Civil Rights Road Trip (December 2012)

Several of my blog followers have asked me to post some of my pre-blog travelogues.  Here is the one from our civil rights road trip in 2012.  Enjoy!

New Orleans, Louisiana

It has been a very full and intense few beginning days of our civil rights road trip.  It started out in New Orleans, not because of the civil rights bit but because we both have always wanted to go to New Orleans…and with reason.  It is a unique city, a mix of the “old south” and “new tourism”, including Katrina tourism that, unfortunately, seems not to benefit any residents of the Lower Ninth Ward.  There are few high-rise buildings and it still has a sleepy town feel to it (keep in mind we are travelling out of season).  We tried our hand at the Airbnb way and rented a beautiful apartment in the Garden District, within walking distance (at least our idea of walking distance) of the French Quarter and the central downtown sites.   From this experience, I can highly recommend Airbnb as a great alternative to chain hotels.

I took a walking tour of the Garden District, known for its old-world, elegant mansions and famous residents (Ann Rice, John Goodman, Sandra Bullock, Brad Pitt).  The sidewalks are hazardous from the battle of the 600-year old tree roots with the concrete blocks (the trees have clearly won the battle) but since there never seems to be any rush to get anywhere in New Orleans, this was no problem.  Another highlight of the Garden District was lunch at Commander’s Palace, a reputed former brothel.  The creole cuisine is excellent, as are the 25-cent martinis…a dangerous combination that resulted in the postponement of additional activities for the day.

Bourbon Street was lively and touristy…a bit too touristy for my tastes.  We spent an evening on Frenchman Street where the “other” local music is played and we thoroughly enjoyed listening to a Billie Holliday lookalike at the Spotted Cat Music Club.

The National World War II Museum is impressive and we spent 3 interesting hours there with the “4D” movie narrated by Tom Hanks a highlight of the tour.   The museum presents a decidedly American perspective, with no coverage of the internment of Japanese Americans in the US or of the destruction brought about by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.   I saw a Japanese couple wandering through the museum and wondered how they experienced the tour.

Most of our time in New Orleans was spent wandering around, stopping for a coffee here and there, and wandering some more.  There are a few cities I have visited that have that nowhere-but-here feeling…New Orleans is one of them.

After 3 days in New Orleans, we set out on our Civil Rights pilgrimage with plans that would take us on an 11-day circuit to Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas in a wide circle from and back to Houston.

Birmingham, Alabama

Our first stop was Birmingham on a Sunday which, of course, meant attending the church service at the 16th Street Baptist Church, the scene of a 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed 4 teen-aged girls and resulted in the same-day shooting of a young black boy riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bicycle by white racists spurred on by the church bombing.   The pulpit was the scene of speeches by religious leaders of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King and Fred Shuttlesworth.

The first thing I noticed as we approached the church was the iconic blue neon sign, a symbol I had seen many times in books and movies about the civil rights movement.  To stand under it was very strong.

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As we walked up the steps just a few minutes before the service was to begin, we could already hear the music streaming from inside, beckoning us to come in.  The choir was centrally placed above the pulpit in front of the organ pipes; there was no mistaking that music was to be a central and recurring part of the service.  Accompanied by a band that included drums, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, organ and piano, the choir provided what the programme noted as “Musical Ministry” and there was no doubt that music is ministry in the 16th Street Baptist Church.  I recorded several of the rousing choir interludes in the hope that I will be able to capture that feeling of music as ministry when I am back in Norway.

During the announcements, we were introduced to a visiting delegation from the Caribbean and all other visitors were asked to stand up and be welcomed.  The congregation and its leaders know that most visitors come to the church as tourists because of its infamous history.  However, they also see such visits as an opportunity to welcome visitors into their circle of faith and they do so with warmth and elegance.  The sermon by Reverend Arthur Price, Jr. was gripping.  His voice was raspy and, at the same time, resonant and his sermon was punctuated with a lot of “uh, uh, uhs” but almost no pauses and, from what I could tell, very few notes.  I know intellectually that I must have breathed during the 40-minute sermon but I was not aware of it.   I was aware of him wiping the sweat from his brow many times during the sermon, something I have never seen at a church service in Norway, and the almost constant movement of the programmes as members of the choir and congregation fanned themselves.  Despite the fact that it was cold and rainy outside, inside it was hot, hot hot.

Inside it was hot, hot, hot!

Inside it was hot, hot, hot!

Our next stop was across the street to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), the first of many stops to educational centres and museums about the civil rights movement.

