The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s engendered significant change in the United States. But now, more than a half-century later, our nation and our own community still grapple with issues of intolerance and inequity.
To gain a better understanding of the nation’s journey, Encore correspondent Robert Weir embarked on a Living Legacy Pilgrimage in November, taking an eight-day bus tour to 13 locations in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama where key events of the Civil Rights Movement occurred.
“I was too young to be involved during the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, those events happened within my lifetime, and I knew so little about them,” he says of his motivation to join this pilgrimage.
In celebration of Black History Month, Encore takes readers along on Weir’s journey and also explores the struggles fellow Kalamazooans experienced, with one eye open to the fact that the struggle for human rights continues today.
The Living Legacy Pilgrimage, hosted by the Living Legacy Project and associated with the Unitarian Universalist Church, is a personal journey of growth. As participants, we listened as veterans of the Civil Rights Movement related their experiences. We walked in their footsteps and visited graves of those who were killed in the struggle. And at one stop, we heard young activists tell their stories of fighting for equity in today’s world.
Fittingly, the pilgrimage began and ended in Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. In each location, we couldn’t help but examine the parallels between civil injustices then and ongoing human injustices now, such as:
Yet, while these parallels are thought-provoking and disturbing, the stories we heard on the pilgrimage resonated with resilience and, ultimately, hope for human equality in the future.
It’s an eerie feeling to look through a bathroom window at an assassin’s sightline. But that’s one view we got at The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis because the museum includes the Lorraine Hotel, where King was assassinated, and the boardinghouse across the road from which James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot.
But this museum is also amazingly comprehensive. With a winding flow that takes visitors past the preserved Room 306 where Dr. King stayed the night before he was killed, it frames a picture not only of the Civil Rights Movement but also of the slavery and Jim Crow system of laws and practices that necessitated the movement.
Consider, for example:
For me, the most profound moment at the museum occurred when I rounded an interior corner and found myself only a few feet from a towering hulk of a burned-out Greyhound bus. It’s a replica of the Freedom Riders bus that was torched by Ku Klux Klansmen near Anniston, Alabama, on May 14, 1961, in an attempt to burn alive civil rights Freedom Riders, without regard that travelers who weren’t Freedom Riders were also on board.
The documentary film Freedom Riders poses the question: “Could you get on the bus?” Having seen the savage brutality inflicted on those brave activists, filmed by news crews as it happened, I asked myself: “Could I?” Had I, a Northern boy, known what was happening in the Deep South in 1961, “Would I?” That’s a sobering question.
While racism and segregation were pronounced throughout the South, Mississippi holds the dubious claim of having been “the most racist and violent,” according to an article in the Mississippi Historical Society’s online publication Mississippi History Now.
On the Living Legacy Pilgrimage, we visited many of these sites of violence and injustice.
The Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden honors this wife, mother and sharecropper who, in 1962, attempted to register to vote. Two years later, she testified at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, about that experience:
“The plantation owner came and said, ‘If you don't go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave. We're not ready for that in Mississippi.’ I had to leave that same night. Sixteen bullets was fired into the home (at) me. Two girls were shot in Ruleville. (Another) house was shot in.
“I attended a voter registration workshop. The man told me I was under arrest. He kicked me. Three white men came to my cell. One, a State Highway Patrolman, said, ‘We're going to make you wish you was dead.’ They had two Negro prisoners. After the first Negro had beat (me) until he was exhausted, the State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack.”
Yet, Fannie Lou Hamer was resilient. An engraving on her statue in Ruleville proclaims: “… if I fall, I’ll fall five feet and four inches forward for freedom …”
Here, in this rural village, on Aug. 24, 1955, America came face to face with racist brutality when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth from Chicago made the mistake of flirting with Carolyn Bryant, a white store owner.
Enraged, Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, abducted Till in the middle of the night at gunpoint from the home of Till’s great-uncle. When Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River three days later, it had broken bones, missing teeth, a missing eye, hatchet marks on the nose, a cleaved skull and a bullet hole in the skull and had been weighted down by a cotton gin fan tied with barbed wire around Till’s neck. The only recognizable characteristic was Till’s father’s distinctive ring on his finger.
Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted that her son’s mutilated body be returned to Chicago and shown in an open casket at a public funeral, which was attended by an estimated 50,000 people. The Chicago Defender newspaper and Jet magazine published photographs of Till’s battered face.
In Money, local attorneys defended Roy Bryant and Milam pro bono, extolling them as former U.S. soldiers and Carolyn Bryant as a former beauty queen. Townspeople donated $10,000 for the defense. The all-white jury reached a “not guilty” verdict in less than an hour, a decision that outraged the nation.
Of Mamie Till Bradley, civil rights activist Al Sharpton said, “She was able to bring home what a thousand speeches couldn't.”
Today, 40-plus fresh bullet holes puncture the historical marker that stands where Emmett Till’s body was found.
