Tuskegee and Beyond

After a wonderful breakfast at the Mants’s home (pancakes, sausage, grits, etc.), we left Lowndes County on Thursday morning and drove east to Tuskegee, where we spent the final two days of our trip with movement veteran George Paris. Tuskegee is one of the most historically rich cities in Alabama, and George’s personal connection to the sites we visited helped bring them to life for us in an unforgettable way. But the best part of all was simply hearing his own stories about his movement work, and about growing up in Tuskegee.

George gave us a personal tour of the campus of his alma mater, Tuskegee University. Founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881 to educate former slaves, Tuskegee has grown into one of the country’s best colleges, and has long been a center for educational and political advancement. We visited the School of Agriculture and the School of Veterinary Medicine, where we saw the operating rooms and had a chance to watch a group of students put an IV into a calf. We also toured Booker T. Washington’s home, the Oaks, which was built by student labor and used as a “showcase” to demonstrate that African American were capable of mastering the same skills and knowledge as whites, if only given an opportunity to get an education.

I was particularly excited to visit Moton Field, which served during World War II as a training site for the Tuskegee Airmen. The National Park Service museum at Moton Field is based heavily on oral history interviews with former pilots, mechanics, and flight instructors, so between all the personal stories and George’s own memories of the field, we walked away with a clear sense of the importance of what happened on this patch of ground.

The last museum on our trip was the Tuskegee Human & Civil Rights Multicultural Center, which tells the story of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, one the greatest human rights violations in recent American history. For forty years (from 1932 to 1972), the US Public Health Service and Tuskegee University tracked the progression of syphilis in hundreds of impoverished black sharecroppers from the surrounding countryside. Drawn into participation by promises of free health care, the men involved were never informed that they had syphilis, nor were they treated for it, despite the fact that an effective cure was available. They were left to suffer for the cause of science, unknowingly infecting their wives and children. Surviving participants ultimately won a class action lawsuit against the US government and an official apology from President Bill Clinton, and forced significant changes in the regulation of clinical studies. But the impact of the study lingers in continued distrust of public health efforts & the medical community among many African Americans, particularly those in impoverished communities who are most in need of medical care.

George and his wife, Alice, had us over to their house for dinner on Thursday night, where we met Mrs. Amelia Boynton Robinson, former President of the Dallas County Voters League and a major pillar in the Selma struggle for voting rights. Mrs. Robinson is now 108 years old, and still crusading for human rights. It was amazing to hear her stories about organizing Selma residents and fighting for economic – not just political – justice. She is particularly interested in encouraging young people to advocate for change, and movingly spoke with us about the importance of following one’s own conscience.

People often ask what “happened” to the movement – to its passion, commitment, and energy. As a historian, I often talk with my students about the reasons that the organized coalition for civil rights collapsed in the late 1960s. But the movement itself continued – and still continues today. We found it in many places on this trip: in a youth theater program in Selma, in Head Start programs and efforts to keep small farmers on their land through coops, in nonviolence training in Atlanta, and in interracial unity efforts and campaigns to provide equal access to medical care for all in Birmingham. And it’s not just in the South. Anywhere that people are organizing to fight poverty, injustice, and racism – including here in Adams County – the movement is alive.

-Jill

—–
Jill Ogline Titus
Associate Director, Civil War Institute
Gettysburg College
300 N. Washington St. ~ Campus Box 435
Gettysburg, PA 17325
717-337-6591
jtitus@gettysburg.edu

A short stay in Montgomery

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This morning (Jan 15th), we said bye to our host families in Selma and headed to Montgomery. The two days we spent in Selma, with the Freedom Foundation and the “RAT Co” kids particularly, have been amazing. Every one of us was impressed and inspired by their talent, energy and positive outlook towards life despite the adversities they face. Eager to share their inspiring stories with our fellow Gettysburgians, the plan is to bring them to Gettysburg next semester. We are so excited that we have already had the first meeting with the CPS staff scheduled on the first Monday after we go back. I have to say that the best thing could ever happen to an immersion trip is what we are trying to do—bringing the energy and inspiration the experience instilled in us back to our own community by continuously being involved in various ways. I unfortunately will miss the “RAT Co to Gettysburg” fiesta, because I’m leaving for abroad in a week. I can, however, envision how great it would be when our group managed to bring the kids to the Gettysburg community.

One more thought on “RAT Co:” when Malika, one of the current day activists in Selma, met with us; in explaining the essence of nonviolence, she said: “love is important; but living it out is difficult.” I think everyone who has ever met with “RAT Co” kids would agree that all they have done is living out that love.

