The Fight is Not Over by Jamaal Jones

This trip and course through The South taught me many things and if anything it taught me that there is still much that needs to be done. I think the most important thing to realize is that the law can only do so much in these kinds of situations. A discussion that will stick with me for a long time is one had on our last Monday. The discussion centered around the successes and failures of The Civil Rights Movements and the effectiveness of the Freedom Rides. Everything that occurred from the death of Emmitt Till in 1955 to the passing of The Civil Rights Movement in 1964 to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 were tremendous steps forward in a fight that will hopefully not be continued much longer.

It is clear that what remains is not a policy problem but rather a societal problem. When in Selma it became very clear to me that there was still a problem, the public school, where the black children attended, was being taken over by the state while the the private school, which according to a local source was where all the white children went, was doing fine. There was still segregation within the neighborhoods, where blacks lived in the projects and parts of town which were falling apart while the white towns people lived in much nicer homes out of view of the town. The dividing line being the road that led to the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

A short while later while watching video on the Chicago housing marches we discussed how segregation was not simply a Southern Problem. Segregation was an everywhere problem but the heat was brought to the South because of their extreme reactions to some of the new laws passed. History seemed to be told by the North about the horrible South and their backwards ways when in fact one of the biggest sprawling cities in the North was treating black citizens just as bad as Southerners were treating black citizens. It hit me immediately, racism and segregation was not ended by the Civil Rights Movement or the passing of The Civil Rights Act, it was only made illegal. But of course there were always loopholes and Chicago found them and so did many other states. Disparate Impact claims (Policy that is discriminatory based on a disproportionate adverse affect on a population based on race, sex, religion or familial status where there is no legitimate reason for discrimination) are still being filed and people are still being segregated and systematically oppressed but through legal loopholes.

The discussion had on our last Monday simply made it very clear that so much has been accomplished but to stop when the law is passed simply does not get the job done. It is the last few steps that will truly make a difference and make the policies that were put into place in the 1960’s actually mean that segregation in America is done away with. There has been too much effort by young men and women to grow complacent in how far we have come when there is still so much further to go.

Freedom Riders – The Deeper Meaning in Documentary Film by Jamaal Jones

Over the length of our course we read Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders and followed the course of the Freedom Riders through the South, although our class focused on only hot spots of the movement rather than the actual route of the Freedom Rides. However, one of the most interesting portions of the course was watching the documentary film companion to Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.

Though the merit of documentary film is debatable, this one is far more descriptive than the text of a book or descriptions in a lecture. The Freedom Rides were an incredibly emotional, tense, and turbulent period of the Civil Rights Movement. The youth of the 1960’s were extremely brave, and I never quite understood how these bus rides made such a huge impact until watching this film and truly understanding what these young people experienced.

Students about my age risked their lives for civil rights that I take for granted every day. I do not think twice before using a public facility or being able to vote for my local and national officials. I regard all of these privileges as natural rights that I was born with, but only 50 years ago people fought to make sure that southern states secured these rights.

The film shed some light on what the students truly experienced. People were beaten within inches of their life and jailed for long periods of time just for acknowledging that they had the constitutional right to ride the bus through the south however they would like. The arrests in Mississippi filled Parchment Prison to capacity with Freedom Riders, where they were forced to work and deprived of their mattresses and tooth brushes  simply for singing Freedom Songs. These were everyday young men and women, many of whom were college educated but treated like common criminals. The injustices placed on the Freedom Riders were incredibly uneasy to watch as I sat in an air conditioned classroom at a mixed-race university enjoying liberties brought to me by their suffering.

Another uneasy scene was listening to Southern governors speak to segregation and seeing their views unchanged decades later. It spoke to the true feelings that these individuals held  towards segregation. It was not simply an idea they were promoting for the popular vote (or rather the vote by the populous that could vote), but rather a deep seeded hatred for desegregation and equal rights under the law. To see it spoken is a lot different than reading it in pages of a book or on the internet. It takes on a much deeper meaning and becomes truly frightening.

“We Shall Overcome” by Jamaal Jones

selmasignsmall

The town of Selma, once a great hub for one of the most important marches of the Civil Rights Movement now stands disheveled and empty. Once boasting an Air Force base, many mills and several small businesses, the town now stands nearly vacant with few shops open and even fewer restaurants. To stay in Selma for any more than a day or two is rare as visitors frequent the city only for its few historical sites all within walking distance of each other.

