Oct 20 – Lessons from Alabama

We toured Alabama’s state capitol, also the first confederate capitol. This room is the Senate chambers where the Confederacy was born and where Jefferson Davis was voted in as its President.

The irony of saving our visit to the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery for last was not lost on us. By then, we had already visited the state capitol and Selma where we got educated on the historic Selma to Montgomery march that led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite the amazing story of Rosa Park’s simple act of defiance against injustice has been in America’s conscious for as long as I can remember, we learned at the Rosa Parks Museum that this single act set off a wave of events that eventually led to the Selma to Montgomery march and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

A modest sculpture of Rosa Parks in downtown Montgomery. On Dec 1, 1955, an African American seamstress riding a bus performed an act of defiance that sparked events leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 & the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the Rosa Parks Museum, you can watch a taped re-creation of the bus scene that ended with Parks’ removal from the bus and arrest. In the middle window sits Parks being confronted by the bus driver.

Immediately following the arrest of Rosa Parks, Jo Ann Robinson, the president of The Women’s Political Council, a group of Black women working for civil rights began the call to boycott Montgomery’s city buses. The night of Park’s arrest, Robinson and others from the council printed out 35,000 flyers announcing a citywide bus boycott on December 5, 1955. Local black residents stopped riding the buses on that day.

It was the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association by local ministers that organized the boycott and kept it going strong. A relatively unknown minister by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr was elected the association’s president. The boycott lasted 381 days and officially ended on December 20, 1956, giving King national attention as a rising leader in the Civil Rights movement. The Supreme Court soon after ruled in favor of integration of the city’s bus system.
At the time of Rosa Parks’ arrest, Martin Luther King, Jr was the pastor at the Dexter Ave Baptist Church in Montgomery and was relatively unknown in the civil rights movement.

About 50 miles west of Montgomery is Selma within Dallas County. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Dallas County and adjacent Lowndes County were among the poorest and most repressive for black people in the country. Racially motivated terrorism and police intimidation was so rampant that Lowndes County was known as “Bloody Lowndes”.

In Dallas County, Alabama it was next to impossible for a black person to become a registered voter and in 1963, only 130 black people were registered out of 15,000 living in the county. No black person was registered to vote in bloody Lowndes County. Knowing the correct number of jelly beans in the jar and paying a poll tax, maybe you can apply to register to vote.
A totalitarian law enforcement led by Dallas County sheriff Jim Clark reigned terror on the Black community and enforced Alabama’s harsh segregation and biased voting laws.
Downtown Selma, where you can visit the Selma Interpretive Center. The center was closed when we were there (Covid restrictions) but the gift shop was open.

By 1963, eyes had turned toward Dallas County and Selma as a hotbed of civil rights turmoil. John Lewis, founder and chairman of the Nashville-based Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) made a scouting trip to Selma and came back to report “The blacks are too scared, and the whites are too mean”. Nevertheless, SNCC came to Selma and organized voting registration for its black community.

One of the responses to the attempts to organize voter registration was to impose a law that made it illegal for two or more black people to congregate in public in Dallas County. Churches were the only refuge for blacks and Brown Chapel AME in Selma became the meeting place for the community and civil rights organizers. Traffic and construction kept me from getting a better shot of the church.

Sam Walker, historian and curator of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma told us that at the time, the pastor of Brown Chapel was resistant to making his church the meeting place for organizers given the recent bombing in Birmingham that killed four children on September 15, 1963. His wife thought otherwise, “It’s because of those four little girls that you need to do this”. So, he did. And as SNCC attempted to mobilize the community to apply to register to vote, voter application denials increased and so did the violence.

The National Voting Rights Museum & Institute is located in a modest, somewhat run-down building east of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Its primary goal is “to educate, inform, and remind individuals of the lessons of the past by enriching and enhancing the knowledge of voting rights through visual and audio means.”

By 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) joined up with SNCC to make Selma the location to focus on the Black voter registration campaign. SNCC has been there for a couple years dealing with the violence and intimation of Jim Clark’s police state. But now, all eyes were on Selma with King, who had recently won the Nobel Peace Prize in the lead.

