Civil rights

On the trail of civil rights | Chroniclers


When lawyer and social activist Bryan Stevenson moved to Montgomery, Alabama in the 1980s, he found a city with dozens of Confederation landmarks and memorials without any reference to the brutality of slavery.

Stevenson, whose career has focused on seeking justice for wrongly sentenced death row inmates and unfairly prosecuted children as adults, is executive director of the Equal Justice initiative.

In April 2018, Equal Justice Initiative opened The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, located at the Montgomery site where blacks were enslaved, and the National Peace and Justice Memorial nearby.

The museum and memorial, both widely acclaimed nationally and globally, were stopovers during a seven-day civil rights tour in September sponsored by Road Scholar. It was moving and revealing.

The journey began in Atlanta, Georgia, at the forefront of the civil rights movement and in the hometown of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., a martyr for the cause.

We saw King’s childhood home; the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he and his father preached; and its burial site, located in MLK Jr. National Historical Park. We visited the APEX Museum, whose mission is to interpret and present history from an African-American perspective while highlighting the contributions of African Americans to society. And we had an in-depth tour of the Georgia State Capitol, whose governors included segregationist Lester Maddox and Jimmy Carter, a civil rights champion, who later became the 39th President of the United States.

After three days in Atlanta, our group of 18 traveled to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. An active center of the slave trade from 1850 until the end of the Civil War 15 years later, Montgomery was also a center of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Among the sites we saw was the Rosa Park Museum at the University of Troy, named after the civil rights icon who was arrested on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, for refusing to give up his seat on a bus. of the city to a white passenger. This sparked the King-led Montgomery Bus Boycott, which spurred the fight for civil rights.

It had special meaning to me since I had heard Ms Parks speak at a political rally more than three decades earlier.

Also in Montgomery, we saw the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where King served from 1954 to 1960, and the site of mass meetings for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There was also the Freedom Rides Museum, the converted Greyhound bus station, restored to look like it was in 1961. It was the site of the attack on the Freedom Riders when they arrived at the bus station. . In contrast, we also got a glimpse of the first Confederate White House, where Jefferson Davis lived until 1861, when the Confederate capital was moved to Richmond.

Without a doubt, the highlights of the stay in Montgomery were the experience of the museums of the Equal Justice Institute. The Legacy Museum portrays the terror of slavery, lynchings and racial segregation. It comes to life dramatically thanks to technology. It reminded me of the feeling I had when I first visited Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.

The National Peace and Justice Memorial is dedicated to the memory of the victims of lynching. The Equal Justice Initiative documented more than 4,000 racial terrorist lynchings between Reconstruction and World War II.

Located on six hectares of land, the museum hangs 800 steel monuments to represent the counties of the United States where racial lynchings took place, each engraved with the names of its victims. The list includes 12 documented lynchings in Indiana. On August 7, 1930, a mob of 10,000 to 15,000 whites abducted three young black men from the prison in Marion, Indiana, lynching Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. A photograph of the hanging bodies of the two victims is considered one of the most iconic images of an American lynching.

Our next stop on the trail was Selma, site of the famous three Selma Steps in Montgomery in March 1965, where thousands of people marched to the state capital of Alabama to secure Afro voting rights. -Americans.

We walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the first non-violent march named Bloody Sunday. It was on March 7, 1965, that the demonstrators were attacked by state soldiers and local officers, which gained worldwide attention and passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by Congress.

The best-known walker that day was civil rights activist John Lewis, who represented Georgia in the United States House from 1987 until his death in 2020.

Our walk across the bridge was led by T. Dianne Harris, who gave us a detailed first-person account of her feelings that day. At the age of 15, she was one of the Bloody Sunday Walkers.

Our last stop was in the city of Birmingham. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute provides an interactive overview of Birmingham’s role in the struggle for civil rights. The actual prison door where King wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is on display.

Just across the street, in pouring rain, we passed Kelly Ingram Park, the site of protests and boycotts in May 1963, where Bull Connor sent fire hoses and dogs against protesters. A new statue commemorates four young girls killed in a horrific bombing on September 15, 1963, at the nearby 4 p.m. Street Baptist Church.

Several lectures and presentations given by various civil rights experts added meaning and depth to the visit. Our Road Scholar group leader, Camilla Comerford from Atlanta, was knowledgeable and charming.

I read many books on the Road Scholar list sent before the tour. The one I recommend the most is “Just Mercy: A story of Justice and Redemption”, by Bryan Stevenson, which tells the story of Walter McMillian, a black man wrongly put on death row.

Stevenson believes Americans must come to “truth and reconciliation” with our nation’s past and pay attention today to poverty, suffering, exclusion, injustice and injustice.

The tour brought this message to the fore.