Author Archives: Jigme

Friday: Atlanta

On the last day of our trip, we drove to Atlanta and visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. Museum.  Everybody was thoroughly sick of everybody by now.  We have been through so much, and have seen such things, and we sang Freedom songs all day–except we didn’t know all the words, so it was usually the same verse over and over.

One of the things that first struck me about the Museum was the statue of Ghandi.  We’ve always mentioned Ghandi in our discussions of non-violence, but it was odd to see his monument in front of the Museum, and not Dr. King’s.

I spent a lot of time reading the anti-mysgenation laws exhibit.  How deep the fear of “mongerelizing” the white race must lie, if states had laws against black barbers cutting white women and children’s hair!  Not that I had a lot of faith in local governments before, but it was helpful to see the sheer amount of stupidity and legalized hate on an 8-foot-tall display.

Also, I thought the legislatures had an unhealthy obsession with Mongolians–surprising, considering the fact that the citizens of Louisiana have probably never seen a Mongolian in the late 1880s, or were even aware that Mongolia existed.  Prof. Arsenault explained that apparently, that was the term for all non-Indian Asians back in the day, which I found somewhat amusing.

The most remarkable parts of the Museum, at least to me, were the ones concerning Dr. King’s funeral.  First, there is the room in which the hearse that carried Dr. King’s body is displayed.

The walls are filled with newspapers, magazines, and pictures of his family.  It is an emotional place.  One of my fellow Riders, an undergrad, started sobbing, and my heart ached for her, too.  “He was a leader, but we forget that he was also a husband, a father,” she said in a broken voice.

Dr. and Mrs. King’s graves are marble monuments in the middle of a pool of turquoise water.  I remembered that a speaker at the Southern Poverty Law Center explained that they used water for their monuments, too, because “water is healing.”

We sat down by the pool, and, looking at the Eternal Flame that burns to the left of the monument, sang “This Little Light of Mine.”  I did not feel sad, my hand in the cool water.  All in my room, I’m gonna let it shine–two girls, daughters of Russian and German immigrants, singing an old “Negro” spiritual on Martin Luther King’s grave–let it shine let it shine let it shine.

So, that’s where the Freedom Ride took us.

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Thursday: Selma

It seemed hardly real that we would get to go home the next day, especially after Selma.

Selma, Alabama is a world apart from what most of my fellow students are used to. A sleepy Southern town is one thing, but Selma’s Deep South, and that’s a whole other animal.

There certainly is a lot of loveliness to it: historic homes, for example, or the gorgeous cemetery, where Confederate soldiers’ memorials hide under Spanish moss. Actually, the town is very proud of its Confederate heritage. No joke, I have heard people in the 21st century refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression, or, if they’re feeling politically correct, the War Between the States. My stepfather’s father would really get into it with his friend from Pennsylvania: damyankies this, rise again that.

So, it’s hard to miss all the Confederate flags flying around town. Almost immediately, that creates a threatening environment, what with the KKK adopting Confederate pride. I’ve never seen blatant signs of KKK activity in town, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it existed.

Most white people in Selma just want everyone to forget the violence that occurred in the Civil Rights Movement, because, frankly, it’s embarrassing. Many associate the phrase “Civil Rights” with Black Panthers (the group got started here, during the Selma-to-Montgomery march) and racial divisiveness, rather than Martin Luther King, holding hands, and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

My classmates, especially those who are black, expressed that it was the first place on this trip where they felt unwelcome, like they didn’t belong. We went to lunch at the Downtowner.

(“Why’d you go there?” my stepdad, a Selma native, asked, “That’s the place where the locals eat.”
“Where else would we eat?” I countered.
“Good point,” he replied.)

People were looking at us like we were from another planet. First, we were a large group of young people, which is something I’ve never seen in Selma. Second, our dress was starkly different from that of the local residents (some girls had pierced noses! How scandalous!). Third, we had a very racially mixed group, while the only local black person in the restaurant was the elderly gentleman who cleaned our table (I don’t have the heart to call him a “busboy”).