Across the street from the BCRI is the Kelly Ingram Park, the site of many large-scale Birmingham civil rights demonstrations and of many familiar photos from the 1960s of children and adults being attacked by police dogs and firehoses.  Such scenes are depicted by James Drake sculptures by throughout the park.

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Dogs

My impression of Birmingham is of a city that is tired and worn and I could imagine that it looks much the same as it did in the 1960s era we were there to explore. Perhaps coming to this conclusion on a Sunday, when all but the churches are closed, is somewhat unfair and we did find a small, trendy neighbourhood where we stopped for a Starbucks coffee.   Ironically, the lack of urban renewal in the downtown area added to the authenticity of our visit.

Montgomery and Selma, Alabama

Our ambitious plans for the day included a visit to Montgomery and a drive (not march) to Selma.

Our first stop was at Montgomery’s Rosa Parks Museum and Library, a tribute to the seamstress who is often referred to as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement.  A visit to the museum begins with a film about the early life of Rosa Parks and ends with the movie screen opening up into another room with a full-size bus and movie projection inside the bus that re-enacts Mrs. Parks’ famous refusal to move to the back of the bus that sparked the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott and resulted in the end of racial segregation in Alabama’s buses.  Such re-enactments have a tendency to be a bit fake and even kitsch but the story of Rosa Parks’ quiet but firm refusal was realistic and extremely moving, as was the rest of the museum.

After leaving the gift shop where I purchased a bright red t-shirt that reads “Well-behaved women rarely make history”, I found Hans Einar talking to Georgette, the head of the museum.  A beautiful, elegant woman who had actually been to Norway, she is full of energy and passion for the museum to the extent that, after realising that I had not understood a fundamental section of the museum, took us back to explain things correctly.  It seemed fitting that such a woman heads such a museum.

We then walked to the infamous Greyhound Bus Station where, in May 1961, Freedom Riders testing the segregation practices at bus terminals and facilities along the interstate highways of the south were savagely beaten.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, the organisation founded in 1971 that led the lawsuit that bankrupted the United Klans of America, is home to the Civil Rights Memorial Center.  Designed by Maya Lin, the architect of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, DC, the visit begins with the memorial, a round granite table with a continuous stream of water running over the engraved names of 40 victims of the struggle for civil rights who died between 1954 and 1968.  A stream of water also runs over a wall engraved with a paraphrase from Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech “…we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream”.

The center pays tribute to the victims of the civil rights movement and other victims of intolerance and prejudice throughout the world.  Perhaps most touching is the Wall of Tolerance, a full-screen wall onto which cascade down the names of visitors to the center who agree to practice tolerance in everyday life.  If you visit, you will see “Hans Einar Hem” and “Roberta Bensky” flowing down the wall next to Julian Bond, Robin Williams and thousands of other visitors who have taken the pledge of tolerance.

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We drove past the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King served as pastor and where, from his basement office, he organised the Montgomery bus boycott.

We then drove toward Selma along highway 80 where, in 1965, hundreds of protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery to protest the lack of voting rights for blacks.  We crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge where, on Sunday, March 7 1965 (now referred to as “Bloody Sunday”) the first group of 600 protesters who had departed the Brown Chapel Church toward Montgomery was attacked by the police and forced to retreat.   Two weeks later, Martin Luther King and other religious leaders accompanied a group of 300 marchers (a court-ordered maximum) on the 54-mile walk to Montgomery.  Accompanied by the Alabama National Guard, the marchers arrived safely in Montgomery 4 days later.  Under the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a somewhat sad and unkempt park commemorates the protest march and its leaders, including Representative John Lewis.  Like Birmingham, Selma seems not to have changed much since the 1960s.  The three-block main street is pretty enough, but the surrounding neighbourhood we visited to see the Brown Chapel Church is dilapidated and depressing.  The highly recommended Voting Rights Museum and the Slavery Museum were both closed when we arrived in Selma late in the afternoon and I left the city with a feeling of sadness that such an important part of American history seems to have been neglected.

Memphis, Tennessee

We had two objectives for our visit to Memphis: the Lorraine Motel (more about that later) and Graceland.  Neither of us is a big Elvis Presley fan but we are both fans of Paul Simon and had seen him in concert earlier this year on his 25th anniversary Graceland tour.  That refrain “I’m goin’ to Graceland, Graceland, Graceland, Tennessee” was ringing in our ears and we just had to go there.  I know, it is strange to go to Graceland because of Paul Simon but we have done stranger things.

