Civil Rights Tour of the South Confronts the Uncomfortable

By Amelia Blades Steward

Growing up on the Eastern Shore during the Civil Rights Movement, there were a lot of unanswered questions about the racism I saw while attending first grade in the first integrated class in Talbot County. My questions about what I witnessed in my school and my community often went unexplained and not until I got older did I realize the gaps in my knowledge about the injustices in the community where I grew up.

My husband and I often discussed taking a trip south to visit some of the historic sites that were an integral part of the Civil Rights movement and to learn more. This past spring, I organized a trip with our friends based on the United States Civil Rights Trail and we headed to Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi to learn the truth behind some of our experiences and to grow in our understanding of racism in this country.

We had read the book and watched the movie, “Just Mercy,” by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer raised on the Delmarva Peninsula who founded the Equal Justice Initiative. The Equal Justice Initiative (eji.org) is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society. We were inspired by the tenacity of his work and intrigued to learn more through his new Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama – one of our first stops on the trip.

Montgomery, Alabama

As the capital of Alabama, Montgomery played a key part in the fight for voting rights through the efforts of such legends as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Our first stop, however, was to see The Legacy Museum where unique technology tells the story of slavery through the eras of racial terror lynchings, legalized racial segregation, and mass incarcerations. The museum, a narrative museum conceived, created, curated, and designed by the Equal Justice Initiative, is situated in the city where slaves were imprisoned before being auctioned.

The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama is a narrative museum that tells the story of slavery through the eras of racial terror lynchings, legalized racial segregation, and mass incarcerations.

Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Legacy Museum, writes in the “Legacy Museum Book,” “The Legacy Museum is an important effort to confront our nation’s silence and to change the distorted narrative that too many have been taught. . . The enslavement of Black people has created a legacy of separation, inequality, and anguish that will persist until we address the legacy more honestly.”

The first exhibit upon entering the museum, “The Transatlantic Slave Trade” exhibit, is a powerful artful experience that includes clay sculpted heads representing the 12 million African men, women, and children who were kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Americas. It is positioned under crashing waves created by video. Walking through the sea of heads, the experience created by Ghana artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, was eerie, as well as moving. Next, digital maps on the walls indicate where the slave ships first came to America. We were shocked to see that the second dot to light up after Westmoreland County in Virginia was Oxford, Maryland. I asked myself, “Why did I never learn this in school while growing up in Talbot County?” Another high-tech exhibit includes replicas of the slave pens where you see and hear first-person accounts from enslaved people awaiting sale through holograms.

In the next section of the museum, which dealt with the period after Emancipation, I realized that my knowledge was very limited about the racial violence that occurred after the country’s post-Civil War Reconstruction. Equally as powerful in this part of the museum was a wall of 800 jars, each containing soil from the site of a documented lynching across the South and beyond. These jars depicted the racial violence and white supremacy that was widespread in the former Confederate states between the Civil War and World War II.

I took the voter registration test that was required of every Black man and woman, and I couldn’t pass it. The museum journey ends with high-tech 21st-century prison narratives to illustrate the racialization of criminality – from biased policing to wrongful arrests and convictions. We spent a great deal of time in the reflection space at the end of the exhibits to pause and reflect on our museum experience, sitting in silence with tears running down our faces.

Bryan adds in the museum’s book, “It can be painful and uncomfortable to see the brutality and cruelty we have allowed in this country, but we ignore it at our peril. We have to find the courage to face the past honestly, and in doing we will learn things that are necessary to become a healthier society.”

The Washington Post calls the Legacy Museum: “One of the most powerful and effective new memorials created in a generation.” The New York Times, writes, “There’s nothing like this in the country.”

We next traveled a short distance to the museum’s Peace and Justice Memorial Center, an outdoor space recognizing 4,000 lynchings of men, women, and children across the country between 1877 and 1950. Eight hundred steel monuments – one for each county in the U.S. where the lynchings took place – hang like caskets above you as you walk through this extraordinary memorial.

The Peace and Justice Memorial Center is an outdoor space recognizing 4,000 lynchings of men, women, and children across the country between 1877 and 1950.

The monuments are engraved with the names, death dates, and locations of each of the lynchings. We were surprised at the number that still continued as late as 1950. Between the two sites, visitors should allow five to six hours to absorb the content of both.

Birmingham, Alabama

Our introduction to Birmingham started in Kelly Ingram Park – the location where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference often assembled. In May 1963, Birmingham police and firemen attacked civil rights demonstrators – 600 of whom were children. Firemen blasted children with high-pressure fire hoses and police used their nightsticks and dogs on the children to end the march. The park had an eerie feel to it as we walked through the trees and the monuments. Walking through the sculptures depicting the attacking dogs was particularly distressing to think how terrifying this must have been for the children.

