Course Reflection by Maggie Gray

I have wanted to travel through the south ever since I was young and became fascinated by the history of the Civil Rights Movement, most notably Martin Luther King, Jr. My mother and I talked about doing it over spring break of my senior year, but driving from Michigan would have made for way too much time in the car. As soon as I heard of the Freedom Ride course, I knew it was a class I would take during my four years here. Having always wanted to take this trip, I had pretty high expectations. However, these were the expectations of someone who had never studied the movement at a collegiate level. My excitement and my expectations were based in the love of history that started when I was very young.

I can now say, at the end of the course, that my expectations were completely blown away. Traveling through Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee taught me a lot more about civil rights then any normal class could have. I was forced to confront the fact that racism and segregation are still the way of life in some parts of our country. While this angers me greatly, it is something I am grateful to have learned first-hand. Visiting the sites of important historical events was also a great learning experience. Even just standing in the same places as those who fought for freedom was an opportunity I will always treasure.

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Standing in front of Dexter Ave. Church, and seeing the Alabama state capitol down the street (pictured to the left) was a shocking, and somewhat uncomfortable experience.

The chance to meet with Joan Browning was one of the most memorable parts of the class for me. It was powerful to see Freedom Riders speaking in interviews and to visit the places they traveled, but actually engaging with someone who participated in the movement was something I never imagined I would have the chance to do. Talking with Joan, who was a young college student like myself during the Civil Rights Movement, made  me want to make more of my college career.

While the traveling was what drew me to the course in the first place, and while it was a valuable and enriching experience, I am also very pleased with the time we spent in class. Watching news footage of the movement, and hearing movement veterans reflect on their actions was more influential than I expected. It amazed me to remind myself how young the bulk of the movement was, a fact that can be easy to look over. Watching their interviews in later decades made me realize that many of the most important people from the movement are around today. This forces one to acknowledge the power that youth can have. I had previously not taken any history courses that included a time period where video footage was available, so this was a new opportunity. Analyzing the primary source video from a historical perspective was interesting, and made me look at the movement in new ways. I no longer see civil rights as a glorified movement where everything they fought for was accomplished. From the video and the text that we studied, in addition to the traveling, I now have a much more complex understanding of what the Civil Rights Movement truly was; a movement that accomplished a lot on paper, but was unable to succeed in changing the way people think.

Freedom Riders by Maggie Gray

The Freedom Riders documentary was a very emotional film for me. After reading Ray Arsenault’s book and seeing some other documentary footage I had not expected to be as affected by this film as I was. It was astonishing, most of all, to see Governor John Patterson speaking in 2012. From what he said, it did not appear that in the 50 years that passed, his strictly segregationist views had changed. He was in no way apologetic or remorseful for the atrocious things that he said and did in 1960 and 1961 during the Freedom Rides. While it is essential to understand the opposition to the movement, I was very uncomfortable seeing him talk so many years later with the same views.

Although some parts were emotional and made me uncomfortable, the film overall was extremely informative and full of valuable footage. I especially liked that almost all of the riders were interviewed. Hearing from Jim Zwerg as an older man was powerful, because his speech from his hospital bed after being brutally beaten was so crucial to the publicity of the movement. It was interesting to hear each of their different stories, not just the very famous ones like John Lewis and Diane Nash. Some of the other interviews that most stood out to me were those with the residents of the towns that the Freedom Riders visited. When I read Arsenault’s Freedom Riders, the bravery of Janie Forsyth struck me. At only 12 years old, she was not afraid to reach out to

Janie Forsyth McKinney

help the Riders amongst a group of Klan members, including her father. Watching her speak about that experience in the documentary was even more striking. The Riders experienced violence firsthand in Anniston, but Janie saw it all happen from an outside perspective. She had a much more emotional reaction, because she saw the entire scene unfold, rather than being caught up in it. Her description of the bus bombing as “a scene from hell” reminded me of the humanity of the movement. Imagining being a 12 year who saw a bus full of people bombed and brutalized made it impossible for me to separate emotion from the struggle for civil rights.

