On an August day in Hayneville, Alabama in 1965, a young seminarian died. That event set a series of things in motion that eventually brought me to the public library in Hayneville, Alabama on May 21, 2015. On that day, we donated a copy of Monadnock at the Millennium, to the people of Hayneville, Alabama as a gesture of healing and friendship. The young seminarian who died in Hayneville was Jonathan Daniels, a Keene native, member of St. James Episcopal Church, and civil rights worker who is honored all around the world, as a martyr of the civil rights movement. He was killed in openly segregated Lowndes County, Alabama, protecting a young black girl who was about to be shot as she tried to enter a store to get something to drink.
As we were laying out the plans for this pilgrimage, we made a commitment to journey to Alabama to see where Jonathan Daniels had died. Along the way, other reasons became apparent. On Martin Luther King Day in St. Augustine, we heard excerpts read from Dr. King’s 1963 letter from the Birmingham jail in a moving service at St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church. Later in January, we visited the Florida State History Museum in Tallahassee, which had a powerful exhibit about the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Included were exhibits on the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, started by Rosa Parks; and a powerful photography exhibit about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery in 1963, in which four young girls died (and later, we learned that 2 young boys were shot and died that day as well).
In March, we visited the LBJ Library in Austin, two days before March 7, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, where an exhibit of the incredible photos of Spider Martin, were on display. This synchronicity was not lost on us and we knew that we would need to add days in Selma and Montgomery to our Alabama visit. I came to Alabama with a set of assumptions, some information, and a lot of prejudice. During the 1960s, my young adult mind, had built up myths about Alabama (and the deep south) based on the information from the media, which led to certain positions of righteous indignation.
This pilgrimage brought me face to face with those myths. I was as prepared as I thought I could be but as we have learned, there is only so much preparation that one can do for a pilgrimage. For example, the multiple efforts we made to see the movie Selma, had all been thwarted. But we finally got to see it on our last night in Alabama. Often, the most profound revelations of the pilgrimage come from being open to what presents when the time is right. And so it was with Alabama.
First, until our time in Alabama, I had not realized that Dr. King believed that the most important thing for African-Americans (his word was Negroes) was securing the right to vote. There were laws on the books, and amendments to the Constitution that spelled out the right to vote, but flagrant violations continued. Without the vote, there was no way, to address the power structure (and abuses) of the white establishment. He knew that drawing attention to the reality of this injustice was a powerful potential agent for change. And that’s why the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights was so important. Our trip started there.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma is an unremarkable structure but as we crested the top and looked east, the images from news broadcasts and photographs from Bloody Sunday – the menacing line of police, with gas masks, on foot and on horseback – came back to us. It was haunting to imagine the brutality and the rage and hatred that ensued as the police charged, and beat, and even killed some of the several hundred marchers on March 7, 1965, stopping the march altogether. On March 21, 1965 in response to the call of Dr. King, and others, thousands began a renewed march after securing a permit to march, this time protected by the Alabama National Guard, which President Johnson nationalized since Governor Wallace had refused protection for the marchers.
We drove the entire 54-mile route of the historic march, stopping at the interpretive center on the National Historic Trail along Highway 80 West. We passed the campsites sites where marchers stayed each night in tents on their way to the state capitol in Montgomery. We passed a marker honoring Viola Liuzzo, a white woman and mother of 5 from Michigan, who had joined the march following Dr. King’s call. She was shot and killed by Klansmen hours a few hours after the march after she had driven several marchers to the airport.
We visited the state capitol in Montgomery and stood on the steps, looking down Dexter Avenue, imagining the crowd of 25,000 that has assembled there to hear Dr. King speak about securing voting rights now. Governor Wallace refused to show up. From the steps, we could see the church where Dr. King had served as pastor from 1954 to 1960. While still in Montgomery, we visited the Rosa Parks Museum. It sits on the site of the city bus stop where, in 1955, at the end of a long day working as a seamstress, she boarded the crowded bus and refused to give up her seat to a white man. She was arrested and when word hit the black community, a grass roots movement led by a professor of English at Alabama State University produced and distributed 52,000 mimeographed (remember those?) fliers calling for a boycott of the city buses, which started 3 days later. The boycott lasted 380 days and eventually ended when the United States Supreme Court decided that the “separate but equal doctrine” did not apply to public transportation. Buses were to be integrated.
On another day, we visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, on the corner opposite the 16th Street Baptist Church. The Institute traces the history of segregation in Birmingham. For me, the most moving of the exhibits was the one showing the patent leather shoes and the little silver charm bracelet, worn by one of the bombing victims the morning she died in the church bombing. I had a silver charm bracelet when I was 13 and seeing its tiny little circumference brought tears to my eyes. In an unusual outcome to much of the racial violence of those days, the three Klansmen found to be ringleaders of the 1963 church bombing were eventually tried in the early 1990s, tried, and convicted.
This time in Alabama provided a new understanding and appreciation for the struggles for civil rights for all those without a voice. This movement has a long history in our country. From the earliest days, the economic realities, which led to the defense of slavery, always met with some resistance. It started long before the Civil War, it continued long after it ended, and laws alone cannot alter the course of the darker side of the human heart. I was deeply moved by the courage, the resiliency and the willingness of so many to follow a call, to take action in the face of insurmountable odds and at risk of personal harm and even death. I am deeply appreciative, and humbled, and inspired, by this instruction about a cause that continues to this day.