recall Jake Diaz’s presentation on this subject at Messiah in February 2011.
At “Plantation” we were introduced to Ms. Joanne Bland, a civil right activist who was 11 years old when she participated in the “Bloody Sunday” march from Salem to Montgomery (7 March 1965). In particular she experienced the brutality of state troopers who rushed the marchers at the, now infamous, Edmund Petters bridge assault. She spoke about her experiences with a caustic wit that was irreverent to the niceties of polite conversation. Her accounts of life in pre-integration Salem revealed the deep unrelenting, daily brutality of segregation in the south. From riding buses, to treatment in offices, the patronizing gaze of the wealthy elites of plantation society, and the terror tactics of the KKK clearly brought the situation to a boil by the early 1960s.
Ms Bland took us through a tour of Selma and we saw the different sections of the city which was by and large integrated (barring the golf course!!). We visited the Zion United Methodist Church (where the protesters commenced their marches), the Perry County jail, the Jimmie Lee Jackson Gravesite (killed during the protests while trying to shield his mother from a state trooper), and the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute (which was under renovation). We also visited the Edmund Petters bridge, mentioned earlier, and it was touching to be at the same spot that had seared the conscience of a nation and the world in 1965.
On the way back to Montgomery we stopped to visit the Viola Liuzzo Memorial (see previous post). This was followed by dinner was at a diner called Dreamz, whose owners were involved in civil rights cases calling for integration of the schools in Montgomery.
Visiting smaller places like Selma gave me a valuable insight into the personal perspectives of participants in the Selma to Montgomery march. In a city of Atlanta, discerning the racial divide required some digging around, whereas in Selma, it seemed to be lying just below the surface. I also realized that the Civil Rights movement has no single narrative. Rather, it is made up multiple narratives that sometime jostle to find expression in the public sphere. Since some of these sites are of national historic value, they fall under the jurisdiction of the state and its agencies which invariably try to insert “an official” voice into the brochures, notice boards, and audio visual presentations. Nowhere did this become so clear as in front of the Zion United Methodist Church in Marion, Alabama. Here a National Park Service information board on the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail announced that a the “American people” were the “confluence” of “two fundamental ideals”—“democratic equality and nonviolent protest”! Certain white groups would no doubt have another view of these events and their memorials. For instance, one notice posted by a southern group in Selma’s Town Hall declared a sesquential celebration of the “War for Southern Independence” a.k.a the Civil War. In addition to this the surviving participants of the civil rights movement have their own memories, understandings, rememberings and forgettings that do not always coalesce to create a neat linear narrative. The Civil Rights movement is a diagnostic event that captures the agency of a variety of historical actors—the agency of ordinary people, memory, state and nationalist erasures or incorporations of local events and histories to produce the national character of a people…the list could go on and on…And then there are the painful stories of segregation, too painful to share here…
The racial divides persist here in Alabama and elsewhere…
MONTGOMERY & BIRMINGHAM, AL, 16 June 2011
We spent half our day in Montgomery, AL visiting the homes of activists and churches that were sites of civil rights activism. These included the home of Johnnie Carr, close friend of Rosa Parks and longtime President of the Montgomery Improvement Association. The Dexter Parsonage, home to Martin Luther King when he was pastor of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (1954-1960). We also visited the First Baptist Church where Dr. Ralph Abernathy, the civil rights leader and close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. pastored for eight years from 1952-1961. We also visited the Holt Street Baptist Church which was a place from where King, Abernathy, and others mobilized people for the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956). Needless to say, these visits brought home the central role played by the African-American church, its leaders, and the faith of ordinary citizens in taking the road to non-violent protest in the pursuit of freedom, equality, and justice for themselves.