On our first day there we visited the Selma Interpretive Center, a small museum located on the corner of what seems to be the two main streets in Selma. For a town with such rich history, it seemed rather odd to me to only see small historical sites and markers commemorating such an important part of history. The lack of historical markers was not the only thing that worried me about Selma however. While walking around the town I encountered maybe 200 people including a very large church going presence at the community lunch. We attended the morning service at Brown Chapel AME,  and it maybe 50 people were there, many of whom wore their finest clothes for the first Sunday Communion service. The surrounding neighborhood was consisted of project housing and homes that seemed to be falling apart from lack of maintenance. With a population of about 20,000 and a median income of $16,000, most local residents live in poverty. It is very clear that a majority of the citizens of Selma were not doing well. Industry has disappeared, and major sources of economic comfort continue to leave the small Alabama city.

In a candid conversation with a Mayoral candidate, she exhibited enthusiasm and asserted that Selma could be revived, and that what was once a great  small city, could be great again. The challenge for  any city official of Selma is to get tourists to stay long enough to spend money there. Most come to see the Edmund Pettus Bridge which is one way in and out of town.  The historic St. James Hotel is in a state of disrepair, and the historical markers are not significant enough for many people to consider stopping in Selma. As sad as it is, Selma seems doomed because of continuing white flight, lost of industries, and the massive cost of restoring buildings and infrastructure.

The experience was one I surely will never forget, walking over the Edmund Pettus Bridge as many thousands did on Bloody Sunday, Turn-Around Tuesday, and eventually as thousands did on March 21 as they marched to Montgomery to secure the right to vote. It looks as though Selma was a truly beautiful city in its prime and I wish I could have been there to see it during the Civil Rights Movement. Seeing the memorials for individuals not much older than me also made me question my own courage. As a 21-year-old African-American male I struggle to think that I would have been courageous enough to join the movement knowing that death and severe harm was likely, and often just another day to day occurrence for black and white activists in the movement.

“this is not a method for cowards. . . .” by Jamaal Jones

The year is 1956 and Martin Luther King Jr. had just experienced a bomb exploding in his home. Our journey through the Civil Rights Movement had begun in Atlanta, Georgia. The birthplace of a leader and the final resting place of a man who shaped a nation.IMG_2842 The Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site had a mix sensation of hope and worry. Hope for a country that is working to fix the inequalities that plagued the nation for more than a century, but worry that the a century after the end of the civil war, such a problem still existed. It took loss of life, blood shed, and many many years of persecution for the civil rights movement to take hold and really shake the very core of the American south. Dr. King’s commitment to non-violent civil disobedience shocked the nation, as many blacks across the south were losing their lives.

As we entered the King Site in Atlanta, a statue rose high above us of Mohandas Gandhi, King’s guide for the non-violent movement. The importance of this figure was very clear and as we walked through the center, his importance became more and more clear. Dr. King’s respIMG_2797onse to his home being bombed in 1956 was not to retaliate with force but rather with marches and demonstrations legally recognized by the government and protected by the first amendment. Not long after the marches and protests began, the black community of the South was ready to see government action to protect their rights to vote, their right to assemble peacefully, and a desegregate south. However, the government officials of the south were not ready to see these rights enforced. Martin Luther King became the leader and a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement. Over a 12 year period Martin Luther King accomplished more for the rights of black southerners than had been accomplished over the century since the end of slavery and the civil war. The black South would have their voice heard through Martin Luther King and that voice was crying out for freedom, equality and justice for all.

In early April 1968IMG_2821 the civil rights movement lost their symbol when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. As we entered the Ebenezer Baptist Church across the street from the MLK Historic Site, Martin Luther King’s words were being played across the intercom,

 

“Yes, if you want to, say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”1

– Martin Luther King Jr.

These were the words played at his own funeral. I had seen the video inside the historic site showing Martin Luther King’s funeral and I immediately recognized the church. The Ebenezer Baptist Church, located a short walk from King’s birthplace, was King’s place of worship, and had served as the King family’s place of worship for generations. IMG_2829This church was also the location of the funeral for Martin Luther King Jr. and the final resting place for the great leader. Experiencing his own Eulogy in King’s place of worship was incredibly moving and is something I will always remember. In that instance I was really able to feel what he meant to the civil rights movement. He wasn’t just a leader but a source of religious comfort, a source of constant understanding and so clearly an inspiration to black south. While people like Rosa Parks, Rev. Shuttlesworth, John Lewis and many others helped fuel a fire, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and non-violent actions helped spark the fire that blazed through the South dismantling segregation, voter registration restrictions and many other civil injustices.