Today 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.
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).
You 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.
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.
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.
How 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.
Everything in Alabama is close-by. This is the beauty of planning a civil rights crawl. You can cram your day chock full of learning and eating with barely any time wasted in the car. It also means that you may try to do too much in one day. We found ourselves in this predicament as we drove from Montgomery to Tuskegee then back towards Selma then on to Marion with stops along the way. We did not have time to carefully follow the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historical Trail. We also arrived in Selma after the National Voting Rights Museum closed.
We were able to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and imagine what it must have been like to reach the peak of the bridge, high above the Alabama River, and face a sea of mounted police and police cars with blue lights flashing. I was energized by a group of high school students who started their walk with us but quickly outstripped us. We’d see them again at Brown Chapel. We also spoke with some fellow travelers—a group of friends from Texas and New York–who met up in Alabama. They recommended we also see the Old Live Oak Cemetery.
We took their advice and drove to the cemetery. It is spooky with ancient Live Oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. We all thought of Savannah, Georgia and the cemetery in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil movie. The Selma cemetery is well cared for and interesting. Thanks to our friends we knew to walk deeper through the plots to an area dedicated to the remembering the Confederacy. There were confederate flags on many of the graves, memorials to Jefferson Davis and General Nathan Bedford Forrest. The area is maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Selma Chapter 53. It is also unsettling and helped us understand why Selma as a city has not been able to move on since the 1960s. It looks like it has been in a long state of decay since the Selma-to-Montgomery March. This is a community that has not made peace with its past.
The contrast of the large lawns and stately homes near the cemetery with the George Washington Carver apartment complex across the Brown Chapel AME Church is stark. We pulled up to the church as the high school students were leaving and Chantay spotted the church pastor. She spoke to him and enjoyed a tour of the sanctuary while Phyllis and I admired the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument. The pastor was very generous with his time and gave Chantay commemorative key chains to share with us.
We drove about 40 minutes through beautiful countryside to Marion, Alabama. The March really starts here. Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by a state trooper during a peaceful protest for voter rights on February 18, 1965. This prompted 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. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came from Atlanta and helped to plan the Minister’s March and then the Selma-to-Montgomery March.
We rushed to arrive at the Dexter Parsonage Museum where Dr. Martin and Coretta Scott King lived while he served as pastor of the church. This is where he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association that organized the boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The tours start on the hour and we knew the last tour would be at 3:00 p.m.
I was not sure what to expect when we entered the first house and into the gift shop where tickets are sold. Our lovely elderly tour guide, Mrs. Margeurite Foley, escorted us out to the front sidewalk and began sharing with us what it was like to live in the neighborhood in the 1950s. We saw where a bomb tore a hole in the porch (and fortunately no one was injured). Then we entered the living room and could easily imagine the family life and entertaining they might have done from their home. Some of the furniture is the same as Dr. King and his young family used.
We realized when we got to the dining room that Mrs. Foley was a contemporary of the King family and knew him as her pastor. The quality of our questions and discussion changed and it was thrilling. I’ve visited famous people’s homes before—Frank Lloyd Wright for example—and none has moved me in the way this glimpse into the personal life of Martin Luther King Jr. did. Chantay was especially touched to see the photo of Ghandi on his desk in his study.
We drove around the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church on our way to the Parsonage. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his career as a minister and an activist at this church. The meeting to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott was held in the basement of the church on December 2, 1955.
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church 454 Dexter Avenue (a block west of the State Capitol), Montgomery, AL 36104 www.dexterkingmemorial.org
Dexter Parsonage Museum 303 S. Jackson Street (south of Monroe Street), Montgomery, AL 36104
Tour schedule: On the top of the hour Tuesday through Friday: 10:00a.m., 11:00a.m., 1p.m., 2p.m., 3p.m. and Saturday 10a.m., 11a.m., 12p.m., 1p.m.
The website recommends you contact them and make a reservation for your tour and this made sense once we arrived and realized the tours are powered by volunteers.
