Happy Birthday Rosa Parks

Rosa ParksToday is the Rosa Parks birthday and the day we celebrate her tremendous contribution to liberty and freedom in the United States. Her humility and bravery are an example to people struggling for dignity and human rights around the world.

I was reminded of the importance of knowing her whole story by a TED Talk by David Ikard (also a podcast on TED Talks Daily 2/3/20). Professor David Ikard recommends reading Rosa Park’s autobiography, and I purchased it this morning from Powells. She is much more interesting than the abridged version usually told in the 30 seconds we generally give history.

The Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University in Montgomery, Alabama is also a must see.

Happy Birthday Rosa Parks.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Penguins

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Today most Americans are observing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. It is also Penguin Awareness Day and at first glance there seems to be no connection. There is a through line between the justice Martin Luther King, Jr. sacrificed his life to achieve and the existential threat facing penguins. Allow me to make my case.

I have a new travel guide for creating your own civil rights crawl in Alabama. It explains how Martin Luther King Jr. was a preacher’s son from Atlanta. He married Coretta Scott, who was from Marion, Alabama and he was the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery when he became politically active. You can visit the church parsonage and learn more about his early adult life. You can see the bomb damage on the porch from an explosive (no one was injured, thankfully).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a7cYou can also travel to the the Safe House Museum in Greensboro, Alabama and learn about an incident when the black community members kept Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hidden while the Klu Klux Klan terrorized their neighborhood looking for King. This was just a few months before he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. At this time in his career King was preaching about the need to address poverty and structural economic inequity. Just as old testament prophets were not popular, King and his message were unpopular. He was asking people to look beyond the gross injustice of sheriff’s with dogs and fire hoses to see the injustice we are all complicit with everyday in our economic interactions, which are shaped by our laws and regulations–all within our power to change.

The “march continues” as long as we continue to ignore the ways in which we externalize the real cost of our choices. There is a terrific interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross interviewing Bryan Stevenson about the Legacy Museum. You can listen to it as a podcast or on the website (1/20/2020). The Legacy Museum, featured in the travel guide, helps visitors to interact with the horrific human rights violations that happened during slavery, afterward as Jim Crow laws were solidified, and then with mass  Alabama is celebrating Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day today, so there is still a dialogue needed.

“Until we reckon with history we are not going to get free. I actually think we need an era of truth and justice in this country; we need to have truth and reconciliation; we need to have truth and restoration. And it’s not because I want to punish America that I want to talk about these things. I actually want us to be liberated. I want to get to a better place. I think there’s something better that’s waiting for us that we can’t get to until we have the courage to talk honestly about our past.” Bryan Stevenson, Fresh Air, 1/20/20 (around 28:00)

The climate crisis is similar in that we externalize the real cost of our choices. Someone else, usually someone poorer than me, pays the price for my lifestyle. I drove to pick up my mail today and the fossil fuel in my gas tank contributed to the global warming that is increasing the intensity of fires in Australia, warming the ocean and making it more difficult for penguins to find food. I have a bumper sticker that says I love Penguins, and I have done so little to curb my own greenhouse gas emissions.

And yet penguins continue to make us smile and to live their quietly heroic lives.

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Whatever you may have heard of the The Green New Deal, it is rightly linking the need for  a whole sale change in how we power our economy and social justice. I hope we have the vision in 2020 to elect new leaders and write new policies that give us and penguins a shot at a livable future.

Just Mercy Delivers a Gut Punch

 

As the film opened in 1987 on a rural highway in Alabama, I began to sweat as I realized that I wasn’t prepared for the suspense involved in watching Just Mercy. The film tells the start of real-life Bryan Stevenson’s career as he discovers his calling to work on systemic injustice in Alabama. This movie focuses on his first cases and Jamie Foxx stars as Walter McMillan, one of his early clients who was falsely accused of murder and awaiting a death sentence.

CivilRightsCrawl_COVER-ThumbHow do you make a legal case dramatic? Pick relevant topics: unequal judicial systems largely because of race and poverty, the importance of truth and the rule of law. Then tell the story in a way that we can root for the characters played by an excellent cast. Michael B. Jordan produced the film and plays the founding attorney of Equal Justice Initiative with such stoicism and self-control.

