It is easy to overlook history when travelling through the United States. It is all so new and shiny. The capital city, Washington D.C., wasn’t even founded until the end of the 18th century, making it newer than my local village pub. A day at the beach in Florida or some late nights in Las Vegas can seem like a better use of holiday time. Trying to decide what to do with a few days while my son was at camp, I stumbled across some resources to plan a road trip in Alabamaand the app for the Civil Rights Trail. I decided to spend my time learning more about the Civil Rights Movement in the United Sates and what the past tells us about America in the 21stCentury.
I began my trip in Mobile on the Gulf Coast. Colonized by the French in 1711, it is a port city that once transported cotton around the world. It was also the largest slave-trading center in the state. The last slaves to enter the United States from the African trade were brought to Mobile on the slave ship Clotilde. Among them was Cudjoe Lewis, who in the 1920s was the last survivor of the slave trade. All that remains today is a plaque to mark the location of the slave market.
After the Civil War, and reconstruction, so-called Jim Crow laws were enforced throughout the South. The courts repeatedly upheld this principal of separate but equal meaning that all public facilities like schools and libraries were segregated by race. When planning my trip, I found the Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trailmaps the city that helped me navigate the historical African American community in Mobile. The two most striking building was the library made as an exact replica of the larger main library that was for whites only. It seemed to hammer home the message of being a second class citizen in a way nothing else could.
From Mobile, I drove north to Selma and Montgomery. These two cities were at the heart of the US Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. Rosa Parks refusal to relinquish her seat on a city bus to a white person in 1955 lead to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For over a year, the African American community refused to use the city buses. Instead they walked and shared rides to get to work. Boycott put economic pressure on the city and officials even tried to force Lloyd’s of London to stop underwriting the insurance of cars being used by the carpools. The case went to the US Supreme Court and the buses were ordered desegregated in in November of 1956.
Selma was once a busy river town and the dilapidated buildings speak to a time when goods moved up the rivers instead of over roads and through the air. Today it is best known for the voters rights marches of 1965. Ordinary citizens joined leaders like Martin Luther King Jr and Ralph Abernathy to protest the death of Jimmy Lee Jackson at the hands of the state police. The first march became known as Bloody Sunday when the police attacked the protestors crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The second march went merely as far as the bridge. Protected by the National Guard, the third march covered the 70 miles from Selma to the state capitol of Montgomery. The violence of the local police became an international media story and helped hasten the passage of the voting rights act in 1964. The small voter rights museumat the foot of the bridge has collected oral histories from the regular people who stood their ground against oppression. It also continues to fight for voting rights today as more than fifty years after these events, voter suppression remains a real issue in the American South.
Appropriately, the midpoint of the trip was the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice and counterpart Legacy Museum. Opened in April 2018, the memorial bears witness to African Americans who were victims of lynch mobs. Four thousand four hundred men, women, and children who were terrorised and murdered by their fellow citizens. Like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, this is confrontational not comforting. Six foot steel monuments with the name of the county where the terrorist act took place and the names of the victims rise from the ground until they hang over your head. The nearby museum contain racks of soil taken from the locations of the lynchings. It also links history and segregation to the current problem of systemic mass incarceration. Both locations are notable for the silence of the visitors as they contemplate the blood soaked past.
Stepping back a bit further into the past, I drove from Montgomery to Tuskegee. There are two historic sites of interest here: Tuskegee Universityand the Airmen’s Museum. The University is one of the Historic Black Colleges in the United States, founded in 1881 by Lewis Adams and Booker T Washington as a teaching college. George Washington Carver is perhaps the most famous of its teachers for innovations in farming and work on peanuts and sweet potatoes. His mobile campus took knowledge out into the community to help poor sharecroppers improve their farming techniques. Sadly, the University is also famous for its role in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, where the 300 participants were left untreated for syphilis for experimental reasons. The experiment ran for 40 years before whistle blowers brought it to the attention of the world resulting in improved laws on clinical trials and, ,eventually, an apology and compensation from the US government. One more shocking way that the US abused citizens because of the colour of their skin.
TheTuskegee Airmen’s Historic Siteis at the Moton Airfield where American’s first African American military pilots were trained and commissioned. Quotas, exclusions and racism were as prevalent in the US military as elsewhere in society. So much so that the Harlem Hellraisers Infantry regiment in WW1 was seconded to the French to escape the racism of the US military. Fighting for respect and inclusion both at home and abroad, the so called Double Victory, the pilots and support personnel proved in their missions over Europe and Northern Europe and President Harry S Truman's Executive Order 9981 in 1948 desegregated the military.
My final stop was Birmingham’s Civil Rights District. The 16thStreet Baptist Church in Birmingham which served as an organizational headquarters for the civil rights movement. In September 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan, planted 19 sticks of dynamite outside the basement of the church which killed four young girls and injured 22 others when it exploded. The bombing is commemorated by a stained glass window depicting a black Jesus, donated by citizens of Wales. A bronze in the nearby Kelly Ingram Park that remembers and celebrates the movement was a perfect place to finish as hopes take flight.
As the Civil Rights Trail websites says. “the emotional weight of those stories cannot be fully absorbed without standing in the exact spots where sacrifices were made and the direction of history was changed.” One of the advantages of modern history is that the voices of the average person haven’t been lost in the mists of time. The U.S. civil rights movement isn’t the story of the great men of history. It is a story about regular people standing up and making a change in the world.