I recently drove to Florida and took a detour to Alabama to see three civil rights memorials which had been on my mind for quite some time:
1) the Birmingham, Alabama, location of the jail where Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail;
2) the Edmund Pettus Bridge – the site of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama; and,
3) the memorial to slain civil rights workers created by Maya Lin and located in Montgomery, Alabama, at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
I planned my stops to visit Birmingham first, then Selma, then Montgomery, the Alabama state capital.
The Birmingham jail was a modern building, and, from the looks of it, I am sure it was not the original building where Martin Luther King, Jr. spent his time. A police officer assured me it was the location but not the original jail. He graciously took me on a short tour and opened a locked courtroom so I could see where the alleged defendants appear and plead. I found myself wondering how one pleads when the “crime” is asking for recognition of basic human dignities and respect.
Birmingham has several other civil rights sights, but I did not have time to see them – so, next time. I left the jail a little disappointed but understanding that time moves on and buildings such as jails seldom withstand that march of time. I had envisioned, unrealistically, that I would somehow actually see the dark, gloomy cell with its small window where Dr. King sat and wrote by the fading daylight.
I got into my truck and headed for Selma. My one son had given me a plug-in GPS that he no longer needed, and I had been using it on the trip. I found myself getting quite annoyed at the voice challenging me with the worn-out phrase “recalculating.” I knew darn well where I was going, and I didn’t need the mouthy GPS to tell me differently – although I have to give it credit for some of its advice.
The route to Selma took me through the Alabama countryside along peaceful and tranquil back roads. The terrain was hilly with picturesque hollows and ridges. As I drove along at an easy clip, I found myself thinking about the ugliness of dragging blacks out to deserted areas, beating them savagely, and then hanging them – their lifeless, bloodied bodies the remnants of their only “crime” – to be born black . I pictured the Klan meeting down in a hollow, long flowing white robes with hoods covering faces, fires burning in the night, and hate spewing from lips.
As I approached Selma, I saw signs noting that the Edmund Pettus Bridge was not far away, but the signs had no indication of the Bridge’s role in civil rights history. Perhaps the lack of acknowledgment was intentional. Why would city residents remind visitors of their hometown’s role in one of the bloodier moments of civil rights history?
Selma’s main street – Route 80 – leads right to the Edmund Pettus Bridge – it cannot be missed. As I headed down main street, the bridge loomed in front of me, an arch bridge of grayish hue spanning the Alabama River as it flows through Selma. I parked along a side street with brick sidewalks and walked to the bridge. The sun was bright with no clouds in the sky, but it was January, and it was cold. As we anticipate an event, sometimes we are disappointed. I was not disappointed in the bridge.
Now close to 46 years ago, the Bloody Sunday march began on March 7, 1965, and became a powerful symbol of the civil rights struggle in the south. The march was organized to protest the killing of a protester who had been fatally shot by an Alabama state trooper. Six hundred marchers assembled in Selma on that Sunday in 1965 and, led by the groups, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River en route to Montgomery.
Just short of the bridge, they found their way blocked by Alabama State troopers and local police who ordered them to turn around. When the protesters refused, the officers shot teargas and waded into the crowd, beating the nonviolent protesters with billy clubs and ultimately hospitalizing over fifty people.
Two weeks later, on Sunday, March 21, 1965, the marchers advanced again, this time 3200 strong. Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., who weighed the right of mobility against the right to march and ruled in favor of the demonstrators:
“The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups…,and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.”
As I walked slowly along, I visualized the hundreds of people lined up on the bridge, jostling and waiting to start their trek over the bridge. I tried to imagine the chaos as the police blocked their path, determined not to allow them across the bridge to disturb the quiet of a Selma Sunday. I tried to visualize the first tear gas thrown and the first blow of the billy club.
I really wanted to linger much longer in the bright yet cold January sun – gazing out on the Alabama River and just thinking about the struggles that occurred simply so a people could be free. But I had to move on to Montgomery to my third goal – the Maya Lin memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
CIVIL RIGHTS MEMORIAL – SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER
My last stop was Montgomery and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) with its huge black granite civil rights memorial created by Maya Lin, who also designed the Vietnam Wall. The memorial was commissioned to honor those who died during the struggle for civil rights.
Montgomery is built on hills, and I had a bit of a time finding the Center – parking spaces were also at a premium. I finally found a parking place and set out for the memorial, which was about a block away. The memorial is set out in front of the Center’s offices in a recessed area, and, as I approached it, I noticed there were chains across the two openings with signs warning of ice. The chains were to keep visitors away from the area where the water had splashed onto the ground and frozen. I did not see much ice on the ground. Come on, I thought, I am from the land of the frozen north – a little ice is nothing.
And, let’s face it; I had driven almost 700 miles to get up close to this memorial, and I was not about to stand ten feet away, content with just looking and not touching. I took a few pictures from a distance – trying to decide whether or not I wanted to take a chance and move the chain on one side and enter into the “danger” zone. My desire to stand by the granite table and actually put my hand in the water as it flowed over the sides got the best of me.
I looked around, and, seeing no one, I moved the chain back and slid into the area, replacing the chain. The memorial was only three or so feet away, and I walked up to it – I couldn’t believe I was here after reading about the memorial and seeing a documentary about Maya Lin. I took a couple of pictures and then placed my hand on the top of the table to feel the cold water.
I placed my hand in the cold water and understood – this was a remembrance of history all gathered in one place on a black granite memorial. A memorial to make us think and remember. I wasn’t at these momentous happenings but as I was tracing a pattern in the water and reading the dates of important civil rights events, I felt a connection to that part of our history.
I was deep in thought when I heard someone say, “Excuse me.” I looked toward the building and didn’t see anyone, but I heard the voice again. I turned around, and a security officer was standing on the sidewalk. He told me what I already knew – that I wasn’t supposed to be in that area.
I apologized profusely and told him I had gotten several pictures. I would leave – not that I had a choice. I told him I had driven almost 700 miles, and I just wanted to touch the memorial and place my hand in the water. He was very kind and polite but firm.
In a somber mood, I exited the memorial and walked back to my truck to head on my way to Florida and another new and exciting experience – while not of historical import – of an air boat ride on Arbuckle Creek and Lake Istokpoga.