Leaving Selma, we headed to Montgomery and toured around the city. Montgomery is the capital of Alabama. It is also one of the signature cities of the Civil Rights Movement—the headquarter of the 1955 bus boycott and the end point of the Selma-Montgomery March of 1965. In accordance with the two major events happened in the city during the era, we visited the Rosa Parks Museum and the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.

Located at the southwestern corner of the intersection of Dexter Avenue and Decatur Street, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church was only one block away from the Alabama state capitol building. The front stairs of the capitol have witnessed the end of Selma-Montgomery March, where the marchers were confronted by the state troopers and were not allowed to step onto the stairs. Going down the Decatur Street, we stepped on the footprints of the freedom fighters and walked the last one block of the Selma-Montgomery March. When we sat at the stairs of the capitol building, light began to fade out as the sun set. A thick layer of mist set a perfect scene for a documentary. Standing in front of the capitol building, I could see Dr. King with thousands of freedom fighters walk out of the mist and approach at one of ending points of the struggle for freedom and justice. As we have learned and witnessed throughout the trip, the struggle, however, never ended. It is our responsibility to continue the fight against injustice and prejudice.

Late afternoon, we turned our back to Montgomery and headed to Lowndes County. We had dinner with our host families, including the Mantz’s, who have been long-time friends of CPS and have hosted many Gettysburg College students in the past years. During our stay at Lowndes County, we had been fully exposed to the southern hospitality and enjoyed every meal we had unsurprisingly.

 

–Yaou

 

 

“Remember, we take judgment, throw it on the floor, and stomp on it.”

When you’re standing on the outside and looking in, the segregation and racism of Selma Alabama can seem to overtake the town.  After taking a tour of the town, I know my fellow participants and myself were overwhelmed and disheartened by how little things had changed since the civil rights movement in Selma.  When you’re looking in from the outside, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the structural issues of the town and forget that there are people who live in that town.  Sure, the structural problems of the town affect the lives of the people living there but they don’t define them.  Throughout the day yesterday we saw that.

            We started off the day by going to Selma’s Head Start program and helping out in various three and four year old classrooms for the morning.  In my classroom, this meant that Yaou and I spent a good portion of the morning singing various songs about the days of the week, colors, numbers, letters, etc., that I had about four children ask me if I was a boy or a girl because of my short hair, and that I got to play with Lincoln logs and baby dolls.  I think this was the groups’ first view into real life in Selma, at least what real life is like for three and four year olds.  And of course, three and four year olds haven’t been tainted by racism and segregation. They don’t understand that there are places that are not still completely segregated and therefore, are just like any other three and four year olds that you’ll ever meet. 

            In the afternoon, Julie took us to the Voting Rights Museum where we learned about Selma’s Civil Rights History, specifically, the protests and marches that had to happen before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed.  Although a lot of the information in the museum had been information that we had come across in other museums, there is just more gravity seeing pictures of people that had taken part in the movement and knowing that they lived in the same small town in which you were standing.  Moreover, because a lot of the people who took part in the movement in Selma were younger, a lot of them were still living.  These two aspects of Selma’s history really just made the Civil Rights movement there really tangible for me.

            And finally at night, we attended a rehearsal for the Random Acts of Theatre Company (or RAT Co.).  RAT Co is kind of a two part project.  On the one hand, it’s theatre company created for the children in the town of Selma.  On the other, it’s a movement (as any of the kids will tell you) that’s trying to increase the love in Selma, create relationships across race lines, and change the way that kids view themselves and their situations. In the past, the group has traveled to various different places in the U.S. to perform and spread the word about RAT Co. and the children’s stories of what it is like to live in Selma.  While we were with them, the group was preparing for a performance at a fundraiser in Colorado.

            While we were at rehearsal, we spent some time dancing with the kids, learning sign language for a song with them, and then broke up into groups so that each of the kids could work on the aspect of performance that they were most interested in.  Some of the kids were choreographing, some were writing monologues or song lyrics, some were working on arts and crafts, and others were practicing their drum lines. 

            The whole experience of being at rehearsal was truly amazing for all of us.  Not only were all the kids incredibly welcoming to us, they were so willing to share their stories and talk about what it is about RAT Co. that they love so much.  And I think their reasons are a true testament to how much good RAT Co. is doing for all those kids.  The resounding sentiment behind what all the kids were saying was that RAT Co. allowed the kids involved to define their own sense of self, outside of what their peers, teachers, and parents are telling them they should be. The greatest part is that the kids actually know that this is what RAT Co. is doing for them and want to spread the movement so that more kids are able to have the same opportunities.