The second half of the day was spent in Birmingham, AL first at the Civil Rights Institute where we spent some time studying the exhibits. We were treated to a rich display of artifacts, photographs, films, and literature from the period that confirmed what we had seen, heard, and read about the Civil Rights Movement—the painful and long drawn struggle of African-Americans (and other groups) to gain equal rights in the face of institutionalized racism, the complicity of many white churches, and the violence, humiliation, and beatings dished out by police, the KKK, and individual white citizens in Alabama and other southern states. The incidents of violence are too numerous to detail here…but consider this: The Rev. Frank Shuttlesworth was severely beaten by a mob when he showed up to register his children at an all white school!! Shuttlesworth went to jail about 35 times, his house was repeatedly bombed, and he was attacked, insulted, and beaten on other occasions. Undaunted, he continued to pursue civil rights issues…one person I wished I could have met (he is still alive and I believe lives in Ohio). Read about him if you can… Another stunning incident was the case of 13 year old Virgil “Peanut” Ware who was shot by Larry Sims as he was riding his brother’s bicycle. Sims, a 16 year old white boy who was an Eagle Scout and a straight A student. Sims served 6 months in a juvenile center and was then released. Thomas Blanton who was the main accused in the 16th street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 (which resulted in the deaths of 4 innocent children) was convicted of his crime only in 2001, nearly 40 years later!! Many accused simply were let off by the all-white juries of the time. There are numerous instances of such crimes being committed, often with the perpetrators either being set scot free or never being discovered!! What struck me in all this was the power of racism to pervade the lives of ordinary people to the extent that they lost their humanity despite their education and participation in the church! I also realized that had I been in the United States south in these time, I would have had to “keep my place” and stay in line, or at least my side of the racial line…no guesses on what that would have been. I will not try to hide the fact that, this has not always been easy to digest…
Anyway, after this, I went across the street from the Institute to the 16th street Baptist Church, the site of the infamous bombing mentioned above. Earlier, in the bus we had watched a film by Spike Lee called “Four Little Girls,” which covered the bombing of the 16th street Baptist Church in Birmingham which resulted in the deaths of 4 innocent girls– 11-year-old Denise McNair and three 14-year-olds: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins.
MEMPHIS, TN, AND THE MARTYRDOM OF MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr., 17 June 2011
Our journeying today took us out of Alabama, through Mississippi to Tennessee. After a 4 hour journey we visited the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. While my knowledge of music is not stellar, it became quickly apparent that the soul music Stax represented in the 1950s & 60s, which was a unique blend of gospel and blues, resulted in the creation of musical partnerships that transcended existing racial divides. The museum provided a glimpse of the history of the company and its ups and downs all the way down to the present. The music store looked, to my untrained eye, very rich in its offereing…but ultimately I settled for a sticker!!
We next headed for the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis (TN) which was also the site for the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on 4 April 1968. The museum provides a rich overload of information about various aspects of the civil rights movement through photographs, videos, audios, and artifacts. I enjoyed in particular the audio tape of the conversation between John Kennedy and Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett concerning James Meredith, who had enrolled at the all-white University of Mississippi. Meredith was an army veteran who endured a lot of abuse from white opponents was able to study at the University only after federal marshals and troops were deployed to ensure safe passage for him.
While there are innumerable instances of discrimination against African Americans, consider the following:
In 1939 African-American singer Marian Anderson (1897-1993) an internationally recognized singer was refused permission by the Daughters of the Revolution to perform in front of an integrated audience in Constitution Hall, in Washington DC. She was denied permission on grounds of being black. The city was a segregated city and Anderson’s treatment resulted in thousands of members of the Daughters of the Revolution, including Eleanor Roosevelt resigning from the organization.
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, I noted the following posters in images in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis that were responses to civil rights calls for integration:
“Governor Faubius please save our Christian America”
“Save our Constitution”
“Mixing Race is Communism”
Stores that allowed integration saw protesters with placards warning white customers about “race mixing” going on in the such business establishments.
I did not know that the Armed Forces rejected blood donations from Black soldiers and when they later did, they kept them in segregated storage facilities! I also did not know that there were “reverse freedom rides” where southern white groups sent black citizens who were unemployed or in jail to Northern cities to test the seriousness of their support for the rights of African Americans!