After our class discussion on Monday about naiveté in the movement, I realized that the documentary also demonstrated this. Most of the Riders spoke of not really being afraid both before the rides began and in retrospect. They expected minimal resistance, not nearly the level of violence that they encountered. This demonstrates that they were indeed naïve to think that they could so easily integrate the Deep South. However, I think this naiveté was important to the motivation to start the movement. If they knew what they were facing, some may have been too afraid to set out on their journey. It is also important to note that this naïveté was more in the beginning of the movement that at any other point. After they experienced violence, they did not stop. They still believed in their cause, to the extent that they were willing to die for it even after some had been severely injured. They saw that death was a real possibility and did not shy away from it. Some may say that this demonstrates a different kind of naïveté, but I think it is respectable that they were so dedicated to their cause. In some cases, being naive may be necessary to be successful.

The Children of the Movement by Maggie Gray

In Birmingham, we learned about one way that children were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Many participated in a downtown protest during the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, because unlike their parents, protesting did not risk their jobs or financial security. These children were attacked in nearby Kelly Ingram Park with fire hoses and police dogs because of their nonviolent actions.

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Statue of Vicious Police Dogs in Kelly Ingram Park

Here, they were just as involved as any other member of the movement. The police beat them and arrested them the same as they did the adults. In Money, Mississippi, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched and murdered for allegedly speaking inappropriately to a white woman. Again in Birmingham, the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killed four girls all under the age of fourteen. These occurrences make it clear that children were involved in the struggle for civil rights, but there is more to the story than just this.

On June 12, 1963 Medgar Evers was shot in the back as he reached into the trunk of his car to retrieve t-shirts he had gathered for an upcoming march. He died soon after from the wound. When he was shot, his wife and three children were in the house. They heard the gunfire and immediately crawled into the bathroom, the safest room in the house. When Myrlie Evers, his wife, heard talking outside she left the house to see what happened. Her husband was lying under their carport, and a bullet had gone through their front window, a wall, and ricocheted off of their fridge. If people today know about the tragic death of Medgar Evers, they likely just know the basics. Going into the Evers’ home allowed us to learn a lot more about the story.

The part of Medgar’s horrible death that stood out the most to me was the effect that it had on his children. One of his sons, Darrel, who was nine at the time of the shooting, did not speak for a long period of time after his father died because of the shock. This fact was very saddening to hear and something that is not common knowledge. The hardest part of this story for me to comprehend was how his family was able to continue living in their home. They moved to California a year after his death, but for a year they stayed in a home that had a bullet hole through the wall.

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The Evers Home

I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for his three young children to walk past that wall every day, and be forced to remember the tragedy of that night. It must have been very hard on Myrlie as well, but from a child’s perspective it would be very difficult to comprehend, and to deal with.

The story of the Evers children is the first that I have heard, but I am confident that many people who were children during the movement had similar experiences. Medgar Evers was certainly not the only father killed in the fight for civil rights. There must be countless other children who lost parents to the struggle, and were forever affected because of it. We always hear about people directly affected by violence, but it is not often that we stop to consider the impact this can have on their loved ones, especially the young ones. A great man, a valuable asset to the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement was killed. The story is only more hallowing when one considers the three young children who were left without a father and who were forced to see the hole of the bullet that killed him every day for a year. This only makes me wonder about how the violence of the Civil Rights Movement affected other children, whether their family experienced violence, they witnessed it, or they simply heard about it.

The Opposition by Maggie Gray

The Selma Interpretive Center has computer kiosks that allow visitors to watch videos of people who participated in the Civil Rights Movement speak about their experiences. They not only have videos of protestors, marchers, and journalists, but also those who oppose the Civil Rights Movements. This videos of “The Opposition,” as they are labeled, were one of the most intriguing aspects of the center.

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Pins like this one were worn to demonstrate resistance to integration and equalityPatricia Goodwin, spoke of the march from Selma to Montgomery as an excuse for people to engage in interracial relations and drink excessively. Another, Bobby Black, claimed that the march was simply a giant party. It was shocking and disconcerting to see that, even decades after the Civil Rights Movement has ended and laws have been established to mandate equality, there are still people speaking out. I knew that people like that existed, but it made me uncomfortable to see and hear them actually saying such bigoted things. Their harsh words stuck with me, and I was surprised to see their faces again at the Lowndes County Interpretive Center. This time, they were featured in the center’s introductory video, and were again filmed saying very intolerant things about the Civil Rights Movement. Once again, I was troubled by these words.