            And to look at the kids involved, you would never know that they come from tough backgrounds, experiencing things that most people will never experience in their lives (let alone by the time they were fifteen).  The kids are truly inspiring.  The excitement that emanates from them while they are onstage is amazing. I was also amazed by the amount of respect and support that they kids show for each other.  It is obvious that the point is not to have stars or to lift anyone up as ‘most talented.’  Instead, the kids help each other along. Everyone has a place at RAT Co. and no one’s place is more important than the others.  The kids not only understand this sentiment, but also live it fully during rehearsals. 

            RAT Co. is obviously an amazing organization that is doing a lot of good in Selma. It’s easy to get caught up in the problems that exist there and the work that still needs to be done to make changes.  It’s easy to get depressed and overwhelmed by how hard it would be to change things.  However, when you’re with the kids of RAT Co. it’s impossible to get caught up in those problems because you can see how much is being done to change the social structures that exist. The kids there are not depressed about their situations because they’re actually working as activists to make changes.  They are inspired and excited about what RAT Co. has done for them and want to spread it so that more of Selma’s children can be changed too. Of course, these changes aren’t going to be made over night.  As Malika explained to us when we talked to her the other night, laws do not change people’s hearts and minds.  People’s hearts and minds take longer to change.  And if any organization is able to change people’s hearts and minds, it is definitely RAT Co.

 

Laura  

 

 

Eyes on the Prize

We started today attending a worship service at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the target of a racially motivated bombing that killed four girls in September 1963. Across the street from the Church is Kelly Ingram Park, the site of many demonstrations in the 1960s, including the ones in which police dogs and water hoses were turned against the demonstrators, many of whom were children. Given the history in that area, there is so much to be angry about and to be resentful for, and yet, everyone we met at the church was incredibly welcoming and friendly. The courage to forgive the past and welcome strangers into their place of worship showed us that hate can be overridden with love and kindness.

After the service, we made our way to Selma to meet members of the Freedom Foundation. Gwen, the president of the Freedom Foundation, Ronald, Jarra and her husband Robert gave us a tour of Selma. Fifty years after the Civil Rights movement, things have not changed much in Selma. Although whites only make up about 20% of the population, they still control the wealth and power of the city. Not unlike during the Civil Rights era, people like Ronald and Robert have lost their jobs because of their involvement in social justice organizations. Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the schools in Selma are completely segregated. The white private schools do not take holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day; instead, they celebrate General Lee’s birthday. While blacks reenact the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, whites host Market Day, reminiscent of the market days of the slave era. The community is separated by race, blacks on the East and whites on the West, and not at all equal. The roads on the East side were paved only about 15 years ago, and something as simple as sidewalks are still missing in this part of the city. We drove past a church that had remodeled one of the sides to look exactly like the front because blacks still use the side entrances of buildings, rather than the front door, not because of legal requirements but out of habit. One of the most haunting parts of the tour for me was driving past a former slave quarter. Even more chilling is the fact that it’s still inhabited.

One of our last stops on the tour was Old Live Oak Cemetery, which houses the Confederate Circle. Recently the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was stolen from the Confederate Circle. A few groups in Selma have organized to replace it, igniting protest from community members. One activist, Malika Fortier, even sat in the ditch with her husband and child to stop trucks from pouring concrete and to prevent work on the monument. After dinner, we were fortunate enough to meet and chat with Malika. Her conviction in what she believed was inspiring. The history of Selma has given her the strength to work for social justice and equality for all. It reminds her of the courage, commitment, and determination of the Civil Rights leaders, and it reminds her of the work that still needs to be done. She, like the other members of the Freedom Foundation, believes in fighting hate with love and, rather than pointing out what is wrong, showing the community what can be.

Before heading back to our host families, we watched Eyes on the Prize. It was surreal to see the images of Selma from the 50s and 60s and know that we were at all those sites during our tour today and that so much blood has been shed on these grounds. Even though it seems like the city has barely changed over the last fifty years and unlikely to change in the future, the members of the Freedom Foundation know that change is coming – they just have to believe in it. They remind us that laws may change overnight, but the hearts and minds of individuals take time to change. With compassion to overcome the hate, change will come.