After the Museum we drove out to meet with Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles of the Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis who was one of the three Reverends at the balcony of Lorraine Motel when MLK Jr was assassinated on April 4,1968 (the other two were Martin Luther King himself, and Rev. Abernathy, both deceased). Rev Kyles shared with the group the events as they unfolded on that fateful day. His eyewitness account was touching and he his idea that he had to be there to give witness to the event. Witnessing is what completes death on the cross and he had to witness his friend’s martyrdom. Incidentally, King was on his way to Rev. Kyle’s home for dinner. He also reflected on Martin Luther King’s “I have been to the mountaintop” speech the previous day in Memphis, and how no one knew that this was going to be his last public address where King shared the news that he might not make it to the end of the civil rights movement. I was also touched by his assertion that throughout the civil rights movement he never took things personally, that is, he did not allow events to get the better of him and cause him to hate his opponents. He also shared instances of poignant reconciliation with white neighbors and even strangers in the years following integration. Probably, nearly 80 years in age, Rev. Kyle continues to work as a full time pastor at Monumental Baptist church.
We also watched three documentaries—one on the role of children in the civil rights protest marches in Birmingham called “The Children’s March.” I learned about the critical and enthusiastic role played by children and the contributions of organizers like James Bevel. The second documentary, “At the River I stand,” which was about the protests of the Memphis sanitation workers. Finally, “Respect Yourself: The STAX Records Story,” gave a wonderful account of the development of soul music tradition through STAX, a Memphis based independent music production company. I learned about the music of various artists like Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Estelle Axton, and Isaac Hayes.
Most of us are dead beat and will probably sleep almost immediately when we hit our beds. Tomorrow we leave for Little Rock, Arkansas.
LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS, 1957, 18 June 2011
Little Rock in Arkansas was the site of a courageous movement to integrate schools in that state. 9 young men and women decided to study in the all-white Central High in Little Rock, AK. Horrified, indignant, and shocked at this demand for equality of access to education, white crowds gathered, rioted, and badgered these 9 students. Placards displaced messages that called for the preservation of Christian faith through segregation, decrying racial “mixing” and so on. Such a sentiment might seem anachronistic to most of us, and I wondered at the source of such a sentiment. I don’t have any answers….but perhaps somewhere deep down in their hearts, the men and women who made up these mobs, perhaps realized that their worlds were coming to an end. They—the (im)moral world order on which it was based—segregation—the heart of their world was being dismantled—and along with it a panoply of legal rules, local customs, and all its pathological practices (the KKK, separate places for consumption of food, travel, and even worshipping God)…This perhaps does not really explain it all…and all this continues to baffle me…Segregation is certainly a pathological condition, it would seem to me…and it afflicted communities in the South as well as in the North. I guess, they were struggling with the question of diversity…and I wonder how will all this go down as the country and the world continues to diversify…will we succeed in becoming more inclusive…?
Anyway, the Central High school is today a national historic monument and perhaps the only functioning school placed under the jurisdiction of the National Parks Service. The school was closed but at the Little Rock 9 Visitor Center we had the privilege of meeting with Dr. Minnijean Brown Trickery one of the original Little Rock 9. Dr. Brown-Trickery who is now a diversity trainer, currently holds the Shipley Visiting Writer Fellowship at Arkansas State University. She shared vignettes from her time at the school (she was unjustly expelled from the school and did not complete her education there), her life in Canada and now in the United States. At the museum we also met her daughter Spirit Trickery and later all of us went to Sims Barbecue for lunch. While meeting her, and hearing her life stories will always be treasured by me, I was also sobered by the hate, invective, and violence they suffered why responding in a non-violent manner. One of the markers of the civil rights movement is the consistent practice of non-violence and the peaceful, but firm manner in which they carried out their protests. This has been truly inspirational and Gandhi’s foundational role in helping civil rights leaders to do this cannot be discounted. We also went to the “Testament” Little Rock 9 statue at the Capital Building in Little Rock where all 9 have been immortalized in a sculpture. The 9 have received honorary doctorates, government awards, and even can be found in commemorate coins and stamps! And 8 of them are still alive!