George Wallace, then Governor of Alabama vowed to resist integration. Despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, blacks were met with this strong resistance in Alabama and other southern states.
The Ku Klux Klan was very active in blocking efforts to register African Americans to vote. This chilling life-size model with authentic KKK garb is on display at the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma.

By February 18, 1965, national media attention was drawn to Selma and the voting rights cause as King and other civil rights leaders organized several demonstrations. King has been arrested on February 1 and during the three days he sat in jail, he wrote “Letter from a Selma Jail” which was immediately published in the New York Times. On the night of February 18, Jimmie Lee Jackson and his mother were participating in a nighttime voting rights march in Marion, Alabama. Unarmed and trying to protect his mother, Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed by the state troopers that came in to break up the march.

Jackson’s death spurred SCLC and SNCC leaders to organize a Selma to Montgomery march in which Selma residents would march to the capital and present Governor Wallace with their grievances. The first march on March 7 did not go well.

Edmund Pettus was a US Senator from Alabama from 1897 to 1907. He served as an officer of the Confederate State Army. After the war, he became active in the KKK, serving as a Grand Dragon. The bridge in Selma was dedicated to Alabama’s ‘hero’ in 1940.
A display at the Lowndes Interpretive Center, located on U.S. 80 between Selma and Montgomery.

On October 19, 2021, we parked the truck in downtown Selma and walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the same direction as that of the marchers on March 7, 1965. As Vivian and I crested the top of the bridge and continued to the other side, we tried to envision what those marchers, or as Sam Walker calls them, ‘foot soldiers’ saw waiting for them on the other side of the bridge.

On March 7, about 600 people led by John Lewis and other SNCC leaders departed Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma with the intention of marching 54 miles to Montgomery to protest for voters’ rights. On the bridge, they were met by a column of state troopers and local volunteer officers of the sheriff’s department that blocked their path.
A display at the Lowndes Interpretive Center, a short video narrated by John Lewis.

The attack caused outrage around the country, and March 7 became known as “Bloody Sunday”. Following Bloody Sunday, Martin Luther King, Jr who had been in Atlanta on that day, returned to Selma and led another march on March 9. The march was ‘symbolic’ and upon reaching the bridge, the King and the protestors decided to turn back rather than risk another violent confrontation.

A display at the Lowndes Interpretive Center, brought to you by the National Park Service.
Sam Walker, curator of the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute has a mission. He creates footprint molds from the “foot soldiers’, those who marched from Selma to Montgomery. Walker himself was there as an 11-yr old who volunteered to clean up camps along the march route.
Many of the photographs on display at the National Voting Rights Museum were donated by federal officers who were there to protect the marchers. Some of them were tasked with photographing marchers and bystanders as a means of keeping records in case violence erupted.

Civil rights leaders sought court protection for a third march from Selma to the state capitol. It was provided and President Johnson sent National Guards and troops in the protection of the protesters. Third time is a charm. On March 21, about 3200 marchers set out for Montgomery, walking about 12-15 miles a day, sleeping in fields at night. By the time they reached the steps of the capitol on March 25, they were 25,000 strong.

A map illustrating the Selma to Montgomery march route.
The final stop along the route, Alabama’s state capitol as the marchers would have seen it.
The bronze star marks the spot where Jefferson Davis gave his acceptance speech as President of the Confederacy. Here is where Martin Luther King, Jr stood in front of a 25,000 people on March 25, 1965 and spoke, “Our God is Marching On”.
Less than five months after the last of the three marches, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But as they say, “it ain’t over ’til it’s over”. Meanwhile, back in Lowndes County, violence against Blacks who attempted to register to vote increased. White land owners retaliated against tenant farmers who registered to vote or engaged in voting rights activities by kicking them off the land. SNCC leaders, including Stoky Carmichael organized and helped keep the dispossessed families together by building a tent city to serve as a temporary home, located on land donated by the Matthew Jackson family, along U.S. 80, currently where the Lowndes Interpretive Center is located.

We learned about tent city at the Lowndes Interpretive Center. Several hundred dispossessed people lived in tents for up to two years while organizers attempted to find them new jobs and permanent homes. Campers were constantly harassed and threatened by white locals.
We often associate the ‘Black Panthers’ as a militant group. It actually began as a ballot symbol and soon was adopted by the Lowndes County residents’ political party as the Black Panther Party.

