Traveling Liberally Passport To Change
by Josh Bolotsky, Living Liberally
My family is not rich, but I'd be willing to wager that I received the greatest graduation present of any college graduate in the United States last year, hands down.
A months-long trek through Europe? A garage full of foreign cars? Long-stowed-away wine collections?
Nah, considerably less decadent, but way cooler. My immediate family (mom, pop, middle brother Jeremy, youngest sister Ilana) haven't been on vacation together in a very long time - schedules clashed, schoolyears interfered and it somehow just wasn't meant to be. We'd had blocked away the second half of December to do something - something that hadn't yet been determined. My graduation present? To determine that something within a certain set of time/budget parameters, parameters likely to make it a roadtrip of roughly a week in length, and likely in the eastern two-thirds of the continental United States.
For me, the decision was simple - as a good liberal American history buff, I wanted to go on a civil rights history road trip, with a focus on the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I wanted to walk the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a block away from the city's Civil Rights Institute. I wanted to see the bus station in Montgomery where the freedom riders were surrounded. I wanted to walk the halls of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta. I wanted to find a supermarket that still sells Mr. Pibb, which is virtually nonexistent in my home base of NYC. On the 40th anniversary of Dr. King's assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, I want to share a little bit about this trip, which brought us through Birmingham, New Orleans, Montgomery, and, finally, Atlanta.
I hate to have to include this disclaimer, but I feel it necessary: I'm aware of the pitfalls here. I'm aware of the stereotype red-alert: a privileged college graduate beset by white liberal guilt goes on a 'civil rights history vacation,' implying not only that 'civil rights history' is finished, that there are no civil rights battles left to be fought so we can just classify the whole topic under 'history,' but also that we can visit the streets of Birmingham where children were firehosed and attacked by dogs the same way we can visit the beaches of Cancun with a pina colada in hand - or, worse still, to approach it as something to mark off a checklist. Yes, I am well-aware of the risk of dishonoring sacred places by the camera hanging around the neck of your Hawaiian t-shirt, the ease of forgetting that in the schools of Jena and neighborhoods of St. Bernard's Parish and in countless border towns and so many other places there are still daily injustices, etc. etc. etc. I am setting myself up as quite the easy target.
1. I did my best over the course of this trip to do good. To make it clear that the civil rights battles we were discussing are not closed cases, to volunteer in New Orleans and to see the poor neighborhoods of Montgomery not far from Ralph Abernathy's 1st Baptist Church. To provide educational materials beyond the standard "MLK talked about having a dream while visiting DC, and then did nothing much else for the five years before his death" spiel. To listen to Taylor Branch's America In The King Years series on audiotape in the car and watch 4 Little Girls and When The Levees Broke in the various hotel rooms along the long trip from Central New Jersey to central Alabama.
2. There is a point at which the fear of looking bad while examining the past means that one never, in fact, looks at the past. "If I go on a trip to the Birmingham City Jail, I might look like a rich liberal white kid." So you don't go to Birmingham. And you never get the chance to visit that jail. And an experience that might have made you a better ally in the fight to take America forward never happens, all because you were afraid of looking like a bad ally. Of being tacky. I can't tear the CD player from my parent's minivan when we drive by poor neighborhoods. And if I had to, family members who might have an enlightening experience in these areas wouldn't have gone on the trip in the first place.
(Before I delve into the itinerary, huge credit is due to my sister, Ilana, who took most of the below photos, as well as to A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement, which was an indispensable resource.)
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (which, tragically, does not allow pictures to be taken inside its exhibit hall) is literally across the street from Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, the site of the infamous September 1963 bombing which claimed the lives of four little girls.
This is the view from the steps of the church - the statue you see in the front of the BCRI is a sculpture of Shuttlesworth.
New Orleans/St. Bernard's Parish.
I wish I were sharp enough to initially realize, as I did later, that New Orleans was the intended destination of the Freedom Rides - however, no choice to visit New Orleans was quite that eloquent. Instead, I knew that if we went to some of the most famous locations in American civil rights history, without contributing something back in the area which most obviously indicates that those fights are still ongoing, that we'd be making an egregious mistake. As such, we made a two-day stop to volunteer in St. Bernard's Parish, next to New Orleans - one of the areas hit hardest by the negligence surrounding Katrina.
There are some great new organizations doing work in the gulf coast generally and New Orleans specifically, with Hands On New Orleans being a particular stand-out, but we decided to go ahead with Habitat For Humanity New Orleans, which assigned us to a storm-hit elementary school that was slowly, in a multi-year project, being repaired and brought back to a usable state.
A room assigned to a group of volunteers to paint.
It's impossible to communicate just how nauseating the state of the area was that late December, a full 26 months after Katrina first made landfall - I can only do my best.
The car windows were fogged by our pressed-up faces, part of us knowing that we looked like schoolkids passing by a horrendous pile-up by the side of the road, knowing just how voyeuristic we were being, and yet, being unable to help ourselves - the horror of the moment outweighing our more reserved instincts.
But there's a peril to emphasizing this horror, which is the fear that you'll discourage tourism to New Orleans - which is why I'll note that the tourism-friendly parts of New Orleans, e.g. the French Quarter, look much the same. (There's something really sad about this balancing act - that one must try to accurately report the horrors while also requiring a tacky mention of tourism potential - but in a world where the aid isn't coming from our federal government, there ain't much other choice.)
The entrance to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Civil Rights Memorial Center, whose centerpiece sculpture is portrayed at the top of the post.
The ethereal view from below of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where King served as the chief pastor from 1954 to 1960.
I include this picture because it epitomizes a phenomenon I found myself silently remarking upon throughout the entire trip. On the left side of this picture, in the background, you see the Albama State Capitol, a site of so much history - the first capitol of the confederacy, the end-point of the march from Selma, the building from which George Wallace reigned as Governor - and, literally down the street, is the church whose basement served as the incubator for the Montgomery bus boycotts, the formation of the SCLC (though it started in the Montgomery Improvement Association), and so much more. All within a 1000-foot radius. One has a similar feeling in Birmingham (where the Baptist Church is just a few blocks away from crucial sites in the children"s crusade) and in...
...where the Ebenezer Baptist Church seems like a sort of nucleus around a map of vital history.
Across the street from the Baptist church were King's father pastored, until King took over those duties in 1960, is the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, which includes MLK Center for Nonviolent Social Change, King's childhood home, and his final resting place.
It didn't strike me until a few weeks after the trip's end that we had sort of looped around the intended path of the Freedom Riders - stopping in Birmingham, circling the entire path to New Orleans, coming closer again in Montgomery, and finishing out int Atlanta.
There is, of course, so much we didn't get to see, but perhaps the site I missed the most was one nowhere near the intended freedom ride path - Memphis, TN, which today, and for the rest of the weekend is hosting The Dream Reborn conference on a green economy; it's good enough to know that not everyone has forgotten that the dream didn't end in 1968.