Our long hours on the bus provided an opportunity to engage events like Little Rock and the Freedom Riders through documentaries like “Journey to Little Rock,” and “Little Rock High.” We also saw a film called “Freedom’s Song.”
We also spent a lot of time discussing what we were experiencing, viewing, and feeling. It has been a long journey indeed for me…trying to understand all these details intellectually, racially (I realize the importance of this category in the United States), and even spiritually. And how can reconciliation be worked out in this context? For example, have churches in Little Rock taken real meaningful steps to apologize and begin the real task of integration? Ironically, churches in the United States continue to remain largely segregated…perhaps the one institution the civil rights movement was not able to transform! That is the irony of it all.
We are spending the night in Nashville.
NASHVILLE, 19 June 2011
“God is the author of segregation, Gen 9: 25-27.” Yet another placard held by white demonstrators displayed its message on one of the photos in the Nashville Public Library in Nashville, TN.
But most of today was about something else…and if there was a theme that could tie it all together…it would be “Remembering the Freedom Riders.” We met with a number of Freedom Riders—Rip Patton, Kwame Lillard, Matthew Walker, Joseph Charles Jones, Etta Marie Simpson, and Joy Reagan Leonard. All of them eloquently articulated their stories and recalled with pride their participation in the freedom rides. They shared, often untold experiences on their Freedom Ride. I also asked various individuals about Governor John Patterson of Alabama who was interviewed in “The Freedom Riders.” I thought it was a carefully orchestrated interview and he steered away from any kind of apology for the poor treatment of civil rights protesters in Alabama under his tenure in the 1950s and 1960s. For the moment it seems that this is all we have got, opined one observer and civil rights activist.
At the Nashville Public Library, a beautiful building with wonderful facilities for reading and research, we observed the launch of an exhibition “Threads of a Story: History Inspiring Art.” The German artist Charlotta Janssen, had made oil portraits of individuals, white and black, men and women involved in the Civil Rights movement from their mugshots or booking photographs. Janssen’s work represents newer strands in the story of the civil rights movement…suggesting that there are different ways of remembering the event…and this perhaps has a lot to do with where we are coming from. Janssen is from Germany and this exhibition was about her interior journey about how she became part of this story of civil rights and her thankfulness of being engage…She talked about how Barack Obama’s election made her feel part of the unfolding story of America… Charlotta’s artistic intervention in this story is indicative of immigrant retellings of the civil rights story, and room must be made for such imaginations…and there will be many more similar interventions in days to come. There might be disputes about the content of the paintings, as different individuals and groups have their own versions of what took place in the civil rights movement or how it should be remembered. The Civil Rights is interesting because many of its actors are still alive which means that there many more ways to remember and forget the movement. The living survivors have different recollections of the event and in Nashville, I realized there was a feeling that Nashville’s role in the movement must never be diminished and needs to reemphasized. I could go on here…but how we remember the civil rights movement and represent it, is fascinating.
Later, Kwame Lillard took us around on a tour of the city of Nashville and told about the important places which were sites of the civil right movement. This included a visit to the Nashville National Cemetery where we visited the graves of the colored troops. We also visited Oprah Winfrey’s father, Vernon Winfrey, who greeted the group and spoke a few words. After this we drove to Cincinnati reaching our hotel by 10.40pm. Tomorrow is the last day of our tour.
We watched documentaries like “Road to Freedom” and “Prom Night in Mississippi.” The latter documentary was about film actor Morgan Freeman’s efforts to desegregate a high school prom event in Charleston, Mississippi. Believe it or not…as late as 2008 (!) the school had separate prom dances for African Americans and white students! In the end an integrated prom dance was held, which Freeman paid for. However, an all white prom was held as well, and attended by a small group of students. We also watched a movie, based on true events called “Blood Done Sign My Name” about the murder of a Vietnam veteran by a white businessman and the case that followed.