For Stevenson is a man to be admired and his work, not just in working with people wrongly accused, but also in working for systemic change in the judicial system for children tried as adults and given life sentences or death penalties, makes him heroic. Add to this writing a powerful book, Just Mercy, and then creating the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. This was the draw for my Civil Rights Crawl and inspired me to write my travel guide. Thank you Mr. Stevenson.

There are many tough moments to watch in the film. I squirmed at various points, and dove under my sweater as it became clear that we may see an electrocution on death row. I don’t know what was finally shown because I had my eyes shut tight. It was intended to be horrifying and succeeded.

There were many stories in the book that could have been the focus of the film. It is interesting that the screenwriter chose to focus on Mr. McMillan’s story as it is set in Monroeville, Alabama, the home of Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird). At one point a cheerful denizen of Monroeville asks Stevenson if he’s been to the Mockingbird Museum in the old courthouse. “You can see where Atticus Finch stood.” At this point the irony is hip deep.

The Equal Justice Initiative’s work is ongoing. Stay till the end so you can see the “where are they now” facts as the credits role. The corrupt sheriff featured in the McMillan case was re-elected six more times before retiring in 2019.

This is one of a series of occasional reviews of resources you may want to check out before visiting Alabama for your Civil Rights Crawl. Not everyone finds reading pleasurable, so it is good to be able to watch this 2 hour and 16 minute film. It is rated PG-13 and would be suitable to watch with groups of people 13 and over with discussion afterward.

Alabama Civil Rights Travel Guidebook Available Now!

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Paperback available on Amazon or wholesale from Ingram Spark

With a great deal of nervous excitement I am pressing the “go” button to launch my first for-sale travel guide. I know I am more anxious than I realized because I woke up in the middle of the night wondering if I should launch given that we may soon be at war with Iran. Just another example of how thoughts in the middle of the night should be re-examined in the morning.

This is a personal milestone on several levels. I’ve been writing this blog (and other blogs since 2011. I wrote a mystery with National Novel Writing Month in 2011, but decided it wasn’t ready for public sharing. I kept writing and searching for my voice. I am continuing this quest, and I’m ready to share my first travel guide. Other than academic writing I did about 30 years ago, this is my first published book!

I am writing under the pen name of J.A. Pieper in part to set my blog and travel writing apart from my work as a consultant. Also, I am using Pieper because it honors the little girl and avid reader who wanted to be a fiction writer or a journalist someday. I had a thin skin so when I received lots more encouragement from my art teachers than my english teachers, I moved toward the visual arts. Today my skin is thicker, although not as tough as an elephant hide, so I am willing to risk more.

I don’t suffer any delusions about publishing. I am not quitting my day job (besides it is very fulfilling). Just as I love creating visual art, I love the process of exploring a place, blogging about it, then writing a guidebook, asking a colleague to edit (thanks Jane), then figuring out the design with a colleague (thanks Rebekah), then working through the publishing decisions with another colleague (thanks LK). And then collaborating with my daughter Sarah on the launch. It is really lovely to work with such positive people.

I am still on a learning curve. I have more to learn about the promotional side of bookselling. I want people to go on this civil rights adventure, so I want to get the word out.  Let me know if you have ideas on this score.

There is a press kit on the On Your Radar Media Co. website.

Books are available on Amazon or if you a wholesaler at Ingram Spark.

E-books are available on several platforms: Bookshout.com and Kobo.com.

Go while the history is living!

 

 

 

Remembering a Great Travel Writer

Spying on the SouthTony Horwitz was a great travel writer. He was a great writer (full stop). I was two-thirds into Spying on the South when I heard he died on May 27th. I quickly did a search to find out what happened. He wasn’t old enough to die.

I discovered Horwitz’s books through the shelves of travel memoirs in independent bookstores. When I pictured the author I pictured him hitchhiking through Australia like the photo below. I enjoyed all of his books, but my favorite, and his most successful is Confederates in the Attic.

Tony hitchhikingI gave Confederates to lots of people as a gift, as is my habit when I’m enthusiastic about a book. It wasn’t just the humor, the quirky situations he gained access to observe, and the fascinating people he convinced to open up, it was his ability to reveal a Southern culture without mocking or approving.