The memorial designed by Maya Lin was closed for refurbishing when we visited in October, 2018. Even without this part of the experience, our visit to the Southern Poverty Law Center‘s Civil Rights Memorial was deeply moving. As you move through the first part you are invited to learn about 40 people who gave their lives for civil rights. Their stories were deeply moving.
There is a small theater where a film about the civil rights movement plays at regular intervals. Then you move through a hallway with a timeline that records more recent hate crimes and people who have given their lives for our freedom.
Another area features quotes from leaders that prompt contemplation and reflection. This would naturally lead to the memorial itself. I look forward to visiting at a time in the future when this water feature is restored.
Just a short walk away is the Freedom Riders Museum. It is one of the places we did not have time to visit. We regretted this when we were in Birmingham and learned more about the brave Freedom Riders riding Greyhound buses to desegregate bus service in the South.
The historical marker on the spot where police boarded the city bus to arrest Rosa Parks for not giving up her seat for white passengers is also the site of the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University. We bought our tickets and strolled the hallways looking at the Gees Bend quilts and other art until the tour started.
Our group was ushered in to the first room where we watched a video giving us more information about Rosa Parks. Many know her story in the most simplistic terms: woman is tired of the segregated city bus policies and one day refuses to give up her seat. The reaction from her community sparks the civil rights movement. This is true is in its essentials and glosses over a lot of important details. The video begins to redress the gaps. Our esteem of this diminutive hero increased.
The second room has an actual old city bus and a nifty multi-media reenactment. It is clever in relating the atmosphere and the details of the event. The doors then open to further exhibits that give more context of Rosa Parks’ brave action. It also tells the story of the year-long bus boycott and other details of Rosa’s life.
While we were there, the museum curators were organizing a new exhibit that included artwork inspired by Parks and artifacts from her arrest. We would have lingered longer except we wanted to visit the Dexter Street Church Parsonage before it closed.
Rosa Parks Museum
252 Montgomery Street, Montgomery, AL 36104 (334) 241-8615
This was the main purpose for our trip to Alabama.
History, despite its
wrenching pain, cannot
be unlived, but if faced
with courage, need not
be lived again.
The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.
–Ida B. Wells
Thousands of African Americans are unknown victims of racial terror lynchings whose deaths cannot be documents, many whose names will never be known.
They are all honored here.
The only way to end the legacy of domestic terrorism is to remember, confront our part, and learn. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice remembers the 4,000 documented lynchings in the United States from the end of Reconstruction to the 1950s. Also called the Lynching Memorial, it is a sacred space with sculptures and a courtyard that evoke emotions of sadness, anger and thirst for justice.
Every county with one or more lynchings has a permanent memorial placed in by state and county in alphabetical order. There are docents who can help you find a particular county, or in our case, to research if there was a lynching in California. There was one county for California represented: Kern County (Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley).
Hundreds of black men, women, and children were lynched in the Elaine Massacre in Phillips County, Arkansas, in 1919.
Bird Cooper was lynched in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, in 1908 after he was acquitted for murder.
Dozens of men, women, and children were lynched in a massacre in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917.
The Legacy Museum gives more detail and a timeline of the lynchings. Through a multi-media presentation of historical accounts of lynchings, the Legacy Museum carries the story through to the new method of terror, mass incarceration.
The tickets to the Memorial are $5 per all persons (children under 6 free); $8 for EJI’s Legacy Museum and a combined ticket of $10 per person. There is plenty of parking near the Memorial and a shuttle between the Legacy Museum and the lynching memorial. We thought there might be crowds on the Thursday in October and bought our tickets in advance. This probably is no longer necessary as it has been open for over 6 months. There is a security check at both locations. EJI hosts a gift shop next door to the Legacy Museum.
We were excited to learn all we could about civil rights history and our ongoing struggle for justice. At the same time we were looking forward to eating some good southern food. When I stepped off the plane in Birmingham I’d been traveling all day on Southwest Airlines. I didn’t say yes to all the high carb, high salt snacks they offer so I was hungry. It was already 8 p.m. when I left the Payless Rental Car counter. And the first car reeked of cigarette smoke and I had to ask for a different vehicle. This took some time. Now I was almost past hungry, so I reminded myself that in California it was only 6:30 p.m. and I headed for the only place I could find near the airport–Hardee’s. Not exactly hitting the southern spot yet a good charbroiled burger. Interesting to note a different fast food chain. (Or is it? It looks remarkably similar to Carl’s Jr.)