OUR FINAL DAY AND FINAL THOUGHTS, 20 June 2011
While much of the civil rights movement has been talked about (in the past week) in terms of desegregating public spaces, providing equal opportunities, and changing laws concerning employment, access to education, voting rights, etc etc. Attempts to desegregate were also being made in other areas of life, using other means. Today’s visit to Clearview Golf Club in New Canton, OH brought this home to me. Dr. William Powell, a World War II veteran and an aficionado of golf from a very early age built this golf course with his own hands in 1946. In those days golf courses were segregated. He tried to get a loan, but he was denied a loan and then ultimately was helped by his elder brother and some friends to start up the golf course…for everyone. So Dr. Powell integrated golf by building his own golf course that would be inclusive. In 2009 the PGA awarded him its highest award—the Distinguished Service Award (It took the PGA 52 years to reach this conclusion!! But glad they did it). Dr. Powell died on 31 August 2009 at the age of 91. The club is now operated by his daughter Dr. Renee Powell and son Fred Powell. Renee Powell is a celebrated golf player and instructor who has received multiple awards, citations, and prizes. The club offers camps, training, and scholarships for deserving students.
At Clearview, we were provided lunch and a historical overview of the place. Dr. Renee Powell provided me a brief lesson on how to swing a golf club! I hope it did not look like me playing cricket or swinging an axe!
The Civil Rights Tour has now ended and we are all now at home. But the memories of the trip and its implications will continue to unfold in days to come. We did watch some documentaries like “Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306” which was Rev. “Billy” Kyles eyewitness account of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We also watched a short documentary called on Dr. William Powell the founder of Clearview Golf Club called “Last Memory: Bill Powell of Clearview Golf Club.
I will be reflecting on many aspects of this trip for months to come. Indeed, it gave me a view of the Civil Rights movement that is remarkably different from what is retailed in books, media, and conversations. Being in the actual places in conjunctions with readings, watching audio visuals, and talking to participants was a something else…it gave me a feel of the movement quite unlike anything else I have known…especially the historic struggle of African American communities in the face of hatred, revulsion, and violence committed on them at many times and places.
I also arrived at the conclusion that the Civil Rights Movement was cobbled out of spontaneous movements and organized protests conducted by civic organizations. Most of us have heard of the NAACP or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But there were still others like the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee or “snick” ), Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACHMR), CORE, and many others. While some of these organizations were well known national organizations, others like the Birmingham Community Affairs Committee, Alabama Council on Human Relations, and the Montgomery Improvement Association operated on a more regional, local, or urban level. The SCLC in 1963 boasted a 1 million dollar budget and 100 employees (Steven Kasher, The Civil Rights Movement, p. 92). These civic organizations, their leaders and cadre played an important role in strategizing and mobilizing people to action. Careful exposure to the media took the movement not just to every living room in America, but even abroad. Newly independent Asian and African nations looked closely to the US government to see how it would respond to racism.
I wondered, as one of our speakers saw it, that the approximately 6 million African Americans who migrated to the north since the early 20th century were not migrants….but “refugees.” But could this act of voting with the feet be represented in such a fashion? What would historians of the United States think of such a view?
Nationalist historians would not be too happy with this interpretation, I suppose.
This tour has been a pilgrimage for me. It seems that the tour had to do with more than just the collection of information. It is personal, having to do with shaping one’s identity, self-perception, and understanding of one’s nation and location in the world. It evoked strong emotions and convinced me about the importance of race in the history of this country…a history that has a dark underside that will make reconciliation no easy task. But it did change our world as it drew on the works of international activists like “Mahatma” Gandhi. As Margaret Mead once observed, “Never doubt a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I agree.