So Close, and Yet so Far – Batsheva Honig

IMG_6384            In Selma, Alabama, across the street from the George Washington Carver homes are the city prison and police station. A block or two away is city hall, the courthouse and the post office. George Washington Carver homes project was first commissioned in 1952 and became known as the “The Face of the Civil Rights Movement.” Many of the families who lived there were active in the Civil Rights Movement. The community has been and continues to be majority black. However, only one block away from these homes is the federal city hall and another block over
is the federal courthouse. In a time when African Americans were struggling to secure the right to vote, these very establishments that were in the hands of white officials who prevented blacks from voting, were only a short walking distance away. BIMG_6351lack and white lines were closer than most often thought, and sometimes they were hard to define.

Black and white spaces were not so far from one another. In Birmingham, Alabama the 16th Street Baptist Church, where
four young, innocent African American girls were killed, is only a block from the federal courthouse. While “justice” was preached in the courthouse, sacred spaces, such as churches were defiled with bombing attempts from white supremacists.

Similarly the lower 9th Ward in Louisiana is only a hop skip and a jump from white neighborhoods nearby. This predominantly black community faces economic, social and political pressurephoto (2)s and difficulties. While black and white lines were closer than most thought, the differences are astounding – even within the same city.

It is important to realize that black and white communities, families and individuals shared common spaces and lived within close proximity to one another. As much as white supremacists ardently valued the differences between races, they often shared more in common than not. If not for letting the arbitrary color of one’s skin act as a defining point of segregation, no one would be able to tell the difference from one person to the next. Over the years people have allowed other traits such as religious preference, sex and other traits define differences and separation rather than the unity of the human race. Perhaps if we emphasized similarity with others, people would be willing to try to try to better understand one another which could then contribute to a peaceful existence for all on the earth that we all share.

Looking Back – by Miller Merchant

Today was the final day of class. Our class presented the details of our traveling experiences through the South at the Spring Term Fair. We set up three computers and had two poster boards to display all of our pictures and class experiences. Many teachers, students, and friends stopped by to view our presentations.

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This was the first class I have ever taken that has traveled outside of Lexington, Virginia. I have made new friends and enjoyed learning in a completely new way. Reading about a tragic place in history does not create the same reaction as actually standing in the location. The grocery store in Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was accused of flirting with a white women and the exact spot Medgar Evers was shot and killed in Jackson, Mississippi, were a few places that could only be fully understood by standing in the exact same spot. There is power in a physical location. The gravity of an event seems to increase. I have enjoyed learning about a place/event and then go visit. There is an entire new variable added to the learning experience that I have never been able to take part in by visiting a physical location.

I started this class thinking I had a decent understanding of the Civil Rights Movement, and have left feeling slightly ignorant.  The more I learned, the more I felt I did not know. I have no recollection of being taught about the Freedom Riders in South Carolina high school, and Civil Rights were only focused on for a few days. It has been extremely thought provoking to gain a new understanding of the South’s history with racism, and the struggle for black equality.

A month is not enough time to fully comprehend an entire movement, but I have gained a much greater understanding of the corruption and inequality blacks southerners faced. Many issues have not gone away and segregation still exist in many cities throughout the United States. Equality in the United States still has a long way to come, such as LGBTQ and minority rights. The fight for equality is still alive.

Reflection on the Freedom Ride Class-By Megan Riley

In this final blog, I will reflect on my experiences in this class. I really enjoyed taking this course because it forces an individual, especially a young woman who has spent all of her life in the North, to go outside of his/her comfort zone. I have faced racial discrimination before; however, my experiences were never as severe as those that African Americans endured within the Deep South during the years between 1877 and 1970. As an African American female, this course really opened my eyes to how blessed I am to be able to attend a university like Washington and Lee. A large number of blacks gave their lives so that I could have the rights that I freely practice today. When I look at people like Diane Nash and John Lewis, who were both around my age when they were involved in the Freedom Rides, I notice how they passionate they were about reaching their goal of equal treatment for all individuals. One of the things that surprised me about the Freedom Riders was that they signed their wills before they went on their journey through the Deep South. When she visited our class at the beginning of this course, Ms. Joan Browning stated that she didn’t have anything very desirable to give away at that age; none of the Freedom Riders had much to give away because they were all in college. They all knew that there was a possibility that they could lose their lives because they were going to test the waters of racial discrimination and segregation within the Deep South. They were all willing to die rather than continue living and having to endure injustices. I sometimes wonder if I would have been as determined as the Freedom Riders if I grew up during that time. There is a quote: “If you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you will be successful.” Without equal opportunity for an education, an occupation, etc. I do not think that one can truly be successful. Therefore, I believe that I would have had a strong desire to fight for the equal treatment of all individuals just as the Freedom Riders had. I know that that is one thing that I would have desired more than breathe.