When I read that he had a new book Spying on the South, I pre-ordered it. Of course he found a quirky angle to revisit the southern United States. Frederick Law Olmstead, the reknowned landscape architect that co-designed New York City’s Central Park, earned his living early in his life by traveling through the South and writing a kind of travelogue and sharing his first-hand accounts of slavery in mid-century 1800s. Horwitz intended to follow in Olmstead’s footsteps and observe the state of things. Horwitz’s timing was lucky in that he was sitting on bar stools talking to Trump voters in 2015 and 2016. He was a first hand witness to the biggest political upset in this century. Confeds

When I read that he may have passed away from a heart attack, I remembered the high fat, high carb diet he suffered while researching his book and wondered if it hastened his death. Or was it the whiskey that helped him bond with his interview subjects? Either way, I feel the loss. I am sad for his wife and sons, his friends, and all of his fans, including me, who lost Tony Horwitz at 60 years old.

His colleague and friend Jill Lapore’s obituary in the New Yorker magazine described a gentle, funny person. In Spying he engages the masochistic Buck to guide him on a horse trail through Texas Hill country. If his friendly curiosity is Horwitz’s superpower, Buck the mule man is his kryptonite. He observes about himself, “What stung much more was my failure in a department of which I’d felt I was chair: finding a way to reach and get along with just about anybody, no matter how different our backgrounds or beliefs or temperaments. This was one reason I’d identified with Olmstead. I shared his missionary spirit, believing that there was always room for dialogue, and great value in having it, if only to make it harder for Americans to demonize one another.”

Tony HorwitzThe best way for me to honor him is to read the one book I missed somehow, Midnight Rising. And to do my best to emulate him in staying open and curious to my fellow Americans, and to other humans I meet around the globe. Jill Lapore suggests that he felt a shadow over our democracy as people more than flirted with authoritarian leaders and white supremacy. This is what one might call a natural response, all things considered. I am sorry we’ll all miss his insight as he was just starting his book tour for Spying. Reading the last third of his latest book, with the knowledge that these were in a sense were his last words, made it a little more melancholy, but no less charming and insightful. Treat yourself to a great travel read this summer with any of Horwitz’s books.

 

 

Honoring Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. statue in Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama

The day we observe Martin Luther King Jr. day in California is a day for marching, a day for service, or a day for relaxing. Some people still have to work, but most have a 3 day weekend. In Alabama, where Reverend King began his ministry and his public service to the civil rights movement, they celebrate a day for King and a day for Robert E. Lee. Yes, sad isn’t it?

I took the time today to reread Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” from Why We Can’t Wait (1963). Like the Apostle Paul, Reverend King wrote from jail to his fellow clergy both a clear argument for why he joined the direct action in Birmingham, and he invited them to join them, as men of conscience, as men of faith, as citizens. Here are some sparklets from his letter:

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the inter-relatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live in the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

“We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.”

“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

May you find the inspiration for creative action and the courage to always do what is morally right.

Birmingham Civil Rights Destination

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We planned our trip so we could attend Sunday worship at 16th Street Baptist Church. Pastor Arthur Price Jr.’s sermon was “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.”

While Montgomery and Selma seem stuck in the past, Birmingham is positively forward facing with a robust economy. Birmingham experienced significant civil rights related strife in 1963, including the Children’s Crusade. The downtown is in the beginning of a renaissance and the Civil Rights scars appear to be healing. We started our Sunday at church.

 

img_5674After worship we sought sustenance in the form of brunch. One of the parishioners recommended a restaurant and we walked several blocks only to read the notice that it is permanently closed. The sign suggested we try Mr. Z’s Take Away. We went off in pursuit and ended up deciding to dine at Roots & Revelry, a newish restaurant in a bank redone as apartments and cafes. My chicken and waffles was divine. I’ve added a rule, besides trying pie whenever the opportunity presents, I am going to try fried chicken when in the South and it is on the menu.

My friend made the mistake of wearing fashionable shoes and we’d done a lot of walking already. We were determined to visit the Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park was just alongside both the church and Institute. Ingram Park has most of the stops along the Freedom Walk. There are multiple moving statues that tell the story of the Children’s Crusade. Even with the visual aids it was hard to imagine turning fire hoses and dogs on young children (until the recent tear gas at the border on women and children seeking asylum). Some things change and some things stay the same.

When we saw for ourselves the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church location at one corner of the park, we could better understand how it was used by the children as sanctuary and then how it became a target. This is the church that was bombed resulting in the death of four young girls.

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Memorial for four girls killed in church bombing. 

