Our family needed to get away SO badly. After three long months of serious quarantining with daily walks and lots of outdoor time, the walls were closing in. When else ever in our lifetimes has the following existed: a work from home requirement, flights effectively grounded (for my traveling husband), and all kids’ sports and extra curricular activities cancelled? Like it or hate it, this perfect storm meant we could work from anywhere. So, we made a bold decision.
A little backstory. Back in March once school was virtual and work from home mandated, my husband and I were thinking about going away for the better part of a month; he began designing a driving tour south, through the heart of Civil Rights history, to put a personal experience to the traditional lessons and witness the more subtle insights not covered in text books. At the last minute, we chickened out. At the time, little was known about the coronavirus and spread of COVID-19; what if we began our drive, and states closed their borders? So, we tabled it. Fast forward to mid-June, states had started to reopen, albeit at different rates, but he was still grounded, and my office is still under a work from home advisory. Most if not all camps have been cancelled.
So, we packed up the car, the kids and the dog, and headed south down I-65 watching PBS’s “Eyes on the Prize” Civil Rights documentary to prepare us, first passing through Nashville, where we as a family learned some of the first lunch counter sit-ins took place. I-65 continued through Birmingham, Alabama, and we walked Kelly Ingram Park, where many civil rights clashes happened in the 1960s, all while listening to an audio tour of what transpired there. For the full audio tour, click HERE.
We saw the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham’s first black church, and where in 1963 a bombing killed four Sunday school students. I learned, the kids learned, such important parts of history that went beyond the classroom. We saw the spot where kids where blasted with fire hoses and threatened with police dogs for peacefully assembling. My kids were astonished; how this could happen? Earlier in June, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (which was unfortunately closed) bestowed the Fred L. Shuttesworth Human Rights award to Dr. Angela Y. Davis, which she accepted virtually. Read more about Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth HERE.
Next stop Tuscaloosa, where we stood in the doorway where Governor George Wallace blocked black students Vivian Malone and James Hood from enrolling in the University of Alabama. We confirmed the location by comparing the building’s façade from the black and white news footage showing Deputy US Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach coming to that spot where Wallace stood. Katzenbach asked Wallace three times to step aside and then temporarily departed saying “these two students will remain on campus, they will register today, they will go to school tomorrow, and they will go to this university during this summer session.” Later that day, the national guard was federalized (for the third time in US history to integrate schools) and the students enrolled. Today just beyond that door stands a plaza honoring those students.
Continuing south we found Selma; which has seen better days. We parked and walked across the Edmund Pettus bridge. This was the site of three marches from Selma to Montgomery, in protest of black citizens being denied their right to register to vote. Did you know, in the early 1960s, there were whole counties in Mississippi who did not have even one black person registered to vote? I didn’t. There were arcane voting registration “laws” which kept blacks from voting…that I did know, but often history texts don’t give the full story. I had learned about the marches, but not much about what led up to them. Black citizens would sometimes wait hours or all day to be heard at the registration place, only to have one person actually get an application, and then that application would later be denied. So, back to the marches of Selma. The first march, of approximately 500-600 people, was met by brutality, on March 7, 1965, led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams. Many left very injured. And then the second and third marches, a few weeks later, included John Lewis, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and others, successfully marching to the capital and peacefully assembling to push for the rights of black citizens to register to vote. I’m fielding multiple questions from my kids, among them, how does this happen? I don’t really have a good answer. We didn’t live it (my husband and I were born in the 1970s); but we took the opportunity to talk a lot about political culture, climate, and used a lot of documentaries to help.
Following the marcher’s footsteps, we
drove the 50 mile Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail. The original march took five days…..we did it in an hour, with air conditioning. The city of Montgomery provided a great audio tour, mapping out the sites of the downtown area. We visited most of them, but more importantly, we listened. We listened to the stories and the history, and among my favorite stops included the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the birthplace of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Alabama Department of Archives, which is the oldest archives in America. We saw some peaceful protests, and beautiful murals somewhere between art and graffiti, depending on your definition.
It would definitely be worth it to listen to the audio tour even without being able to visit. To access the audio tour, click Here.
I-65 continued south to the Florida panhandle and then later north home to Indy. Sandwiched between we enjoyed several low key days at a gulf beach, with lots more social distancing, working remotely, and eating take out or cooking at home, just with much better scenery.
While the trip made many memories, my hope is that my children have learned so much more about the history of the Civil Rights movement, and other important parts of history, as indeed I have. There are so many insights that run parallel to the racial challenges we continue to face today. And I can’t think of anything more American than that.