I will end this blog with two photographs taken from inside the Alabama state capitol. Three years ago, we visited Eufaula, Alabama where we learned about Horace King. King, born a slave in 1807 became a successful engineer and architect, and then later a member of Alabama’s House of Representatives. It was our pleasure to learn that the beautiful cantilever stairs in the capitol were designed and built by Horace King.

Oct 17, 2021 – Legacy

According to Dictionary.com, the noun Leg.a.cy [leg-uh-see] has three meanings, the second of which is “anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor”.

Over three years ago, Vivian and I began living in an RV and traveling throughout the United States. As the case with all RV travelers, our motives are many. But above all, what began as a casual sideline interest and then quickly evolved into the driving force behind our itineraries is learning the history of the United States. As we languished through the south, our curiosity for all stories that comprise American History brought us to Montgomery, Alabama. It is here where America’s darkest legacy was brought to the forefront of our consciousness through the most enlightening visual exhibition we have ever seen. It stopped us in our tracks causing us to reflect and dig deeper into the meaning of ‘Legacy’. By sharing our travel experiences, we also wish to share our learning experiences, and like us, you may learn and gain insight into our country’s legacies.

The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is the creation of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a legal services organization led by attorney Bryan Stevenson, also the author of ‘Just Mercy’. The museum opened in 2018 as part of the National Memorial of Peace and Justice.

The Legacy Museum is filled with dramatic and passionate displays of photographs, 2-D and 3-D art, videos, and written words, accompanied by audio-recorded narratives, and music. Unfortunately for me, photography was not allowed in the Legacy Museum. To describe in words our emotions and thoughts as we examined one exhibit after another is impossible for me without representing them with photographs.

A building erected on a site where enslaved Black people were warehoused and forced to labor, became the new Legacy Museum opened in September 2021.

Instead, I found some photographs on the internet from news reports of the opening of the Legacy Museum that I will use here. Plus, I was allowed to photograph within the National Memorial of Peace and Justice, which was toured in partnership with the Legacy Museum. With that, please take the time to read while viewing each photograph below.

The museum is divided up into several large rooms that take you through time beginning with the kidnapping of Africans and slave trading ships to North America. You are brought face-to-face with the domestic slave trade with replicas of slave pens and first-person accounts from enslaved people narrating the sights and sounds of the slave trade. As you move along, you become overwhelmed with the written words on display, reproductions of ads and flyers that serve as firsthand accounts of slave trading and then later lynchings.

This display, created by one artist, was a visceral experience for me, I could not keep from crying. The room was awashed in blue light, giving the sense of being underwater. A play on light appeared like water moving across the ocean floor where heads of tormented people from slave ships populate the ocean floor.
According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (between 1525 and 1866, or entire history of the slave trade in the New World), 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage to North America, Caribbean, and South America. Of those, about 388,000 were shipped directly to North America.
Well over 90 percent of enslaved Africans were imported into the Caribbean and South America. Only about 6 percent of African captives were sent directly to British North America. Yet by 1825, the US population included about one quarter of the people of African descent in the New World.
Though the US Congress outlawed the African slave trade in 1808, domestic slave trade flourished. The slave population in the US nearly tripled over the next 50 years, greatly surpassed in volume the Atlantic Slave Trade to North America.
Slavery in the US was distinctive in the near balance of the sexes and the ability of the slave population to increase its numbers by natural reproduction. Unlike any other slave society, the US had a high and sustained natural increase in the slave population for more than 150 years.
From the time of the Civil War and for several decades thereafter, African Americans placed want ads in newspapers in search of family members that had been separated from them either through war, slavery or emancipation. At the beginning, many were living their lives as fugitives or were recently freed. Consequently, ads were placed knowing well the dangers of reprisal from (previous) owners.
Walls filled with collages of enlarged reprints of want ads are on display in the Legacy Museum.
The racial terrorism of the Jim Crow laws is sharply rendered in photographs and in written firsthand descriptions throughout the museum. It is overwhelming to take it all in.

