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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Saturday: Nashville.

Brief explanation of this program: We have about 40 people, including Stetson Law, Stetson undergrad, USF undergrad, grad students, and people from the community (such as WMNF) on a charter bus following the path of Freedom Riders from Nashville to Memphis, Anniston, Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, and Atlanta. Professor Bickel from Stetson Law, Professor Sapp from Stetson-DeLand, Professor Arsenault from USF, and Rip Patton (a Nashville-born Freedom Rider) are accompanying us on this whole tour.

Today, we visited Tennessee State University, Fisk, Nashville Public Library, and Vanderbilt, where we had the privilege of listening to a panel of six Freedom Riders. They graciously accompanied us to a restaurant, where we shared dinner.

Memorable thing #1: Rip Patton got a bunch of students to sing Freedom Songs at the Fisk Memorial Chapel.

They sang, and the rest of us clapped (and I immediately found out that I, a rhythmically challenged person, can’t keep up with clapping and singing at the same time): “Buses are coming, oh yea, better get ready, oh yea, you can take my mattress, oh yeah”–“woke up this morning with freedom on my mind…hallelu–hallelu–hallelujah.”

The voices coalesced in the building, rising, falling, surrounding the room like some kind of a secret, precious thing to which only we were privy.

Memorable thing #2: The Freedom Riders panel. It’s one thing to see these people in documentaries, but seeing them is a huge difference. It’s the difference between hearing your favorite food described and actually eating it. One gets to pick up on many nuances of the personalities amongst this tightly knit group. I wondered what the Riders thought of each other, but of course, that’s not information that they would share.

We split up in for dinner, with one Rider per group. Matthew Walker was at our table, along with his son and future daughter-in-law. Mr. Walker seemed troubled: he was hurt by the way people remembered his history, by the fact that Nashville did not have a museum honoring its Civil Rights history, and he told us he was no longer nonviolent (“nonviolence is unamerican”). I told him that we cared about what he had to say, that we were listening–he looked at me critically, and gave me a list of 14 or so things to google. I promptly lost the sheet, but I think “FEMA coffins” was one of the phrases.

I remembered that dinner when I saw Mr. Walker’s picture in many of the museums that we later visited: a photograph of a wide-eyed 19-year-old Freedom Rider (below, first one on the left).  I asked him if he remembered any good parts about the Rides.  He told us he couldn’t really think of anything.

Author: Maria

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A map of the Civil Rights bus trip

See where Stetson and University of South Florida Students have been going on the Civil Rights bus trip.

–Ellyn Angelotti

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Civil Rights Trip 2011: Do We Have Enough Kleenex?

So, this is Nashville, huh.  Looking out the window from the fifth floor of the Hyatt, it’s all green tree tops and pink flowers that may or may not be azaleas (they’re probably not).  It looks like Birmingham, but people speak with a different sort of twang.

“Y’all know what cicadas are?”  a man at the baggage claim inquired earlier today.  I shook my head automatically, because he pronounced the word “cicadas” as though it had many more syllables.  “Y’all aren’t from Nashville, are you,” he said with grim satisfaction and picked up a bug off of his luggage bag.  “That’s a cicada.  You can’t go outside without being surrounded by them.”

I backed away a couple of feet.

As soon as we got to the hotel, one of the students (Joey) stepped on a cicada while getting out of the shuttle.

Also, the shuttle driver used the word “y’all” more than 10 times per minute, which beats the record even for an Alabamian.  He was also definitely an immigrant.  Philippines, perhaps?  I can’t wait to get to Selma and see my Russian/Southern accent get out of hand.

Update:  I went outside and a cicada landed on me.  I tried to use a water bottle to get it off me, but apparently beating self with a water bottle earns you strange looks in the parking lot.

Author: Maria

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Freedom Rides 2011

“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” — John Lewis 1961

Published by AMTiffany

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Day one: Nashville

This quote lives in the Civil Rights room of the Nashville Public Library where we talked about the sit ins, stand ins and boycotts that has taken place just around the corner 50 years earlier.

Earlier in the day, we took a bus tour of some important locations around Nashville on Saturday morning included stops Tennessee State and Fisk University.

Here, Howard Williams, a Stetson University College of Law student, takes a picture of a statue of W.E.B. DuBois in front of Cravath Halll on the campus of Fisk University.

Author: Ellyn Angelotti

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