Selma to Montgomery: Marches, lynchings and sweet voices of hope
In March, we drove through Alabama, just a week before the anniversary of the 1965 civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, and we paused to witness the racial struggle still happening in our country.
We walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and as we reached the crest, I could hear the voice of one of the marchers from the spoken history at Selma’s Interpretive Center. She saw Sheriff Jim Clark and his goons waiting for them: “I knew we were going to get beat.”
We followed the road the marchers eventually took to Montgomery, the fields where they slept, now marked with plaques, and made our way to the newest twinned museum and monument, the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which traces the direct line from slavery to lynching to forced labor to today’s mass incarceration, and the searing National Memorial to Peace and Justice, which documents the unprosecuted, officially sanctioned, serial lynchings across the south.
And we attended Sunday services at Montgomery’s First Baptist Church where we saw community sadness, solidarity and struggle, along with hope for the future.
As a white teenager in Hawaii in the late 60s and 70s, I was far from the violence of the south, but I had a glimpse of the minority experience. I had friends who were Hawaiian, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Maori, and lots of hapa, or “half and half,” but still, because of my skin, I was never accepted as local. Once, while walking down the road, a passing motorist in a pickup truck, threw a beer bottle at me and yelled, “Go home, haole,” the pejorative term for white foreigner. My friends often told haole jokes, but then said, “Oh, but not you. You’re OK.” And, even though I studied hula, Maori and Tahitian dance, loved to body surf and lived in bikinis and flip-flops, people who didn’t know me always asked, “Where you from?” If I said, “Here,” the inevitable response was, “No, where you really from.”
I knew the feeling of being pegged as “other,” and was surrounded by a melting pot that never really melted, where racial judgments and suspicions were evident daily. It may be why, in high school, I immersed myself in books on the civil rights movement, spending hours in the Kailua High School library reading about Freedom Riders, marches and lynchings. Surrounded by the multi-hued shades of my world, from my red-headed father’s nearly translucent, white skin, to the cream, tan, mocha, cocoa and coffee versions of my friends, I didn’t understand how one person can look at another, see them as different, and hate them, for no reason other than color. I still don’t.
Earlier in our travels, we had visited other civil rights stops, including the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas, where my father, a lifelong educator, served on the board of directors, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Nicodemus, Kansas, a prairie town established by freedmen after the Civil War.
The new Montgomery museum is a high-tech marvel, with video maps showing how, after African slave importation was outlawed, slaves were moved from the northeast to the south for the growing cotton plantations. Holographic images of people behind bars awaiting their turn on the auction blocks call out to you to find their children. And, in one room, are shelves of glass jars filled with soil from places where people were lynched.
The lynching memorial, on a grassy hill not far from the museum, is stark witness to the horror that was visited on blacks in the nation founded on freedom and equality. There is a coffin-sized metal box for each southern county where lynchings were reported. On the front, is etched the name of the county and the dates and names of those lynched, sometimes one or two entries, sometimes a dozen, many with “unknown.” The heavy metal coffins are hung from chains in row after row after row. As you walk through them, the ground slopes down and the slightly swaying coffins start to rise. Soon, they are hanging over your head. The effect is breathtaking in its horror.
Plaques along the walls tell the one-sentence stories of some of the victims: Arthur St. Clair, a minister, was lynched in Hernando County, Florida, in 1877 for performing the wedding of a black man and a white woman. After Calvin Mike voted in Calhoun County, Georgia, in 1884, a white mob attacked and burned his home, lynching his elderly mother and his two young daughters, Emma and Lillie. After a white man attempted to assault Jack Brownlee’s daughter in Osford, Alabama, in 1894, Mr. Brownlee was lynched for having the man arrested. Fred Alexander, a military veteran, was lynched and burned alive before thousands of spectators in Leavenworth, Kansas , in 1901. Nathan Bird was lynched near Luling, Texas , in 1902, for refusing to turn his teenaged son over to a mob; his son, accused of fighting with a white boy, was also lynched. Seven black people were lynched near Screamer, Alabama, in 1888 for drinking from a white man’s well. Mary Turner was lynched, with her unborn child, at Folsom Bridge at the Brooks-Lowndes County line in Georgia in 1918 for complaining about the recent lynching of her husband, Hayes Turner.