The food at Central was delicious and service was solid.
Chantay, Phyllis and I were all together by the next morning and ready to leave early for Montgomery. The plan was to stop along the way but Chantay doesn’t like fast food, so all of the wayside places were nixed and she got busy looking up options in Montgomery on Yelp. She found Cahawba House and directed us there. It is in the heart of downtown and just up the street from the Central Square Fountain. Within minutes we were enjoying good coffee and just what we wanted to eat. Chantay got her grits with cheese. Phyllis got some pimento concoction. (They do love pimento in ‘bama.) I got an amazing biscuit with bacon.
The rest of our trip was not food-obsessed, but we ate very well. For the best experience, wave off your diet till you get home.
Pie Lab in Greensboro, Alabama
In Montgomery we split a giant plate of barbeque at Dreamland BBQ with four meat and 3 sides. Our waiter was terrific but the food was just okay. Central, a restaurant on same side of block as the Legacy Museum was wonderful. I had a pork chop with sweet potatoes and brussel sprouts that was yummy. Chantay had some lemon pie that she only reluctantly offered to share a bite. We returned to Cahawba House for more of those biscuits. When we searched for a restaurant in Tuskegee, both Yelp and Trip Advisor ranked Subway number 1, so we decided to drive back to Montgomery and eat at Sweet Creek Country Store. The smoked chicken was wonderful. The peach cobbler was also delicious but I would have enjoyed it more without the soft serve ice cream on top. Phyllis was yet to be really impressed by the food. She found Chantay and my fascination with searching for places to eat and enthusiasm to try different dishes amusing.
My friend John’s adopted home of Greensboro had a number of delicious places. We enjoyed breakfast at The Stable coffeehouse and lunch and pie at the Pie Lab. Both of these establishments are relatively new and we hope they will prosper.
Birmingham is a foodie’s delight. There are so many places to try that it was daunting to decide where to eat. We started with a recommendation for brunch after worship at 16th Street Baptist Church. We walked about 5 blocks to the site of Mrs. B’s only to read it is closed. The sign on their door redirected us to Mr. Z’s. We trooped off to eat there and then saw the sign for Roots and Revelry. I couldn’t get enough fried chicken. Chantay couldn’t get enough of po’boys–either oyster or shrimp. And everywhere we wanted to try the pie.
P.S. I also was looking for a bookstore and a coffee shop. I found the perfect blend in Church Street Coffee and Books. I browsed the carefully curated books on sale and noticed I have read about half, which means I’ll love the other half! I bought a few… Coffee is good too.
Alabama looked different than I expected. I’ve been to all of the other Southern states save Kentucky, and I thought Alabama would be flatter and dominated by farm crops. Blame digital map apps. If you are looking up where you are going on a paper map you can’t help but see that the Talladega National Forest is like a green smoothie spilled across the state. With Google Maps I zoom in on where I am going and if I don’t take the time to zoom out or use the other features, I make a mental map that is mostly flat.
I also expected more water. A small part of Alabama touches the gulf shore at Mobile, but for the most part Alabama receives its water from the sky. Far from the Mississippi River, the state and its largest communities are not dominated by rivers in the way so many other places are in the US.
There are more hills than I expected and the forests are the same mix of pine and hardwood that cover the Appalachians. We came for the civil rights history but these woods made me wonder about the indigenous people who were here even earlier. The Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, and Chickasaws, as well as the Alabama-Coushattas and the Yuchis hunted, danced and walked in these woods.
Our adventure is a civil rights crawl. Our plan is to drive our rental car to Montgomery-Tuskegee-Selma-Marion-Greensboro and Birmingham. Phyllis, Chantay and I have done internet research and we are also using the “Alabama Civil Rights Museum Trail” as a guide. We also look forward to eating good food and meeting friendly folks from ‘Bama all along the way.