In keeping with tradition, I will end this blog by quickly discussing today’s food experience. We returned to Zaxby’s, our new favorite fast food restaurant, for lunch today. No Zax sauce today, but we did try their tater chips (which are really just potato chips…but awesomer, so the restaurant claims). After finding out that Robert is the general manager of Selma’s Zaxby’s, I have grown even fonder of the place. Plus Robert is from Colorado, and I have to support my fellow Coloradans.

–Cam

Looking Ahead

“You can’t just look backward fifty years, but must look forward another fifty years,” proclaimed the Birmingham mayor’s special assistant at the commencement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Walk. If there was ever a theme for the day, that was it.

Our morning started with volunteering at the aforementioned Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Walk. Volunteering took many forms, for me that meant one of my favorite forms of volunteer work: face painting. “I want to be a tiger!” “I want to be half-vampire, half-werewolf!” “I want to be blue!” The children’s creativity was astounding, unchecked by the fact that blue wasn’t an ordinary face-painting request, or that vampires and werewolves were mortal enemies according to popular fiction. As the walk continued, a truly diverse group of walkers including white and black, male and female, Christian and Jewish Birminghamians, and a group of eight Gettysburgians walked together around the park: an unchecked, unchallenged display of unity, and how far the community has come in the past fifty years. However, the dilapidated, forgotten buildings in the surrounding skyline reminded the walkers of how far the community still has to go.

After the Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Walk, we headed to activist Bobby D. Freidman’s home where he welcomed us with open arms, and we met Gwen Webb—another relentless activist who started her career in eighth grade by becoming involved in the Birmingham campaign and continued to challenge boundaries by just living her life: marrying a white man and becoming the second African-American woman to join the Birmingham Police force. Together, Bobby and Gwen answered our questions, shared their past, their advice, and their favorite stories with us as we leaned closer and closer, eager to catch every word. Their message was clear: you must be involved in your community. Injustice exists, fight it. . . . and we’re hear to help. With exchanged phone numbers, handshakes, pats on the back, and final photos Bobby and Gwen sent us on our way to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, like all of our experiences today, was incredible. The exhibits outlined Civil Rights history both in Alabama and on a national stage from 1800 through today. Starting with a early images of segregation, we trudged the slight incline of exhibits through segregated classrooms, replica churches, a haunting room including ghostly images of the variety of individuals opposed to school integration, a KKK robe, and burnt cross, before the slope leveled out, opening up on a presentation of the events of the movement itself, then finally reaching a window displaying the contemporary city skyline and a discussion of post 1960’s Birmingham and international Civil Rights injustices. The highlight of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute the guards, particularly Clarence, who his partner described as “older than Pepsi Cola” and “like a radio . . . he just keeps talking until you turn him off.”

Our day in Birmingham was full of colorful and kind individuals like Clarence. We met the next in Kelly Ingram Park, the park across from the Institute where sixty years ago water hoses blew young protesters across the street, driving the bark from the trees. While some spots on the trees still stood bare, an incredible testament to the power of hate, the park had been transformed, including the installation of a monument filled “Freedom Walk.” There, Jeremy, a homeless Birminghamian, gave us a tour and his own interpretation of the monuments and Birmingham’s Civil Rights progress. Jeremy’s interpretation differed from the many other narratives we’d heard during our trip, serving as a poignant reminder of the multi-faceted nature of history.

As we finished our day, reflecting on the past of the Civil Rights Movement, our personal past and what the future held, we headed to Big Daddy’s Dreamland Bar-B-Que. There, Laura, Michael and Signe provided our last example for the day of the power of individuals in the form of a rib-eating contest. Each of the fierce competitors showed outstanding commitment to the challenge at their hands, but at the end of the day there could only be one victor. And the winner was . . . Signe. However, with Michael’s offer for a rematch looming on the horizon we found ourselves again looking toward tomorrow.

-Amelia

Crossing the Border into Alabama!

We started the day off well rested in Atlanta. As if we hadn’t had enough time in the van yesterday, we hit morning rush hour traffic into Atlanta at its peak this morning as well. Thankfully Jill was much more patient than I would have been and got is to the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site calmly and in one piece!

While there we were able to see the home within which Martin Luther King Jr. was born. Unfortunately we weren’t able to tour the home, but we did get to go up to it and take a few group photos. From there we went to the King Center and toured Freedom Hall, which has various educational centers and artifacts from King’s life. It also had an exhibit on Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s message of non-violent activism was very influential for King, so it was really interesting to see elements of both of their lives juxtaposed against one another. Outside of Freedom Hall we all paused at Dr. and Mrs. King’s tomb. It sits elevated on top of a pool of water and faces the eternal flame. While looking directly at the tomb you can hear Dr. King’s voice delivering a speech. This particular setting was a very powerful moment for me because it was starting to drizzle, but the eternal flame was precisely what it should be: eternal and burning despite the rain. That seemed particularly symbolic to me.