One of the last rooms in the museum is a very large one where several displays of incarcerated individuals on pre-recorded video screens displayed as a prison visitation booth. You can choose any one of the booths where an incarcerated individual awaits you. Pick up a phone provided at the booth and listen to the inmate’s story.

The annual rate of incarceration of black men is 3 to 10.5 times greater than white men. In 2014, 3% of all black men were serving at least one year of prison. In 2019, the imprisonment rate for black women was over 1.7 times the rate of imprisonment for white women.
During the Jim Crow era, state legislatures passed “Black Codes” which created new criminal offenses such as “vagrancy” and “loitering”, leading to the mass arrest and incarceration of Black people.
Convict leasing, the practice of selling the labor of state and local prisoners to private interests became common place. Black prisoners were rare during the slavery era, thus the solution became the criminalization of the free Black population. The most common fate facing Black convicts was to be sold into forced labor for the profit of the state.
It was a short walk from the Legacy Museum to the National Memorial of Peace and Justice in downtown Montgomery. Along the way, we stopped to look at the beautiful fountain adorned with a statue of Hebe, the Greek Goddess of eternal youth. The fountain was built in 1885 on top of an artesian well. The surrounding area was once the location for Montgomery’s busy slave trade and near the well, slaves were auctioned to the highest bidders.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was also created by the EJI and opened in 2018 as a monument to commemorate the thousands of African Americans who were lynched during the American era of racial terrorism. After viewing the Legacy Museum, we took a short walk over to the memorial and once again encountered a visceral display of one of America’s most violent histories.

As the United States Holocaust Memorial serves as a deliberate act of remembrance so that we may seek to learn how to prevent such atrocities from occurring in the future, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice strikes out to do the same with a commemoration of the atrocities inflicted on African Americans during decades of racial terrorism.” EJI
The memorial is 6 acres of land. The structure suspends 800 Corten steel monuments each representing a county where racial terror lynchings took place. Each one is engraved with the names of the victims and the date of death.
Duplicates of each monument lie in the memory bank outside the main structure. Corresponding counties are invited to claim their monument and place it as a marker in their own community. It is my understanding that EJI partnered with the Alachua County Community Remembrance Project to dedicate a historical marker in memory of nine documented victims of lynching in Newberry, Florida. The nine are listed on the monument in the photo above this one.

Following the Civil War and the passing of the 13th and 14th Amendments, white backlash to re-impose white dominance through violent repression in the south escalated in the face of Black political and economic competition created by emancipation and voting rights. Court rulings were also part of the backlash as in 1876, the Supreme Court held that the 14th Amendment prohibits a State from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; but this adds nothing to the rights of one citizen as against another. Meaning simply – African Americans in the South were left of the mercy of white terrorists if those terrorists were acting as private citizens. Later, it ruled that upholding racial segregation was fully consistent with the 14th Amendment under the guise of “separate but equal”.

EJI documented 4084 racial terror lynchings in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950, and 300 other lynchings in other states. Of these documented lynchings, the overwhelming majority took place on sites that remain unmarked and unrecognized.
In their research, EJI distinguished racial terror lynchings from hangings and mob violence that followed some criminal trial process or that were committed against non-minorities without the threat of terror, and also from racial violence and hate crimes that were prosecuted as criminal acts (these were rare).
Documented terror lynchings are considered acts of terrorism because these murders were carried out with impunity, sometimes in broad daylight, often on a courthouse lawn. Perpetrators were never held accountable and some public spectacle lynchings were attended by entire white community and conducted as a celebratory acts of racial control and domination.
Faced with the constant threat of harm, almost 6 million Black Americans fled the South between 1910 to 1970. Many left behind homes, families and jobs after a lynching or near lynching rendering home too unsafe a place to stay.
In Florida, Alachua and Suwannee Counties are among the top 10 counties having the most lynchings from 1877-1950. By 1920, Florida had the highest lynching rate relative to its population.
Although the most active era of racial terror lynchings was between 1877 and 1950, racially motivated violence continued after 1950, largely targeting early movement leaders and Black people challenging segregation laws. Twenty four names are represented on this wall of men and women who were lynched in the 1950s.