16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL where four girls were killed in a bombing on September 15, 1963. Stained glass panel gift from the people of Wales.
In May, Melanie and I were invited to join IUSB (Indiana University South Bend) students, faculty and community members on a two-week Civil Rights Heritage tour. We journeyed throughout the South visiting historical sites and monuments and conversing with pioneers in the Civil Rights Movement. For many, it would be their first encounter with the deep-seated hatred of the Old South. For me, I feared reliving painful memories.
I grew up in New Orleans, where the good times roll. Then, the city was not as rigorously segregated as other places in the deep South. In many neighborhoods whites and blacks lived in close proximity. Next to our shotgun home lived a childless white couple whom we addressed politely as Mr. Arthur and Miss Gladys. Nevertheless, Jim Crow prevailed. I remember as a little boy riding the bus with my maternal grandmother when a white man removed the Colored Only sign in front of us and placed it on the back of the seat behind us. As custom dictated, we were forced to stand behind the sign since no other seating was available. On another occasion, a white policeman motioned my dad to pull his car over; he demanded his driver’s license, addressing him as “boy. ” I felt shame and humiliation.
My Civil Rights journey began as a sixteen-year old in the summer of 1963, prior to my senior year at the all boys St. Augustine High School. The previous three years, I was a Josephite (Society of St. Joseph) seminarian in Newburgh, New York, where for the first time in my life I lived in a de jure desegregated society. My return to the segregated south of Colored Only and White Only was a rude re-awakening of racial inequalities and social injustices. No longer willing to accept this as a way of life, I participated with the civil rights activist, the Rev. Avery Alexander, in voter registration. With dozens of other teenagers, we marched door to door in sweltering heat teaching mostly elderly residents of a segregated housing project the preamble to the Constitution. Reciting it without fault was a requirement for voter registration. Predictably, many were turned away, but we persisted. Ultimately, because so few were allowed to register, we began to march and demonstrate in front of City Hall chanting freedom songs. One of my favorites that gives me goosebumps even today was Oh Freedom (Oh freedom over me, and before I’d be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free). We were arrested several times, held in a holding room and then released. My protest days ended abruptly the day I was fingerprinted and released to the custody of my parents. They were horrified and worried about my future.
That 1963 summer’s march toward freedom began anew on May 10 of this year with the Civil Rights Heritage tour. As we departed at 7:15 am, I had some trepidation. I wondered how I would handle emotionally an intellectual reentry into Jim Crow country — the separate restrooms, water fountains, waiting rooms, lunch counters, the segregated schools, churches and movie theaters. I did not expect how deeply moving this journey would be.
Our first stop was in Nashville where, in 1960, students followed the example of their peers in Greensboro, North Carolina in lunch counter sit-ins. Sit-ins and the Freedom Rides became central to the Civil Rights Movement throughout the South. On the evening of our arrival, we dined at Morrell’s on southern cuisine – roast, fried, chicken, meatloaf, collards, green beans, sweet potatoes, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, cornbread, biscuits, and peach cobbler – all served round table style. After dinner we heard from one of the original Freedom Riders, Ernest Rick Patton, who recounted harrowing adventures of his participation in the Freedom Rides. He explained the training that prepared students to participate mentally and physically, in civil disobedience, how to use their minds to remove themselves from hateful situations. The next morning our group reenacted a nonviolent protest march, walking in silence from the site of the Old First Baptist Church to the Municipal Courthouse. It was at this church that the Rev. James Lawson, who studied the teachings of Gandhi, taught workshops in non-violence. Our visit to Nashville included a stop at Fisk University where we learned of Diane Nash‘s and John Lewis’ leadership in organizing sit-ins and arranging for participants in the Freedom Rides.
From Nashville, we proceeded to Atlanta where our civil rights education began to take root. There we met Charles Person, another Freedom Rider, at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. His moving and inspirational story, like Mr. Patton’s, demonstrated the enormous capacity of the human will to endure indignities in the fight for social and economic justice. History frames the Civl Rights Movement around luminaries like Dr. King, Rev. Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Fred Shuttlesworth, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, Fannie Lou Hammer, and Rosa Parks. But the Movement’s impact in effectuating and radicalizing change is owed to ordinary citizens, foot soldiers in the fight for justice, many of whom will remain unnamed. At the King Center, we learned of the critical importance of the church in galvanizing small groups of students in non-violent civil disobedience. Seeing Dr. King’s boyhood home was a curious artifact, but being present in the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, as his voice bellowed messages of hope, gave me goosebumps. I reflected on the enormity of his sacrificial journey and the strength of his convictions in pursuit of justice. In the otherwise nearly empty sanctuary, his powerful voice echoed all around us.
