The days of the civil rights movement seem distant now. But the memories, the sights, and the spirit of that remarkable era endure as I discovered when I traced a five-day, 500-mile loop through Georgia and Alabama.
I knew the route well. During the early 1960s I was a field secretary in the South with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). If you, like me, decide to follow this road and walk in the footsteps of the courageous pioneers who passed this way and lived in these places, don't stop with the official sights. Make an effort to talk to local people. Let their memories and their voices pace your journey.
Day One: Atlanta
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s hometown is the perfect place to start. Atlanta is easy to get to, with plenty of hotels and motels to fit any budget.
Urban, urbane Atlanta may be the least "Southern" of southern cities, but much civil rights history was written on its streets. Although it boasted of being "the city too busy to hate," it was still segregated in the early 1960s.
Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was based in Atlanta (and still is, at 591-A Edgewood Avenue). In his spare time, King usually rested, wrote, and preached at his father's church, Ebenezer Baptist, a recently restored gem at 407 Auburn Avenue. Sadly, Ebenezer is a rare bright spot along the now depressed thoroughfare dubbed "the richest Negro street in the world" byForbesmagazine in 1956 and still called Sweet Auburn by many locals. Elsewhere, the street's ramshackle housing and empty storefronts stand as evidence that not all of Dr. King's dreams have been realized.
A good place to stop next on your visit to this National Historic Site and Preservation District is King's birthplace, a modest two-story Queen Anne-style frame home (501 Auburn). Down the road, the National Park Service manages a visitors center (450 Auburn) with thematic alcoves that portray aspects of the civil rights movement. Across the street, the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change (449 Auburn) is part of the Preservation District. Inside, the Center exhibits Dr. King's Nobel Peace Prize and other memorabilia. And you can sit by the reflecting pool and contemplate the life of King, whose crypt is at the pool's center.
Day Two: Atlanta to Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama
(Interstate 20 or U.S. 78 West; approximately 150 miles)
As you drive from Atlanta toward Birmingham, you are roughly following the course of the Freedom Rides of 1961. These rides, launched by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), went from town to town by bus, testing local compliance with federal orders to desegregate interstate bus terminals. The first group (both black and white riders) traveled for 10 days relatively incident free, but after leaving Atlanta they didn't get far. At the Greyhound terminal in Anniston, about an hour from Atlanta, their bus was surrounded by a white mob carrying pipes, bats, knives, and bricks. They slashed the tires and pursued the escaping bus, which limped to a stop along the road out of town. Then came the smashing of windows and a firebomb through the broken back window. The fuel tank caught fire and the mob scattered.
"That's how we got out," recalled Henry "Hank" Thomas, a Freedom Rider I'd looked up in Atlanta.
There is no marker where this took place, just a scattering of fast food shops. In 2001, when Thomas and other Freedom Riders retraced their route on the 40th anniversary, the mayor of Anniston and a cheering crowd greeted them. "I was overcome with emotion," says Thomas. "I was thinking, Look, they're cheering us 40 years ago they wanted to kill us."
There's a replica of that burned-out bus at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (520 Sixteenth Street North). It's a chilling sight. The Institute anchors a six-block Civil Rights District that includes the red brick Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (1530 Sixth Avenue North), where on September 15, 1963, four young girls were killed in a bomb blast set off by Ku Klux Klansmen. Civil rights demonstrators used to meet at Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from the Institute. Now, amidst the park's magnolia trees, you'll find scattered bronze statues: police dogs on the attack...children in jail...and three praying ministers.
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.
I ate lunch at the charmingly renovated riverfront St. James Hotel (1200 Water Avenue, right near the bridge). This place was popular with slaveholders perhaps even with Mr. Howell Rose, who "owned" my great-great-grandfather in nearby Wetumpka, Alabama. I wondered what he'd think of me sitting there now. Or of Selma's African American mayor, James Perkins, Jr.
Day Five: Selma to Lowndes County and Tuskegee, Alabama; return to Atlanta
(U.S. 80 East to U.S. 29 or Interstate 85 North; approximately 210 miles)
The civil rights marchers who walked from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 camped on various black-owned farms, and signs along Highway 80 point them out. But another memory overtakes me along the way. Forty-three miles of this "freedom trail" (so designated by the National Park Service) pass through Lowndes County. During the march, a small group of my fellow SNCC organizers, including Stokely Carmichael, slipped into the area to begin a voter registration campaign. This work resulted in a political party the Lowndes County Freedom Organization and the symbol of that party was a black panther.
Shortly before his death in 1998, Carmichael reflected on the reaction to the panther symbol. "Some thought the symbol might be too aggressive, but when we explained to folks that the panther was powerful but avoided attacking humans unless provoked, they liked that." A volunteer with the group brought that Alabama panther back home to Oakland, California and to the attention of Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Soon the Black Panthers were a national presence.
Lowndes County is as rural now as it was then. There are still people living without sewers or septic tanks; a third of the county's 13,500 residents live in mobile homes. "History could very well be our economic lifeline," says Bob Mants, an Atlanta native who came to Lowndes to organize voters nearly 40 years ago and never left. On the campgrounds that civil rights marchers once used, Mants envisions historic tours, hiking and exercise trails, and produce markets for area farmers.
Heading back toward Atlanta, there is time for a quick stop at Tuskegee University founded in 1880 for black students under its first president, Booker T. Washington. Nearby is Moton Field, where the famed black Tuskegee Airmen learned to fly. You are just two hours from Atlanta. Still plenty of time to reflect on freedom and to whisper a prayer of thanks for the people who make it.
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., is senior correspondent for All Africa Global Media.
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