Civil Rights: North versus South–Today versus Yesterday, by Janelle Vienneau-Hathaway

Many people view the Civil Rights Movement as a push for Black rights in the South during the 1960s. That region did not permit Black Americans to vote, and it maintained rigid segregation of schools and lunch counters.  When Civil Rights activist challenged  authorities they faced jail, violent harassment, and even death. But the North had segregated schools as well, and racism helped define the region’s de facto segregation. The North did not have de jure segregation (Jim Crow laws), and such overtly passionate support of segregation, but that did not mean that there was no racism in the North. Nor does that mean that racism is a thing of the past in 21st Century United States.

Martin-Luther-King2Many Northerners, myself included, do not have much knowledge of the racism that took place in our area in the 1960s. When learning about the Civil Rights Movement in high school, we focused on Rosa Parks and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We learned a bit about Little Rock and Malcolm X. I had certainly heard of the Freedom Rides, although I did not really know what they were. What I did not learn about was MLK’s struggle to achieve racial equality in Chicago, or the violence that ensued in Boston because Court ordered school desegregation by busing. The racism in the North deprived Black Americans of stable jobs, safe places to live, and good schools. The racism in the South did the same thing. Yet, because the northern states had not encoded segregation into law and were less prone to enforce customary racial segregation with violence, they have a better reputation.

Today, there is still racism in both the North and the South. One of my biggest fears, and the main reason why I did not apply to any schools in the Deep South, was that I would be mistreated by racist Southerners. But here I am, at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, and I have not been mistreated or discriminated against.

In recent news, we see riots and protests in cities like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. These Northern cities are in civil unrest due to racism taking a different form. The violence and police brutality that plagued Birmingham and Selma in the 1960s is now reaching the North as people become less patient and more upset that they aren’t being treated equally. Police are using tear gas on protesters and people are getting injured and killed. There is racism in the North today, and there is racism in the South today. Many think the Civil Rights Movement occurred in the 1960s,JusticeA but it is still occurring today, on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in Baltimore, Maryland, in the Alabama Black Belt and the Mississippi Delta. It is no longer just Black Americans, but also Hispanics, Asian Americans, and homosexuals. What we are failing to realize in the North and the South, East and West, today and in the past, is that all people are people.

Southern Change, by Miller Merchant

During the early 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama was, reputedly, the most segregated city in the South. Its police commissioner, Bull Connor, was known for his racist remarks and support for racial segregation. Birmingham in the 1960s would become a major battleground for the Civil Rights Movement. Tension would grow between increased Civil Rights protests and the existing white racism. “Bombingham” became the city’s nickname because the bombing of black churches and homes became so common. The 16th Street Baptist Church was one of these targets because it was a major meeting place for Civil Rights activists.

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On September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed at exactly 10:22 a.m. Three fourteen year old girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, and one eleven year old girl, Denise McNair, were killed while in the women’s bathroom. It was directly within the radius of the blast of the bomb. A hole seven feet in diameter by the back of the church and a chunk of the ladies bathroom measuring five feet wide and two feet deep was blown out.  Many cars, stained glass windows, and bystanders were hit by flying debris. The gruesome attack leading to the fatalities of four innocent girls gained international attention.

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In 1977 Robert Edward Chambliss was convicted of the bombing and murder of the four girls. The FBI would conduct an investigation, but did not bring charges against any of their suspects. On May 13,1965, a memo from the FBI named Chambliss and three other men as suspects in the bombings. All four men were members of the KKK and known to be against the local black Civil Rights Movement. However, the suspects did not have charges brought against them. Twelve years later, Alabama Attorney General Bob Baxley reopened the case and was able to finally get Chambliss convicted.

