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Full Circle

Take a 500-mile pilgrimage through Georgia and Alabama to the heart of the civil rights era.

Exhibit on Civil Rights and Rosa Parks

— Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Day Three: Birmingham to Montgomery, Alabama

(Interstate 65 or U.S. 31 South; approximately 95 miles)
The crucial lesson of the Southern civil rights movement, often obscured by its sheer drama and mesmerizing personalities, is that ordinary people found their own voices and learned to raise them.

Montgomery, Alabama, became a great symbol of this in the 1950s. I sensed it as I walked along what was once Cleveland Avenue now called Rosa L. Parks Avenue and as I stood outside the home of E. D. Nixon (647 Clinton Avenue). He was a Pullman porter who became head of the Montgomery NAACP and who recruited a young Martin Luther King, Jr., to help with the landmark 1955 bus boycott. King served as pastor right near here, at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, in the shadow of the Alabama State Capitol. Wandering among these shrines, I couldn't help thinking about the bonds of community. And the way fate sometimes loads the dice.

Rosa Parks, a seamstress at a downtown department store, was feeling tired on December 1, 1955, when the bus she had boarded at Court Square reached the Empire Theater stop between Lee and Molton Streets (where a plaque now stands). The driver ordered her to surrender her seat to a white passenger, and the story might have ended there. But Parks and her husband, Raymond, had worked with the NAACP for years. She refused, and was arrested for disorderly conduct.

The notion of a bus system boycott was nothing new in the black community, where it had been simmering for a long time. Now, word of Parks's arrest reached Alabama State University, founded as a private school for ex-slaves in 1867. Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor, mobilized the local Women's Political Council to mimeograph leaflets calling for a boycott. Thousands were handed out at street corners and in beauty shops, bars, and factories.

Day Four: Montgomery to Selma, Alabama

(U.S. 80 West; approximately 50 miles)
"Y'all know Harriet Tubman?" asks Joanne Bland, a tall, engaging woman. She's been guiding a group of visitors through the small National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in downtown Selma (1012 Water Avenue).

Right now, Bland, the museum director, is probing a group of high school students from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

"What about Annie Cooper?" Bland's eyes linger on a couple of the girls. "They didn't put her in your schoolbooks, but she's my she-roe! Went to the courthouse [to register to vote] and they threw her out. Sheriff beat her with a billy club. And she fought right back!"

Ms. Cooper was hauled off to jail with a fractured skull that day. Now 93, she still lives in Selma. And she lives on Annie Cooper Avenue.

The museum sits at the foot of Edmund Pettus Bridge, where on the infamous "Bloody Sunday" of March 7, 1965, a group of voting rights marchers were driven off by state troopers and Sheriff Jim Clark's posse. After the police riot, Pettus Bridge refugees fled eastward. Many jammed into the sanctuary at Brown Chapel AME Church (410 Martin Luther King, Jr., Street). Refugees filled the sanctuary under siege as horse-mounted posse members rode up the steps of the church.

But it is not that ugly drama that Richie Jean Jackson, who conducts tours of the church, wants to stress. Jackson, a retired schoolteacher, shares a story of strength. She recalls a gathering led by Dr. King at the church, two days after Bloody Sunday. "Close your eyes," she says as she sits with me in the quiet chapel. "Feel the magic, feel this sanctuary. Can you feel 900 to 1,200 people sitting as tight as they can, sometimes having to raise their heads just to get a little breath of air? Picture Dr. King preaching, teaching, calming. Feel him in your mind's eye." Ever the teacher, Jackson has a lesson for me: Look at what these people reached inside themselves and found. We live better because of it not perfectly, but better.

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