Medgar Evers, a prominent civil rights activist, was shot on June 12, 1963, while standing under the carport at his home in Greenwood. There, our pilgrimage leader Reggie Harris said, “There were any number of places on any given day that he could be killed. And he knew that, so he just led his life. … Leaders of the movement (told) workers from the North, ‘They (segregationists) don’t want to talk to you; they want to kill you.’”
Mrs. Emily Cole Calloway, of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church near Philadelphia, told us, “It took a small army of gun-totin’, tobacco-chewin’, snuff-eatin’ cowards to beat up my father.”
She was referring to the Ku Klux Klan members who, in June 1964, thought her father might be harboring civil rights activists and stopped his car as he returned home from a meeting at his church.
“The road was blocked,” she said. “Somebody jumped out of the woods with a bright flashlight. ‘Where them white boys?’ they asked.
“They yanked the door open, yanked my father out of the car, and started beating him. Mother decided to try to get out. All of them had guns aimed at her head. They threw Papa in a ditch. (After they left,) Mama dragged him up the embankment.
“At home, she washed him up. She put him on the bed. Then she got the double-barrel shotgun. She sat there all night with the gun on her lap.”
Refusing to see a white doctor in Mississippi, Calloway’s father was treated in Chicago for a broken skull, five broken ribs, a ruptured spleen and a severely damaged leg.
On the same night as the beating, the KKK burned the Mt. Zion Church to the ground. A few days later, three activists in the area — James Earl Chaney, a black youth from Mississippi, and white Northerners Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — were murdered by the KKK.
James Earl Chaney is buried in a pastoral setting in rural Meridian, Mississippi. Two massive steel bolsters hold the tombstone upright because it has previously been vandalized and tipped over.
Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper while trying to protect his mother, Viola Jackson, and grandfather Cager Lee, who had already been bludgeoned by an officer’s club, is buried in a small plot of graves near here. The headstone has been chipped by bullets.
After Jackson’s death on Feb. 26, 1965, local activists declared their intent to “carry Jimmie’s body to George Wallace and dump it on the steps of the Capitol.” This did not happen. But on March 7 that year, 600 civil rights marchers did assemble in Selma and attempted a 54-mile protest march to Montgomery.
Coming out of the city, they funneled across The Edmund Pettus Bridge, which is named for Edmund Pettus (1821–1907), a Confederate general, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and U.S. Senator who opposed citizenship and voting rights for freed slaves. Upon entering Dallas County jurisdiction on the other side of the bridge, the marchers were stopped, beaten and tear-gassed by Alabama state troopers and sheriff’s deputies, some of whom were Ku Klux Klansmen. The incident gained national attention as “Bloody Sunday.”
Two days later, on “Turnaround Tuesday,” marchers led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. again crossed the bridge, were met by state and county police on the other side and turned back without violence.
On March 21, with permission from a federal district court judge, nearly 8,000 persons, including Northerners, clergy, whites, Asians and Latinos, successfully crossed the bridge and began the march to the state capitol.
As Living Legacy Pilgrimage participants, we walked across the bridge, on the sidewalk, in silence, two-by-two, just as the original marchers had done. The bridge is of humpback design, with a high arch over the Alabama River. My limited view, from near the back of our group, triggered my imagination; I seemed to hear the ghosts of history ask: “Who waits for us on the other side? Will they let us pass? Will we be beaten?”
The Alabama State Capitol is only a block from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where King served as pastor. Amid a sea of white stone government buildings, the red-brick church stands out as the only “building of color.”
Government officials would not allow King to ascend the capitol building’s many steps to address protesters because they were afraid he might inadvertently trod on a bronze star dedicated to Jefferson Davis, the first president of the Confederacy, which is embedded in the top step. Instead, King stood on a temporary platform from which he addressed more than 25,000 people, saying, “We’re not about to turn around. We’re on the move now. No wave of racism can stop us.”
The King family lived in a parsonage, a few blocks from the church, that is now the Dexter Parsonage Museum and is maintained in period décor. There, in the kitchen, the museum’s tour director, Dr. Sherry Cherry, told us, “Dr. King came home about midnight. He got one of those threatening phone calls that says, ‘Nigger, you’re next. If you’re not out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your house up and blow your brains out.’ He couldn’t sleep. He started pacing. He ended up here in the kitchen. He warmed up a cup of coffee. And he sat there at that table with fear creeping up on his soul.
“By his own admission, he came into this kitchen to figure out how to get out of Montgomery before somebody killed his little baby, Yokie (Yolanda). He’s praying out loud, ‘Jesus, I’m losing my courage.’ He heard that inner voice say, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness.’ It was the turning point, a timely moment, a revelation, a word from God, an epiphany. And he heard it crystal clear.