Many believed there was more than one man involved in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. The case would be reopened in 1980, 1988, and 1997. Two other KKK members, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, would finally face a trial. Over thirty years later Blanton and Cherry would be convicted. The fourth culprit, Herman Frank Cash, died before being brought to trial .

It took many years for the convictions of 16th Street Baptist Church bombers. The anti-desegregation sentiment allowed four murderers to walk free for many years. The corruption within the South and poor FBI investigation furthered the injustice against Birmingham blacks. Escaping past mistakes is impossible, but changing for the better can be achieved. Convictions over 14 to 39 years later is a long time to wait, but it is not a failure. It is a change for the better.

Boston Busing and the Myth of A North Free of Racism, by Elizabeth Longrod

I grew up in the North, in a small, primarily white town.  Whenever we learned about Jim Crow laws, they were often framed as problems that were far away and completely unrelated to us.  Racism was a southern problem, not a northern one.  The north did not have similar issues to the south.  Since the school I went to had almost an entirely white student body- the only nonwhite student in my grade was the child of Mexican migrant workers and was only around for a small part of the year- and an entirely white faculty, there was no one to challenge that perception.

Even when I was older and developed a better understanding of institutional racism and how it operates in modern American society, the vague smugness remained.  Yes, there is racism in the North, but at least we had never kept black kids out of our schools (or so I thought).

And then I learned about busing controversies and de facto segregation, where white and black people are geographically separate which is an effective means of segregation, even if the law permits integration.  When courts and officials decided to try to integrate schools by busing black students into white schools and vice versa, white parents protested intensely.

I had heard about these protests before, but I had never realized how vicious they were.  We watched the segment of Eyes on the Prize that depicts the busing riots in Boston.  Initially, these protests seemed less about race and more about education.  The white parents interviewed argued against forcing their children into far away schools when they had schools in their own neighborhoods, rather than discussing race as openly as as anti-integration southern whites.

After the busing actually started, however, things got nasty.  White people egged the buses and threatened the black student in their neighborhood schools.  There were daily protests outside the formerly all-white schools and in one crisis, the police had to sneak the black students out of the school for fear that they would be beaten by the white mob outside.

Police escorting a bus carrying black students to white schools

Police escorting a bus carrying black students to white schools

Many white people left the public school system and founded their own segregated private schools.  On the other side of town, black parents welcomed the few white students whose parents sent them on the buses.

Racism and violent opposition to integration was not only a southern phenomenon.  Many people in the North opposed integrating schools, and they opposed integration violently in scenes very similar to those in the South.  There is no portion of the nation that is untouched by racism and no part that can feel superior.

The King We Knew, by Sam Swatski

April 4, 1968. The day a hero died. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As we walked up to the Lorraine Motel, I had an eerie feeling. The outside of the motel is frozen in time; it looks the same as the day of the murder. Only two stories high, it has a balcony on the upper level, the balcony where King and his associates stood moments before the shot was fired from across the street. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Lorraine Motel is now the National Civil Rights Museum and commemorates the struggle for civil rights and the origins of slavery. The museum is located in Memphis, TN, just a few blocks away from downtown.

The museum gave me a greater understanding of the entire Civil Rights Movement because it chronologically traces the movement beginning with the Middle Passage.

But at the end of the main building in the museum, you come across Martin Luther King Jr.’s room in the Lorraine and the room across the hall, which was used for meetings. With the old-fashioned TV and telephone, you are instantly transported to the time of the movement and think about his importance as a leader.

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King’s Room

King gave his last speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” to a crowd at Mason Temple. The speech seems to foresee his future when he says,

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

Seeing the site of his assassination made these words even more poignant.

After seeing his room in the Lorraine, we walked over to the second part of the museum, which focuses on his assassin, James Earl Ray.

Ray rented a room in the building across from the Lorraine and aimed his gun out the small window in the bathroom attached to his room. The bullet hit King in his right cheek and traveled down his spinal cord. Only 39 year old, King died soon after at St. Joseph’s Hospital.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It is fitting that we saw King’s last moments on the second-to-last day of our trip. Though many in the movement disliked the fact that King basically became the face of the Civil Rights Movement, it is hard to imagine it without him. Closing our trip with his death closed the last chapter of King’s legacy in the Civil Rights Movement.