A table of locals actually asked what a white student what we were doing there, and she told them about the Civil Rights Bus Tour. A man leaned over and said, “They’re brainwashing you.”

An older lady wanted to make sure that we knew she didn’t have anything to do with “that mess on the bridge.” She means Bloody Sunday, when the Selma police teargassed and trampled Civil Rights activists on the Edmond Pettus Bridge.

The PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize presents that event beautifully: no music, no commentary, just an old black-and-white video. Marchers come up to a line of policemen in gas masks. There is a pause–dead quiet. Then the line breaks and the screams start.

We walked across the Bridge ourselves in complete silence, two-by-two. I kind of ruined the moment for myself by stopping to pick up discarded plastic bottles and other trash, because keeping the place sacrosanct was more important than preserving the solemnity of the moment.

At this point in the trip, I was hardly sentient. The heat, the fatigue, the sheer amount of information that has been crammed into my head–I no longer knew anything about anything but the Civil Rights Movement. I was a living container for the Civil Rights history. Rebekah, my classmate, told me she was totally sure she has seen tears in my eyes when we finished walking the Bridge, but I don’t remember crying.

P.S.  The first three pictures have been taken by Margie Brandwein-Gensler, a family friend and a great photographer, who was not on the trip, but has visited Selma with my mom.

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Wednesday: Montgomery

I spent the night at my parents’ house, and frankly, I hated to leave.  Home was so close, yet so far…  We loaded the bus and moved on to Montgomery.

Most people from Birmingham do not hold Montgomery in very high regard:  the stereotype is that crime there is bad, the city’s ugly, and there’s nothing to do.  Actually, the downtown area had that small-town-capital charm (here’s a link to a pretty picture that does not belong to me), and the courthouse was simply gorgeous.  Unfortunately, no cameras were permitted inside, otherwise I’d love to share the lovely architecture, gilded tiles and all.

We were lucky enough to sit in on a voir dire for a trial that is a Very Big Deal in Alabama: the question illegal gambling is before the Court.  Bingo is the only kind of gambling that is–barely–legal in Alabama; in fact, 75% of the state constitution concerns bingo regulation (I made that statistic up, but it’s not too far off).  The presiding judge is Myron H. Thompson, who replaced Frank M. Johnson (one of the judges who de-segregated public transportation in Montgomery in Browder v. Gayle, a.k.a. the Rosa Parks case).

Judge Thompson was gracious enough to take some time out of his very busy day to talk to us.  I was immediately starstruck.  First, the judge’s chambers looked like someone’s dream of a judge chamber.

Second, Judge Thompson has ruled on some impressively historical cases, such as the one in which he ordered Roy Moore, an Alabama Supreme Court Judge, to remove the Ten Commandments from the Courthouse, or the one in which he said University of Alabama could not deny funding to LGBT student organizations.

He is considered a dirty liberal in most of our red-blooded state, which automatically endears him to me, even though I think he’s more of a very reasonable moderate.

Also, Judge Thompson is a charismatic, incredibly intelligent and just plain interesting speaker, who looks freakishly young.  He was appointed to the bench at the age of 33 in 1980, and it looks like he decided to stop aging right then and there, except for acquiring some distinguished facial hair.  It’s amazing.  I went into fangirl mode, as you can see from the picture.

After the courthouse, we went to get lunch at the Alabama Chamber of Commerce’s surprisingly fancy cafeteria.  There, some of my classmates and two undergrads had an absolutely immature, hilarious conversation about historical bathrooms at the courthouse (“Just think of all the famous butts that have touched these toilet seats!”).  We dissolved into hysterical laughter, turning heads around the cafeteria.

As a future professional, I am not proud of our behavior.  However, as a human being, I’m happy we had a moment of unrestrained silliness between seven young people, which was exactly what the doctor ordered.

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Tuesday: Birmingham

Our one stop off the highway, which was the site of the Anniston bus burning, was an innocuous spot, with fireflies flashing in gardenias.

Oh, how I looked forward to Birmingham.  How excited I was to roll through its darkened streets–to see the sketchy warehouses, the ugly brick vistas of UAB, the glowing Vulcan statue (of Greek, not Star Trek mythology).  The familiarity promised relief.