We drove from Birmingham, Alabama directly to Graceland, just outside of Memphis.  We had been extremely lucky with our visits so far, with few people travelling on our route and no queues or waits at any of the attractions we visited.  We hoped for something similar in Graceland and, as we drove into the parking lot, I smiled smugly as there were almost no cars…mainly, because, we learned, that during the off-season, Graceland closes on Tuesdays for what the parking attendant told us was “deep cleaning”.  No problem, we drove to our downtown Memphis hotel and spent a lovely afternoon walking around the city, ending up at the Double J Smokehouse and Saloon on Mulberry Street for what I consider to be the best Buffalo chicken wings I have ever tasted.  And, even though we hadn’t yet been to Graceland, we did have a great photo opp with Elvis himself who had, obviously, not yet left the building.

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Upon leaving the bar, I happened to look down Mulberry Street and saw the vintage sign for the Lorraine Motel where, on April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King was shot dead on the balcony outside room 306.  We had planned to visit the motel and its adjacent National Civil Rights Museum the next day so we simply walked by the motel, pausing for a moment to take it all in.

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Our trip had taken us to many places that left strong impressions on us during our trip but both Hans Einar and I had tears in our eyes standing outside that motel, left as it was on that infamous day.  As we stood there, two women walked by, one of whom I had recognised from the Double J and had overheard something about them and the Civil Rights museum.  On a hunch, I asked if they worked at the museum and it turns out that we were talking to the President of the museum, Beverly Robertson and its marketing director, Connie Dyson.  They told us that the museum has about 200,000 visitors each year from all over the world and that, like most of the civil rights sights we have seen, is privately funded through a foundation (more about our visit to the museum to follow).

Later that afternoon, we took one of Memphis’ vintage trolley cars along Main Street and had a long conversation with the driver, James.  He was  curious about Norway and asked many interesting questions about racism in Europe.  We, in turn, asked questions about racism in Memphis and were not surprised to hear that, according to James, there is still a very clear separation of the races, albeit not a legally imposed one.

Inside the trolley with James.

Inside the Main Street trolley with James.

Most of the streetcars date between 1927-1940 and were formerly used in Porto, Portugal.   They are heavy mechanical beasts that clang along slowly down Main Street and, for just a dollar a trip we had several fun rides down Main Street.

The next day, we did manage to visit the National Civil Rights Museum and the Lorraine Motel.  The tour begins with a movie about Martin Luther King’s visit to Memphis.  I did not know that the reason for his visit was to support the 1,300 black sanitation workers who had been striking for fair and humane treatment and the right to organise.  They kept up their strike for two months, picketing with signs saying simply “I am a Man”.  Martin Luther King was shot and killed on the balcony of the hotel where he had been staying, following a meeting with church leaders.  Reverend Kyles had arrived earlier to take Dr. King to his new house for dinner.   Kyles is still alive and speaks about that day, noting “God put me there as a witness to spread the message after the messenger was gone”.

The museum has a considerable exhibit on the investigation and the subsequent conviction of James Earl Ray, the suspected assassin that, for many, casts doubt on his guilt.  In fact, in 1997, Dr. King’s son Dexter publicly came out in favour of a retrial for Ray, convinced of his innocence.  Later, the entire King family supported a new trial for Ray but this never happened and Ray died in prison in 1998.

The visit to the museum also includes a visit to the Lorraine motel and the infamous balcony outside room 306.  Although it is not possible to enter the room, a glass window shows the room as it was left in April 1968, with dirty coffee cups, full ashtrays and unmade beds.  A sad footnote to the assassination of Dr. King is the story of Loree Bailey, wife of the owner of the Lorraine Motel, who suffered a stroke hours after the assassination and died five days later.  In 1982, Walter Bailey, the motel owner filed for bankruptcy and the motel was put up for auction.  A group of Memphis businessmen pooled enough money to buy it and planned to open it as a museum.  The National Civil Rights Museum opened in 1992 and comprises several buildings, including the rooming house from where the fatal shot was to have come and now holds the exhibit about the investigation that led to the arrest and conviction of James Earl Ray.

Standing on the balcony, outside room 306, peering into the room untouched by time, standing on the ground where Dr. King lay bleeding was, for me, one of the strongest moments of our trip.

Graceland

After an encore lunch at the Double J  (this time we split a plate of the famous Memphis “dry-style” barbecue ribs) we set out on the pilgrimage taken by 600,000 people each year and by Paul Simon a least once…we went to Graceland.

