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

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