We then traveled to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute across the street. The museum offered a rendition of a segregated city in the 1950s, a replica of the Freedom Riders bus, Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor’s tank, and the actual jail cell door from behind which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

But the climax of our trip to Birmingham was our visit to the 16th Street Baptist Church where, on September 16, 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church killing four girls on Youth Sunday and injuring 20 other members of the congregation. The outcry from the nation and the world brought over 8,000 mourners to the site as well as donations from around the globe.

The Wales Window in the 16th Street Baptist Church is a beautiful stained-glass window donated to the church from the country of Wales after the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church killing four and injuring 20 in 1963.

We were fortunate enough to be given a tour of the church by a woman who was a Black voter registration worker and who was in the church at the time of the bombing. Her insights were so raw and powerful. One of the highlights inside the church was viewing the Wales Window, a beautiful stained-glass window donated to the church from the country of Wales, portraying a Black crucified Christ.

Jackson, Mississippi

Our next stop on the tour was Jackson, Mississippi, and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum & Museum of Mississippi History. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum’s eight galleries chronicle the events of the National Civil Rights Movement that took place in Mississippi. In the first and second galleries, a timeline illustrates the history of Africans in Mississippi, slavery, and the origins of the Jim Crow era. Monuments memorialize people who were victims of lynching in the state. The heart of the museum highlights people who laid down their lives for the Movement. Additional galleries cover the Freedom Riders arrested in Mississippi and the stories of civil rights veterans such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Vernon Dahmer, and Medgar Evers. In the Museum of Mississippi History, we visited a special exhibition, “The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Exhibit,” which shared the story of Emmett Till and his memorial statue in Mississippi.

Selma, Alabama

Our final stop was Selma, Alabama, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge – the site of Bloody Sunday beatings of civil rights marchers during the first march for voting rights. The attacks were captured by news cameras and seen all over the nation. Dr. King called the nation’s clergy to come to Selma for another march. That night a clergyman who marched was killed in Selma. A week later President Lyndon Johnson called on Congress to pass a voting rights bill. We walked the bridge and back, which provided an important perspective of what it must have felt like for the marchers to come over its apex and see the “sea of blue” of Alabama’s state troopers and the sheriff’s department on horseback before being attacked. An Interpretive Center at the foot of the bridge provides interesting photographs and interpretive exhibits of the events preceding the marches and the outcomes following them. We were struck by the poverty in Selma and how depressed the town was – as if time had passed it by because of the hardships it had endured.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge is the site of Bloody Sunday beatings of civil rights marchers on March 7, 1965, during the first march for voting rights.

I have to share that the weeklong trip was emotionally heavy. There were times when we traveled in silence in the car from the things we had read and seen at these various sites each day. In Alabama, we added a bucket list stop and visited Muscle Shoals – home to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and Fame Recording Studios where the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (also known as the Swampers) recorded some of music’s greatest hits. From 1969 to 1978, the Swampers played on over 200 albums, with over 75 Gold and Platinum records, and hundreds of hit songs with artists such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, Duane Allman, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Bob Seger, Staples Singers, Rod Stewart, Leon Russell, Willie Nelson, Cat Stevens, Dr. Hook, and Eddie Hinton.

We tried to break up the heavier days in Mississippi with visits to the homes of literary giants William Faulkner and Eudora Welty in Jackson, Mississippi, and music great Elvis Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi. Dinner at The Iron Horse Grille in Jackson, Mississippi, not only offered fantastic food, but its museum, “The Mississippi Music Experience,” provides a tribute to the deep roots American music has in Mississippi. Lifelike wax statues of famous Mississippi musicians handcrafted by Anne Robin Luckett and an expansive collection of memorabilia create an engaging exploration of musical history. As you make your way through decades of Mississippi music history you learn more about such artists as B.B. King, Jimmy Buffett, Bo Diddly, and Robert Johnson through informative placards, signed memorabilia, iconic instruments, and classic concert videos.

We even went off the beaten path to see the memorial site of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crash in Magnolia, Mississippi. These detours from our Civil Rights tour helped balance the heaviness of the trip and offer other cultural insights into the region. It was a trip we will never forget, and every American should make to fully understand our racial past and be able to move forward positively.

For further information about organizing your own Civil Rights trip to the South, visit https://civilrightstrail.com/itinerary/.

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