There is not much I can say about Graceland that countless others have not already said:  it is, today, quite kitsch, furnished in 1970s “mod” style that includes a jungle-themed room with wall-to-wall green shag carpeting, a claustrophobic basement pool room layered in flowered fabric from ceiling to floor and an unusual TV room where, after having read that President Johnson watched all three network TV stations at one time, Elvis had installed three TVs of his own).  What surprised me, however, was that (1) the house is small, especially for an icon such as Elvis and his reputed constant stream of visitors and (2) the visit was more moving than I had imagined, especially at the gravesites of Elvis, his stillborn twin brother and his parents.

Graceland is definitely worth the visit, as is the city of Memphis itself.  In addition to the National Civil Rights Museum, the charming streetcars and a music choice along Beale Street that easily rivals New Orleans Bourbon and Frenchmen streets, the deep-fried pickles at BB King’s Restaurant and Blues Club are definitely worth the visit.

Little Rock, Arkansas

Little Rock was on my list of places to visit because I knew that Central High School was still in operation and that there was an interesting visitor’s center that tells the story of what came to be known as the Little Rock Nine, a group of black students who, in 1957, were selected to integrate the all-white high school.

Following the 1954 Supreme Court Ruling Brown vs. the Board of Education, which ruled as unconstitutional the segregation of schools, the government of Arkansas chose a gradual integration of its schools, starting in 1957.   Selected for their academic excellence, nine black students were chosen to integrate Little Rock’s Central High:  Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed and Melba Pattillo Beals.  Despite the approval of the integration plan by the Arkansas Board of Education, Governor Faubus maintained a staunch support for segregation and deployed the Arkansas National Guard to stop the students from entering the school.  According to several of the black students, they arrived at school thinking that the National Guard were there to protect them but were, instead, blocked from entering the school and left unprotected from the angry segregationist mobs that had gathered outside the school.  It would take three tries and an act from President Eisenhower to send in the 101st Airborne to protect the students before they were allowed to go to school.  The group would relate how they were continuously bullied and threatened during the school year.

A well-known image from that first day shows Elizabeth surrounded by an angry mob.  Elizabeth had not received a message for the Little Rock Nine to gather together before school and, as a result, she arrived alone.  That photo shows Elizabeth surrounded by white parents and students, with one student in particular, Hazel Massery, screaming at her.  That photo would become known around the world, as would the events of Little Rock.  Later, Hazel would try to make amends with Elizabeth and for a while they would become friends, although this friendship did not last.  Their story is told in the book Elizabeth and Hazel:  Two Women of Little Rock.

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The infamous photo of Elizabeth and Hazel

At the end of the year, rather than move forward with desegregation in Arkansas, Governer Fabus closed all four of Little Rock’s public high schools in what was is now knows as “The Lost Year”.  This incited even more anger towards black students, as they were blamed for the school closure and when, a year later, the schools re-opened, black students continued to be the victims of segregationist anger and hatred.  Interestingly, other schools in Arkansas had been desegregated as early as 1954 with no violence.

Only four of the Little Rock nine graduated from Central High School (most of the others moved out of state to complete their education).  In 1999, all nine received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Clinton, who also named Central High a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service.

At the visitor center we were told that Elizabeth Eckford is the only one of the nine still living in Little Rock.  According to the park ranger we talked with, she remains traumatised by the events of 1957 and does not visit the center.

Today, of Little Rock’s 1,800 students, 54% are black and 43% white.

Our last stop in Little Rock was to the Clinton Presidential Center, a vast, modern structure built on land that was a former train depot.   I was impressed by the beauty of the building but found the layout within the library confusing…even the docents say there is no real chronology to follow.  The enormous hall full of alcoves depicting selected themes of the Clinton presidency was overwhelming by its volume and use of media.  Perhaps it was the fact that this was the last stop on our tour and we had already seen so much, but I was somewhat disappointed by this presidential center (although I remain impressed by the presidency itself!).

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After a few days at a resort in southwest Louisiana and 2,029 miles (3,265 km), we are now in Houston with my parents.  Our Civil Rights Tour is over but the memories will remain strong for some time to come…and we have lots of t-shirts to remind us of the places we visited!  My Mum asked if the trip had met my expectations…it exceeded them in just about every way.

Sending you all wishes for a peaceful holiday and hoping that all your journeys exceed your expectations.

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