The museum and memorial are run by the Equal Justice Initiative, founded by Bryan Stevenson, a public-interest lawyer whose book, Just Mercy, details his efforts to free those prisoners wrongly convicted, many on death row. I just finished the book and it is a harrowing, but uplifting read.
On Sunday, we attended services at the First Baptist Church. I’m an avowed atheist, but because of the central role churches played in the Civil Rights movement, I wanted to hear the message at one of them in today’s racial climate. And as a music major, before journalism, I wanted to hear the choir sing some of the hymns I still love from my church days as a kid.
We chose the First Baptist Church on North Ripley Street because of its storied history. It was founded in 1867 as an alternative to Montgomery’s other First Baptist Church, which segregated blacks to the balcony, only allowing them on the main floor to sweep or mop. The church is called the “Brick-a-day” Church, because, after the original frame church burned, the pastor asked congregants to bring a brick each day for the reconstruction. It was rebuilt in brick and became the first “free Negro” institution in the city.
First Baptist played a key role in the Civil Rights movement, supporting the Montgomery bus strike and the Freedom riders in 1961. Civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy led the church from 1952 to 1961. He was a friend and adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached at the nearby Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
The Freedom Riders, who were challenging segregated buses in the south by traveling in black and white groups and sitting together in the front of the buses, reached Montgomery on May 21, 1961. When they arrived at the Greyhound Bus Station, they were surrounded and beaten by mobs. They were taken to the basement of the First Baptist Church, where about 1,500 people, including King, took refuge, surrounded by 3,000 whites outside throwing bricks through the windows and threatening to burn the church.
King was on the phone with U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, pleading for help. Robert and John F. Kennedy pleaded with Alabama Gov. John Malcolm Patterson to help. Eventually, about 10 p.m., Patterson put the city under “qualified martial rule,” and sent the Alabama National Guard to protect the church. The mob dispersed, but the Guard wouldn’t let the people inside leave until 4 a.m.
We were the only white faces walking up the steps to the church door that Sunday, and the congregation was small, shrunken from the packed pews in photos of services when the movement was nascent. We were greeted warmly and invited to coffee after the service.
It happened to be “Men’s Day” at First Baptist, with men in charge of all aspects of the service.
The speaker was Anthony Brock, a native of Montgomery, who had been a principal and football coach, like my grandfather, before co-founding and becoming headmaster at Valiant Cross Academy, a private school he describes as consisting of “faith-based values, rigorous academic expectations, an intentional climate of structure, and an environment of love.”
Brock gave an emotional call to save the young people of the community being lost to drugs, violence and incarceration.
“These are our children,” he said. “We know how to raise them. We have everything we need to raise them.”
In echoes from Stevenson’s connection of slavery to mass-incarceration, Brock decried the path to prison for many black youth.
“The governor just announced they are building two new prisons,” Brock said. “I just know they are for our boys.”
Brock, who founded mentoring programs Brother2Brother and Sister2Sister, called on every man in the church to stand up, come to the front, and pledge to become a mentor. He waited until every last black man made his way forward. Then he shook each man’s hand, cementing their commitment to the mission.
Willie Thornton, the minister of music, who could command a concert stage anywhere, played the piano and led the congregation in “Jesus is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
The men’s choir, about a dozen, stood tall to sing, pushing to the front two small boys, about 8. One of the men stepped forward to explain the addition of a song, “You know my name,” that he heard recently and thought should be sung today, and that they wanted the boys, the community’s future, to be included.
As Willie’s piano sounded the notes, and the wall of men encouraged the boys, their clear, sweet voices rang out with the stanzas:
He knows my name
Yes, He knows my name
And oh, how He walks with me
Yes, oh, how He talks with me
And oh, how He tells me
That I am His own