This was the hardest part of the trip.

We started out on Tuesday morning with a tour of the Birmingham ghetto.  Ensley is a terrifying place, even in the daytime.  Abandoned steel factories tear up the landscape like rusty ghosts, and the storms that went through the area last month left some houses collapsed upon themselves.  Working in Affordable Housing Division at Gulfcoast Legal, I’ve been around Section 8 projects, but the ones in Ensley are cordoned off, military-style.  We made jokes about gated communities.  One of the students quietly remarked, “They’re not trying to keep people out, they’re trying to keep them in.”

You have to understand, this is my home.  To only show the worst parts of it–the most shameful–hurt almost physically. It’s not all fire hoses and German shepherds turned on children; it’s not all piles of metal trash heaped in neighborhoods that highways cut to shambles.  It’s not, I swear.  In the spring, the Japanese cherry trees bloom, and azaleas light up the streets in pink.  That old swimming pool where we used to turn ourselves to prunes in high school still remains unreasonably warm in the summer.  Friends, old and new, huddle around the fire at Parkside for my Christmas visits.  In the fall, my kids–who no longer remember their preschool teacher–play in the Red Mountain Park.

Visiting Mountain Brook, the wealthiest Birmingham community, after Ensley would have lit a fire under us.  Students who saw it would never have forgotten the sting of economic disparity.  But the bus driver got lost on the way, and we didn’t have time for neighborhood comparisons.

Instead, we headed to the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, Kelly Ingram Park, and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Listen, I can’t walk around Kelly Ingram.  There are statues of German Shepherds there, and bronze children, life-size, frozen in fear.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the site where a Klansman planted a bomb in women’s bathroom, which killed four children, 14 and 13-year-old girls:Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair–on September 15, 1963.  I was born on the same day 25 years later.

I remember crying the first time I visited the church in college, but I was doing better this time–until a USF student made a sharp remark to me when I inadvertently interrupted her conversation.

Emotions run high with the stress, and I ended up crying for two hours, even after the aforementioned student handed me a tissue in a very nice manner.

And I don’t mean the delicate, “I’m-just-so-sensitive” tearing up that happens during political campaigns or watching Armageddon.  I’m talking about deep, body-wracking sobs, with embarrassing quantities of tears and snot.  It was not pretty.  I wandered around blearily in search of a bathroom, but found some stairs instead, where I was hoping to have a nice, rewarding crying session.  But that was not to be, as other students also became lost in their bathroom-finding quest.  All I wanted was just half an hour alone, please, by the Maker, Buddha, and Tom Cruise, give me just an half an hour, God, those kids died here…

I continued my tearful journey all the way to the other church, where a group of very accomplished gospel singers sang Freedom Songs and “testified” about their experiences in the Children’s March and other aspects of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.  I was in serious danger of becoming dehydrated, when it occurred to me that at this point, I was no longer crying in sadness, but because I was tired, stressed, and cranky.  More pathetically, I wanted someone to notice that I was tired, stressed, and cranky, and feel sorry for me. After two trips to just lock myself in the bathroom for a few minutes and some self-reflection, I decided to quit being a baby and sing the darn songs with everyone else, joining in with “We Shall Overcome.”

We swayed, hands locked, and I was no longer crying.

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Monday: Anniston

Anniston is the site of a Freedom Rider bus burning–a part of history that Annistonites would rather forget. The little town had a KKK Klavern that scared the ones in Birmingham with its extreme violence, and has lost a lot of its population to brain drain.

When we stood in the alley where an 18-year-old Klansman laid down in front of the bus to prevent it from leaving, allowing the rest of the Klansmen to slash its tires. Decades later, fear lays thick in that alley. I leaned on one of the brick walls and stared at the brand-new commemorative mural of the bus on the opposite wall, then walked to the restaurant quickly.

We had dinner with various locals involved in the Civil Rights revival of Anniston. Our dinner partner, Richard Couch, was a lovely man. He is a criminal defense lawyer and the son of a Klansman involved in the Anniston bus burning.