Patricia Goodwin, a white Selma native, was one of the most intriguing. As I walked around Selma, and through the Lowndes County Interpretive Center, I considered the implications of these words. In Selma, I wondered if the presence of people like Ms. Goodwin and Mr. Black was a contributing factor to its dilapidated state. There has been extensive white flight, and it is hard to separate that from such comments. Racism could also be the reason people are so reluctant to move to Selma, or to try to rebuild the city, because some may have negative perceptions of a community largely made up of black citizens. Throughout the Lowndes Country Interpretive Center, I considered the problem of the words spoken on the videos. These people were recorded decades after the movement ended and goals had supposedly been achieved, but how much has really been accomplished if there are still people who believe these things? If they are passionate enough about their beliefs to share them with a video crew for a civil rights museum, those people would certainly not be afraid to take actions in line with their ideas. While I am proud of the progress made in the Civil Rights Movement, the words of Ms. Goodwin and Mr. Black show that many people choose to ignore what really happened, and replace the facts with insulting falsities. We need to educate people on the realities of the movement, that people were killed and severely injured, not simply having a party. People fought and sacrificed for a cause they truly believed in, and we have a responsibility to continue that legacy. Full civil rights have not been accomplished for all, and the words of “The Opposition” demonstrate that the fight is not yet over. In the face of such discrimination, we must stand up.

Properly Honoring the Legacy of Dr. King by Maggie Gray

Before our class left campus, Professor DeLaney showed us an image of Dr. King’s tomb and said that its extravagance stands in contrast to his ideals. As I entered the King Center in Atlanta, this discrepancy was in the forefront of my mind. The first stop, the Visitor Center, did not stand out to me as overtly in conflict with the ideals of Dr. King. It was an informative space, focusing on the different parts of the Civil Rights movement in which King was involved. The museum space is an effective means of educating visitors about King and his actions toward racial equality, while not placing too much focus on him as an individual. I suspect that he would prefer this type of museum to one that told his story without considering the larger context. When we left the Visitor Center, I was very curious to see the tomb myself and come to my own conclusion about its embodiment of Dr. King’s philosophies.

 

After seeing both the tomb and his birth home, I have to agree with Professor DeLaney. The tomb itself is very large and imposing, and underneath Dr. King’s name there is a quote from one of his speeches.IMG_7408 To my understanding of King, he would not have wanted a quote of his own on his tomb. A quote from Gandhi, or even from the Bible, may have been more true to King’s spirit and the causes he dedicated his life to. The pool that surrounds King’s tomb appeared rather tasteless to me. The bottom of it was painted blue, which reminded me more of a fountain where children play, than a final resting place of a well-respected figure of American history. Something much simpler would have done a far superior job honoring King’s legacy. I also think that it was wrong to move King from his original resting place at his alma mater, Morehouse College, to this grandiose exhibit. If he wished to be interred at Morehouse College, he should have remained there. It is disappointing that the King family was so consumed with a need for extravagance that they failed to honor his ideals. The transformation of Martin Luther King’s birth home into a museum also concerned me. While it was fascinatingIMG_7416 to see the house where he was born, I think that Dr. King would be opposed to its existence as a National Park Site. I would expect him to care more about people understanding his work, and seeing its effects, rather than seeing the structure in which he was born.

These sites cheapen the legacy left behind by Dr. King, and they are not in line with his humble nature. This became very apparent to me after sitting in Ebenezer Baptist Church. In the church, audio of Dr. King’s last sermon played. In this sermon he speculated about his death and explicitly said he wanted to be remembered as a “drum major” of justice, peace and righteousness, not as someone who won the Nobel Peace Prize and countless other awards. The Visitor Center Museum was successful in preserving this memory, but the tomb and the birth home seemed to capitalize more on his fame than his noteworthy actions. I was slightly disappointed by the King Center as a whole, because I do not think that it completely respected who Martin Luther King, Jr. really was: a man who died while in Memphis for a sanitation workers march, not a man who sought recognition, fame and awards.