Among the many memorable moments of our tour was our stay at Highlander in the Tennessee Mountains. It was at this rustic lodge tucked away in the wilderness where Rev. James Lawson, Rosa Parks, John Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr learned the tools of non-violent resistance. For our group, it was a welcomed respite. In this serene and sacred space we had time to absorb what we were learning and think in practical ways about how we confront hate and prejudice. In one-on-one conversations we spoke about what we were experiencing. We gathered as a group in the great room to share personal stories about race and privilege. For some, this was an intimidating activity. Fearful of our vulnerabilities, our conversation about personal experiences of race began slowly. But as we listened to one another, trust began to build. There were painful revelations of personal failures in confronting racism; there was acknowledgement of white privilege; there were painful memories of social injustice; there was admission that heretofore little thought was given to economic inequities. There were tears, quivering voices, and yes, some laughter. In the end, our group became more confident and trusting. I imagine that those early civil rights activists, too, had to learn trust, and to overcome anxieties as they prepared for possibilities of personal bodily harm.
Reenergized by rest, and feeling enormous gratitude for the sacrifices of those pioneers in the civil rights movement, we boarded the bus and headed to Birmingham and the 16th Street Baptist Church. As we sat in the sanctuary, we listened attentively to the deacon who recounted the terrifying details of the September 15, 1963, bombing by white supremacists that killed four little girls. That moment became a pivotal call to action in the Civil Rights Movement. Birmingham was at the epicenter of racial bigotry and resistance to integration. It was at the public square, just across the street from this church where schoolchildren marching in peaceful protest were pushed back forcefully with gushing water from fire hydrants and by attacking police dogs.
It is a horrific image seared indelibly into the American memory. I remember it as if it were yesterday. I watched the bedlam in disbelief that this was happening in my country. Many years have passed since then. Historical markers remind us of the horrors of that day. As I followed them, I walked in solidarity with the children as I retraced their steps, grateful for their courage. Unlike their march, mine was unimpeded. I left that square with a sorrowful heart, knowing their dreams have not yet come to full fruition.
After a visit at the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, we traveled to Montgomery and the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Civil Rights Memorial. Maya Lin, architect of the Vietnam Veterans’ Wall, designed the memorial upon which are inscribed the names of those who fought and died from 1955-1968 in the struggle for freedom. In memory of those sacrificed lives, Melanie and I, as did several students, added our names among thousands of others scrolling on the Wall of Tolerance inside the museum. In doing so, we committed ourselves to the following:
By placing my name on the Wall of Tolerance, I pledge to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance. I will work in my daily life for justice, equality and human rights – the ideals for which the Civil Rights martyrs died.
It was at the Civil Rights Memorial where we all had the experience of a lunch counter sit-in and what it felt like to endure the hateful jeers, the spitting in the face, the name calling, all without reacting in retaliation. We each sat at the counter with earphones. Having grown up in the South, I knew what to expect. For many the experience was jarring and emotionally upsetting. In her own words, Melanie tells her reactions:
Now to get back to the replica of the lunch counter in Montgomery. Visitors could sit on a stool with their hands on the counter in front of them as the activists were trained to do. We put on headsets and heard sounds simulating an actual sit-in. There were sounds of sirens, people yelling orders, screams, sounds of people being dragged from the stools and being hit, beaten and vilified. And there was a voice, a man’s voice, a nasty, oily, but somehow intimate voice that talked directly into your ear from behind saying, “What are you doing here? You don’t belong here. You aren’t welcome here. Do you hear what is going on behind you? Do you hear what they’re doing to your friend? Imagine what we’re going to do to you because you’re next.”
This experience was only two minutes long and I have edited out foul language and racial slurs. I felt those hateful words with gut-wrenching effect. My first reaction, however, was awe at the courage and commitment it took to stand up to this kind of hate while remaining non-violent. I doubted that I could ever have been that brave. I realized how unjust it was that the peaceful people were getting beaten and arrested while the violent, hateful ones went without punishment — with the full support of the authorities and the community around them.