We were also lucky enough to be able to go into the Ebenezer Baptist Church where King and his father preached and where the whole King family regularly attended church. Apparently Dr. King’s sister, Christine King Farris still attends the newly erected Ebenezer Baptist Church. The setup they have in the old church is quite an experience as well. They have a recording of Dr. King preaching playing as you sit in the pews of a church that looks very much unchanged from when King would have been there.

The entire King Center was a totally different museum experience from our experience yesterday. The area is all restored and seems almost encapsulated in a very specific point of time, and that point was during Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. It really does feel like you’re walking through history.

We had to keep moving to make it to Birmingham late this afternoon, so we continued our journey and finally crossed the border into Alabama! We made it! The rest of the evening was fairly low-key. We met with our contact in Birmingham, Kelvin. He has tons of contacts and it looks like he’s going to keep us very busy over the next few days. Tonight he took us to a photo gallery opening where one photographer named Sonja Rieger was displaying photos she took at a Klan rally in Gardendale, AL in 1979, a town not far from us now. The photos were exceptionally powerful and included men in the full KKK garb as well as enormous cross burnings. She juxtaposed these photos with other photos she had taken of enormous clouds and sun, and altogether it made for a very moving image and start to our time in Birmingham. I overheard one woman speaking with Sonja who spoke about how shocked she was that the images were actually taking place while she was attending college in Birmingham. She said that she never would have imagined as a college student that a Klan meeting could be happening right down the road. Her comment was particularly hard-hitting for me as a current college student. What kinds of injustices are happening “right down the road” from me on a daily basis that I’m unaware of?

And because I like to end on a positive note, here is our food update… We learned today that Cam is part bloodhound. She can sniff out the best restaurant in town from seeing a sign off the highway. Yesterday it was Zaxby’s and today it was Folk’s where you can get “blue ribbon sweet tea” and the “best fried chicken in Atlanta!” I knew it was my kind of place when I saw the headline “Don’t forget your vegetables!” on the menu and found mac & cheese, sweet potato soufflé, and fried pickles listed as vegetables as well as various items “cooked with turkey.” So what do you do when you can’t find the vegetables? You order the fried pickles of course! The group is split 50/50 on whether we like the fried pickles or not. But I think we can all agree that they would be much improved with some Zax Sauce.

- Hannah

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First Day

Today was an auspicious start to our ten-day Alabama immersion trip, as we drove approximately 673 miles in ten hours, passing through a grand total of six states. We only made five pit stops, including one in Greensboro, NC (more on that later!). We also celebrated our dear group member Laura’s birthday!

Our stop in Greensboro was our activity of the day that was related to the Civil Rights Movement. It was definitely a great introduction to our itinerary for the rest of the trip, as we visited the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. The museum is located in the heart of Greensboro, housed in the old Woolworths, where the first sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement occurred. Being there was incredibly powerful. The way our tour guide led us through the museum was reminiscent of the psychological effects that Jim Crow laws had on African-Americans back before the Civil Rights movement. The layout of the museum was confusing, crammed, and our guide was forever telling us where we could and couldn’t go. Near the end of the tour, she pointed this out to us. We were also bid to see ourselves as a piece of the movement, and to continue affecting change in the world to change it for good.

Not only the layout of the museum was interesting – so was the content. We got a general overview of the movement as a whole, which will really help as we delve further into it over the next several days. It was also good to see that many important segments of the Civil Rights movement didn’t necessarily start or happen in the Deep South – instead, it was all over the United States.

After our stop in Greensboro, we continued our journey south. Dinner was absolutely fantastic. We stopped at a chain that none of us had heard of before called Zaxby’s. They specialize in chicken items on their menu. It was definitely a cultural experience – Zaxby’s was the epitome of a Southern cultural experience. Apparently, it’s a chain with over 500 restaurants in twelve southeast states. We fretted for awhile over what their special “Zax Sauce” tasted liked – and ultimately decided upon pizza-flavored Combos – and enjoyed the comforts of southern home cooking, fast-food style. We also decided to bring the Zaxby’s franchise up to Gettysburg, but maybe minus the Zax Sauce.

That brings you, dear reader, up to speed with our trip thus far. Tune in tomorrow (or the morning after) for our adventures in Atlanta, and our drive to Birmingham!

– Signe