Mr. Couch looked and talked like your typical Southern gentleman, which automatically made me think he was prejudiced. Apparently, I was the prejudiced one, because my assumptions could not be further from the truth. A proponent of organic co-ops and an Alan Watts fan, he spent his life trying to undo his father’s legacy.

I can’t imagine always being interrogated about what a terrible person my father was. Mr. Couch obviously wrestled with the love one is supposed to bear towards one’s relatives and his hate for his father’s deplorable actions. They have been estranged since his parents’ divorce. Our students suggested he write his father a letter to work through his feelings, but I’ve been down this road myself–not to a very successful end. My letter ended up an angry, incoherent rant. I didn’t feel it helped anyone in any way.

And so the deep currents go further underground until they dry up.

Author: Maria

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Monday: Nashville Again (Seigenthaler)

The day started out at the Seigenthaler Center at Vanderbilt (beautiful campus, by the way), where John Seigenthaler himself talked to us.

He was the administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy Attorney General, and is famous for being hit over the head with a lead pipe while trying to save a Freedom Bus Rider when they were attacked in Montgomery.  A federal official lying in a pool of his own blood convinced the Kennedys that one could not simply reason with Southern politicians.

Mr. Seigenthaler is diamond-sharp at the age of 82.  During his 2-hour lecture, I never once felt that he was lecturing–such affable was his manner, so engaging were his stories.  A highly accomplished journalist, he speaks in effortless metaphors (“The South’s backbone was a bar of steel.  It would not break, and we didn’t know if we could apply enough heat for it to bend”).

Also, Mr. Seigenthaler has an surprisingly irreverent sense of humor. (When asked about his personal impression of J. Edgar Hoover, he replied “We have this term in the South you probably never heard; it’s called asshole.”)

Name-dropping like it was nobody’s business (“just the other night, Vice President Gore called me to talk about an article he was writing for the Rolling Stones”), he regaled us with first-person accounts of the Bus Rider crises and insider tales of the intimate relationship between Robert and John F. Kennedy.

Over the last few days, I’ve developed a crush on RFK–the honest, well-meaning man that he was–and I could see the hurt of his loss, with which I have only recently become acquainted, still alive in Mr. Seigenthaler.

He closed with a story about describing his involvement in the movement in the Civil Rights Movement to his five-year-old grandson, who asked “Grandpa, are you black?”  Mr. Seigenthaler told his grandson “it doesn’t matter” and kissed him goodnight, but then wrote a letter about how unfortunately, race still matters today, and perhaps the child will grow up to see the day when it does not.

I heard sniffles in the back, and discovered that tears were rolling down my cheeks as well, more for the lost innocence of childhood than anything else.

Author: Maria

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Sunday: Memphis

Professor Arsenault said that Memphis reeks of history.  After walking around Beale Street at high noon, I also reeked of history.  But honestly, I liked it.  Blues saturated the very sidewalk, and every little store and restaurant proudly cashed it in.

Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King, Jr’s tragic death, has been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum.  The boarding house from which MLK was shot was part of the museum as well, but I walked through it quickly, not wanting to honor the killing, but rather the memory of Martin’s life.

Oh yes, I caught myself thinking of MLK as “Martin.”  We’ve been following his life so intimately that it’s hard not to think that we know him.  I wonder if anyone really did, though.

The most visceral part of the museum is the room in which he stayed.  If you look out of the window, you can see the railing over which he leaned, then fell backwards on the floor.

This area is particularly hard for Professor Bickel:  last year, I was told, he collapsed crying with another student.  He was fine this time, and was talking about something with some of my fellow students, when I saw a butterfly land on the window.  It folded its taupe-and-chocolate swirl wings in front of us delicately.

“Look!”  I said, but as everyone turned, it flew away.

I looked out the window for a long, long, long time.  Eventually, my heart felt as though it was being squeezed.  I did not feel like crying.  I felt like there was not enough air in the world.  Just pressure on my heart, all around, until it rested heavy as a stone in my chest.

Author: Maria

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