Because I was a passionate activist in my teenage years, I believe that I could have withstood this verbal harassment. Now in my senior years, when I see injustice, I am determined in my resolve to heed Dr. King’s words not to remain silent as my silence is complicity. These words echoed in my mind as we visited the Equal Justice Initiative and Legacy Museum. The Equal Justice Initiative, founded by Bryan Stevenson, seeks to undo the injustices against the rampant and unlawful incarceration of blacks in the penal system. His book Just Mercy, a New York Times bestseller, details this work. Walking through the museum we saw in strikingly harsh images the evolution of slavery and the legacy of lynching that still haunt the African American psyche. Holograms of enslaved men and women telling their stories gave me chills. I wondered what would have been my story had I lived during that time.
Our visit to the Equal Justice Initiative included a visit to the lynching museum. For me it was the most harrowing experience of the trip. I’ve struggled to understand the concept of human beings as property. Intellectually, I can trace how it came to be. Emotionally, I have trouble accepting it. The first thing seen upon entering the gates of this open air museum is a sculptural depiction of slaves in chains. That image haunted me as I walked slowly through the museum. Rusting metal pillars greeted me with the
the names of lynched men, women and children. Etched in these pillars are the name of the county and state where these hapless victims were hanged. Slowly moving through the exhibit, other pillars hung from the rafters like bodies swaying from tree limbs. These had the most terrifying effect on me.
I imagined my named inscribed on those pillars. What would I have been hung for? Speaking to a white man for not addressing him first with “sir’? for being perceived insolent in my behavior? for looking at his wife? As I continued walking through the pillars that hung overhead, the floor gradually sloped into a long cavern along whose walls were plaques with the names of the lynched and their purported crime. The reasons were inane, but to the rabid racist, serious and justified. For me, how could such thinking be rationalized among people who no doubt considered themselves good Christians!
Toward the end of the exhibit, I reached a black granite wall where water flowed over the names of the lynched. I imagined this water as a final act of purification, washing away the miseries of those who suffered the indignities to both body and spirit. I sat on the stone bench along the opposite wall to meditate. Seated to my far right was one of the students, an African American male, doing the same. In my meditation, I listened to the sounds of the flowing water, but I heard in my mind the wails of those tortured bodies. I wept.
My faith in the goodness of humanity was restored when we met Jennie Graetz at the National Center for Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture. Pioneers in the civil rights struggle, she and her husband, Robert S. Graetz, Jr, a white pastor of a black church, participated actively in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Now in his nineties and in feeble health, Rev. Graetz, was not able to join Mrs. Graetz who told horrifying stories of the bombing of their home and the daily threats to the their lives.
In spite of the animus toward them by the KKK and the White Citizens’ Council, they persevered and stood with their black neighbors in their fight for justice. Our day continued with visits to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Dr. King began his ministry and to the parsonage where he lived. There we heard equally frightening stories similar to those told by Mrs. Graetz of the hardships the King family faced. Their home too was bombed. The examples of the Graetz and King families, who faced adversity and rejected fear, stand as testimony that justice will prevail.
Neat in appearance and simply appointed, the King home, with its furniture, curtains, kitchen appliances and wall decorations, was very similar to the home I grew up in. The difference was that his was a typical Craftsman home, mine was a New Orleans style shotgun. Standing in his kitchen, I was deeply moved by the rousing tone of his voice of the difficult days ahead, delivered in the preaching style of the black church.
Our trip to Selma brought us closer to the violence endured by those who sought the right to vote. We met Joanne Bland, a fierce and outspoken advocate for racial justice. With her we visited the church where the planning took place for the Selma to Montgomery March. Later we walked in silence over the Edmund Pettis Bridge in a reenactment of the Selma to Montgomery March, known now as Bloody Sunday.
Once across the bridge we visited the National Voting Rights Museum. We also visited the gravesite and memorial of Viola Liuzzio, the white woman from Detroit who was so aghast by what happened on Bloody Sunday that she came to Selma to work as a civil rights activist. Because she had the audacity to fight for justice against Jim Crow, and because she had the unspeakable gall to give a black man a ride in her car, she was chased at high speeds and murdered.