“The night before he was murdered in Memphis, he said, ‘I’m happy tonight. I’m not fearing any man. I’m just doing God’s will.’ Where he lost his fears (was) Montgomery, Alabama, January 23, 1966, right in this kitchen around midnight when he was 37 years old.”
The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, was dynamited on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963. Four girls, ages 11 and 14, were killed.
Bob Chambliss, a Ku Klux Klansman, known as “Dynamite Bob” for having bombed numerous black churches and homes in the area, was tried in October 1963 for the fatal bombing. He was convicted only of possessing 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit and charged a $100 fine and six months in jail.
In 1977, Chambliss was retried and, this time, convicted on four counts of murder. Disclosures during the trial showed that the 1963 investigation was directly hindered by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
In 2001, two accomplices to the bombing, Thomas E. Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, were also convicted of murder. Critical evidence included taped conversations that the FBI had secretly recorded in 1964 and then withheld.
The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), in Oxford, was a study in old and new. Most notably, this is the historically all-white institution where James Meredith broke a collegiate color barrier in 1962. Professor Greg Johnson showed our group 1890s playbills from the university that described and depicted African Americans in derogatory stereotypical language and caricatures. He also showed us yearbooks from the early 1900s, when the Ku Klux Klan was an honored fraternity on campus.
Even today the university struggles with its racist past.
We listened as students Tysianna Marino, Jaylon Martin and Viviek Patel, members of the university NAACP chapter, related their recent successful effort to have the Mississippi state flag removed from all campus buildings. Their argument was that the state flag contains the image of the Confederate flag, which some view as a symbol of ongoing racism. People in favor of keeping the flag flying have advocated that the state of Mississippi cut off funding to the university, saying, “You take our money. You fly our flag.”
The last 80 miles on the bus back to Memphis was a time of reflection, both conversationally and introspectively. At the outset of our journey, organizer Annette Marquis had asked each of us to write at least one blog post on the subject of resilience. I had written about the power of seeing and hearing directly from witnesses:
“We can read that white supremacy dictated that a black man never, ever look a white woman in the face, but that’s different than hearing an a black activist, still energetic in his 70s, describe that crime as ‘eyeball rape.’
“We can read and know that racism continues today, but that’s different than seeing vandalism and bullet holes in the gravestones of murdered civil rights martyrs James Earl Chaney and Jimmie Lee Jackson.
“We can read all we want, but reading is so different than learning firsthand from people who experienced violence in the 1960s — and who remind us that, yes, racism does continue today.”
Prominent in my mind was the observation of the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth (1922–2011), the outspoken pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, who, in 1964, stated so eloquently: “It was neither church prayers nor conciliating committees which brought about the Civil Rights Bill. It was nonviolent demonstrations — marching feet, praying hearts, singing lips, and filling the jails which did it.”
Societal change is not a gradual uphill slope of incremental improvement. Rather, change comes as a sudden upward leap, but only after long plateaus of status quo followed by turbulence and chaos. History confirms this.
The dehumanizing enslavement of Africans was the status quo in the Americas for more than 300 years. Then came slave uprisings and the Underground Railroad, as well as brutal suppression of blacks (beatings, whippings, lynchings) by the slave industry. The Civil War, with its unfathomable carnage, was the ultimate example of chaos. Then, in a moment of change, came the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 and the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, in 1865.
Over the following century, starting with post-war Reconstruction, the status quo featured sharecropping (which was indentured slavery), Jim Crow laws and practices that enforced racial inequality, more lynchings and institutionalized segregation. The corresponding movement toward justice included the Pullman Strike of 1894, formation of the NAACP in 1909, the Great Migration of black laborers northward from 1915 to 1960, desegregation of the military in 1948, and the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that overturned the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
To those comfortable with the status quo, all of these events seemed like chaos. Then, in a moment of change, came the evolutionary Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, required equal access to public places and employment, and enforced desegregation of schools and the right to vote.
Today, the status quo of injustice looks, in part, like this:
Kalamazoo, of course, is not immune to issues of racial inequality:
If left unquestioned and unchallenged, these and other instances will continue as the status quo, creating a further divide between the rich and the poor, between fair-skinned people and people of color.
Fortunately, however, human rights activists are stepping forward with alternatives. In Kalamazoo, numerous service organizations are working to improve interracial understanding, equality and social justice. (Read “Steps Forward” here)
In addition, there is movement toward healing by recognizing past injustices. Kalamazoo siblings Jon and Pat Stryker, in December 2016, donated $10 million toward construction of a memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, that will recognize the lynching of an estimated 4,000 to 8,000 African Americans from the late 1800s through the 1960s.
These examples, of the good and the bad, illustrate that we, as a community and individuals, have choices to either condone the status quo of injustice or march onward toward a better, more humane way of life for all.
We are like the child in a Native American parable who says, “I have two wolves fighting inside of me: One is fear and hatred; the other is love and compassion. Which one is going to win?” And the elders reply: “Whichever one you feed.”