Sometimes when I am sitting towards the back of our big sanctuary in Sacramento, I think of how safe I think I am–how little I worry about someone with violent intent coming into our midst. This is a luxury of a mostly Scandinavian Lutheran congregation. With the Charleston shooting, and church burnings, and then more recently the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, I begin to understand what a violation it is to attack a “sanctuary”–a place where we go to worship God and fellowship, a place were strangers are made welcome. The events of 1963 are still relevant.

We did arrive in time to visit the Civil Rights Institute. It offers a comprehensive timeline of the Civil Rights movement. I wished this was our first stop instead of the last on our crawl. We spent quite a long time reading the exhibits and left just before the museum closed. The sidewalks were starting to roll up, so we made our way to the hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greensboro SafeHouse Gem

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Greensboro, Alabama is practically unknown to people outside of this part of Alabama. When you tell someone you are going to Greensboro—even people in Birmingham—they assume North Carolina. Nonetheless, Greensboro is worth a visit for the SafeHouse Black History Museum.

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I had called ahead over a week in advance. It took a little phone tag before I was able to confirm meeting up at 10:00 a.m. The volunteers who help Theresa Burroughs maintain the museum are a mix of locals and people who grew up in Greensboro, had careers in larger cities and other parts of the US and are now retired close enough to drive to Greensboro and open up the museum for 3 women from California.

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The museum is a gem. The Rural Studio helped to design the exhibits and this house museum hits above its weight. There is a video where Theresa Burroughs tells her story as an young woman drawn to activism. She marched, was arrested, and organized her community. In the 1960s, Greensboro was the home to a sewing factory in the black side of town and many more people lived in the community. The downtown business district was bustling and boycotts of businesses by the African American community struck an economic below and created fear amongst the white residents. The exhibits and talking to the docents really brings the sense of what it was like in a small rural town during the civil rights movement. The main focus of the museum is one particularly fraught incident involving Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Klu Klux Klan. I won’t give anything away except to say it is worth making the side trip.

Hooray for Small Towns!

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downtown Marion, AL

Driving through Alabama, I came to a renewed appreciation of small towns. So many of the town squares and courthouses reminded me of some of my favorite Iowa small towns. People who live in small towns are often underestimated or overlooked. The history of the civil rights movement has deep roots in rural places.

The March from Selma to Montgomery has its roots in Marion, Alabama. Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in Marion by a state trooper during a peaceful protest for voter rights on February 18, 1965. This prompted the first attempt at a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Reverend Hosea Williams and John Lewis stepped from the pulpit of Brown Chapel Church and led 600 marchers six blocks to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where the Sheriff and mounted deputies met them with nightsticks and tear gas. Known as “Bloody Sunday” it sparked the expanded civil rights movement in Alabama.

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Marion, AL courthouse

We drove to Marion, Alabama on beautiful country roads. Marion, the college city, is only 28 miles away and is the county seat for Perry County. As a Californian, it is odd to have so many small counties, each with their own courthouse on a square, although it is charming architecturally. We were visiting my friend Dr. John Dorsey in Greensboro, Alabama. We needed an accessible accommodation, so we reserved rooms at the Sleep Inn in Marion. Greensboro is so small the only sleep options are bed and breakfasts and AirBnB.

Marion is also the home of the Marion Military Institute and Judson College, so it is nicknamed, “College City.” The Marion Military Institute has been preparing young men for college and military service for over 165 years. Judson College was originally a “ladies college” or finishing school and has evolved into a liberal arts college. The town of Marion is a classic southern county seat with a courthouse in the middle of a gracious town square. Marion can also claim Coretta Scott King as one of their own.

 

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Awesome coffeehouse The Stable

It was a home game for Alabama so Greensboro had many people driving through from Mobile and stopping at the Pie Lab. My friend Dr. John Dorsey arrived in Greensboro 13 years ago and the downtown was almost empty. He came to serve as a psychiatrist in a rural community and try some ideas about affordable homes with supportive services in a lower cost area. Project Horseshoe Farm has grown and the 15 fellows that are living and working in the community, along with the Rural Studio students created an economic spark and now there is a gym, The Stable coffeehouse, Pie Lab, several retail shops, and more.

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Headquarters of Rural Studio

Hale County, just 10 miles down the road from Greensboro, is the home of Auburn University’s School of Architecture Rural Studio. The students are required to design, fundraise, and build their final project. Many of their projects are in Hale County or in Greensboro. It is world-renowned and a terrific resource in the Black Belt of Alabama.