After Selma, our trip took us further into the deep South to Jackson, Mississippi. Becasue of obligations back home in South Bend, Melanie, unfortunately, had to leave us. Notwithstanding, the group missed her and the insights and observations she brought to our discussions. In Jackson, we met another 1960’s civil rights activist and member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council, Hollis Watkins. While in jail for his many protest demonstrations, Mr. Watkins was an active leader in singing freedom songs. Mr. Watkins, as president of Southern Echo, continues his activist work helping others in their civil rights causes, particularly in the pernicious underfunding of black education. Our group listened intently as this soft spoken man spoke about his civil rights work.
After a brief visit to Jackson State University and a visit to the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute, we spent two hours at the newly constructed Civil Rights Museum. At this point in our journey, I was tiring of yet another civil rights museum. They all had similar stories of non-violent protests, the March on Washington, the Freedom Rides, the lunch counter sit-ins, the futile efforts of voter registration, etc. But for me, this one was different. It began with a history of the slave trade, but as I wandered throughout the rooms, I began to realize that this museum, more than the others, was for Mississippi an admission that their black citizens had been mistreated and that an honest and open portrayal of its shameful past was an initial step toward racial reconciliation. At odds with this effort are the conservative tenor of the state’s current political climate and the continuing gerrymandering of voting districts. Our visit to Medgar Evers’ home was a stark reminder of Mississippi’s past history in denying blacks the right to vote and its rejection of integration. For his efforts in seeking justice, Medgar Evers was gunned down in the driveway of his home. The bullet hole that passed through his body is still visible in the kitchen wall. It was that same violence that killed Emmett Till, a young boy visiting relatives in Money, MS, who was brutally maimed and killed because he whistled at a white woman. The store where this alleged incident occurred is now in tatters and covered with weeds. What remains is a roadside plaque as a historical marker.
Before leaving Mississippi we toured two historically black colleges, Itta Bena and Rust. We also stopped by the notorious state prison, Parchman, where many civil rights activists were jailed, and the graves of Fannie Lou Hamer and B. B. King. As we drove through the Mississippi Delta, I thought of the area’s extreme poverty and the hardships slaves faced as they picked cotton in the sweltering heat. I reminisced too on B. B. King’s sorrowful tunes of love lost and opportunity missed. But I could not forget the struggles of Fannie Lou Hamer, a giant in the Civil Rights Movement, who organized Mississippi’s Freedom Summer, a valiant mobilization in 1964 to register as many African Americans as possible.
Our Freedom Summer Tour ended in Memphis with a visit to the Lorraine Hotel, site of Dr. King’s murder, now the National Civil Rights Museum. We also spent time at the Clayborn Temple where Dr. King gave his memorable mountaintop speech. I stood on that same podium, looked at the hundreds of seats in front of me and imagined what it was like for him as he foresaw the end of his life on earth. His words resounded in my ears, “I may not get there with you, but I’ve been to the mountaintop…”
It has taken me four months to put on paper how this trip affected me. I had to reflect first on my own engagement with the Movement. The trip brought to the forefront things that I had placed in the recesses of my memory. The constant onslaught of images of the Civil Rights struggle alternatively brought pain and happiness. Pain for having lived through this horrific period in American history and happiness for having participated in the fight for justice and equality. I played a small part in that summer of 1963. So many others gave so much more, and some sacrificed their lives. Many gains have been made, lives have been bettered, progress has been made in many social and economic sectors, and yet, racial hatred, gender inequality and bias, inaccessibility to health care, housing discrimination, voter suppression still persist. The March Continues! This is particularly more imperative now under the current political climate that threatens our democracy.
In my administrative role at the university, I supported the development of this Civil Rights Heritage Tour course and was instrumental in the conversion of an abandoned public natatorium that once denied blacks the right to swim there, into the university’s Civil Rights Heritage Center. Now it’s a centerpiece for civil rights education, a gathering place for community activism and engagement, and a cultural center for lectures, art exhibits, music, poetry jams and films. Melanie and I were delighted to have been invited to join the students, faculty and community members on this Civil Rights Heritage Tour. We found the students to be particularly engaging and intellectually curious. We learned from them as each gave talks on the historical sites they were assigned to research beforehand. We thank them for treating these two septuagenarians as peers. And we thank George Garner of the Civil Rights Heritage Center for his careful planning, and of course, Professors Darryl Heller and Monica Tetzlaff for a once in a lifetime educational experience.