Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Exploring the Civil Rights Movement in the South - 2015

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma Alabama


This is the third of a three part series on a road trip through the South where we explored the three Cs – Civil War, Civil Rights, and Southern Charm.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s gave meaning to rights won 100 years before in the Civil War.  Despite passage of the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution in the 1860’s to abolish slavery and to prohibit state laws limiting the rights of citizens, Southern states managed to bring back white privileges to the detriment of black citizens.  Until the civil rights movement gained momentum, African Americans in Paris were segregated in schools, restrooms, water fountains, and couldn’t even eat in the restaurant inside the Kress department store downtown.  The energy and grit behind the movement ignited in the heart of Dixie and no tour of the South is complete without visiting some of the pivotal sites where individuals bravely resisted inequality under the law.

Thanks to the movie, “Selma”, the effort to walk from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery in 1965 to protest voting rights limitations on blacks has been documented.  The 50th commemoration of this event had just been celebrated this spring and memorabilia was still available for purchase.  Together with a small group of school children and an African American couple, we walked slowly over the Alabama river on the Edmund Pettus bridge, ironically named after a Confederate officer who fought at Vicksburg .  It was only made a National Historic Landmark in 2013 and seemed to best illustrate the road to equal rights is won one step at a time. 

Montgomery, Alabama surprised us.  Despite having only one commemorative sign as recently as 2000, the city has now embraced both its civil war and civil rights past.  Standing placards document events such as the telegram that started the War Between the States and another where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to boarding whites in 1955.  At the Rosa Parks Museum, an imaginary ride in a life size bus gives minute to minute details of Ms. Parks’ confrontation with state laws.  Bus drivers at the time were quite powerful and could wear guns.  A black often had to pay his fare, walk outside the bus to the back door, and pray the driver didn’t depart and leave him stranded.  Parks’ arrest led to the year-long Montgomery bus boycott directed by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Inside Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
Montgomery, Alabama
Dr. King’s involvement in the Boycott was fortuitous.  At age 26, he was pastor of the prestigious Dexter Avenue Baptist church, where many of Montgomery’s black lawyers, physicians and teachers attended.  Thanks to the presence of Union soldiers after the Civil War, the church was able to get title to this prime land just three blocks down Dexter Avenue from the state capitol.  Previous pastor, Vernon Johns, had been a fierce opponent of segregation, meaning the congregation was prepped for action. Dr. King held tight to his pacifist views but was also determined to see the boycott through. 


At the Dexter Church, our tour guide, Reba, brought back the spirit of the times.  We began the tour singing “This Little Light of Mine” and ended it encircled, holding hands with “We Shall Overcome”.  In between, Reba helped us understand how young Dr. King was when he arrived (25), how cars were purchased and used by churches to transport black employees to their work, and even the appearance at the church of former Governor George Wallace in 1979 who apologized for the pain he caused during his tenure.  Truthfully, it was thrilling to stand at the pulpit and imagine a full house awaiting inspiration from Dr. King.  The church still is active but worried about the aging of its congregation.  

Civil Rights Memorial by Maya Lin
An institution I have long admired is also headquartered here.  The Southern Poverty Law Center directed much of the litigation needed to enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act and still pursues cases when needed.  Across the street, the Center commissioned a Civil Rights Memorial designed by Maya Lin, creator of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  The fountain, shaped as an inverted cone, provides a poignant timeline of events from the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision to MLK’s assassination. 

The greatest testament to the Civil Rights Movement on our trip was the numbers of African Americans in all strata of Southern life - businessmen in Atlanta, hotel receptionists in Kennesaw, Georgia, bus drivers in Montgomery, TV cameramen at CNN’s headquarters, teachers leading classes of school children on field trips, diners in upscale restaurants and tourists themselves.   We stopped for dinner in Meridian, Mississippi where three northern civil rights volunteers were killed by Klansman in 1964.  What we found in 2015 was a Thai restaurant filled with whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. 

The Civil Rights struggle will  never be finished.  Moslems, gays, and immigrants face some of the same hatred and fears suffered by African Americans.  But a trip through the South gives perspective as well as hope and encouragement.  

Visiting Civil War sites is Essential to Understanding the War

Civil War Canon On Top of Kennesaw Mountain

I am conflicted visiting Civil War sites.  Had I lived then, I hope I would not have owned slaves and would have voted against secession.  Yet, part of my heritage is with the Confederacy.  My grandmother spoke with venom about the deadly prison where her Confederate soldier father endured the war.  Until her death, she still used the word Yankees for Northerners as her eyes hardened.   But a trip through the South requires at least some stops at battlegrounds to give perspective on the terrain, battle tactics and suffering of the soldiers.  We started with the Battle of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Vicksburg lies on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, immediately giving the Confederates a ten-fold advantage to control the nation’s biggest river.  The major east-west railroad passed through town bringing to the South badly needed Arkansas hogs, Texas horses, and Mexican and European imports.  Northern General Ulysses Grant had won 10 of his last 12 battles and knew he could cut off the legs of Dixieland by winning Vicksburg.  General John Pemberton realized a loss at Vicksburg would be the beginning of the end for the insurrection.  The battle began on May 18, 1863 and ended July 2nd with a complete surrender by the Confederate Army.

At the large Vicksburg National Military Park, roads wander through hill and dale with markers indicating shifting battle lines.  In 1863, trees would have been leveled to provide open views for snipers.  Today, only part is cleared.  We used Michael Logue, a local guide who provided local commentary as he drove our car through the grounds.  Distances between lines were surprisingly small, indicative of the distance a rifle could shoot successfully.  We learned the difference in a redoubt (square fort) and a redam (triangle fort), both French words from the language used in army manuals.  Local quartz dust soil provided perfect dry conditions for digging trenches, a tactic to be used soon in World War I. When the battle stalled outside Vicksburg’s fort, Pemberton moved his men inside the city walls to weather the coming 47 day disastrous siege.  Some experts (including our guide) consider this battle more important than Gettysburg because of its commercial significance.

Vicksburg’s Park is unique in two other ways.  On the grounds is the remains of the U.S.S. Cairo, one of seven ironclad gunboats built in 30 days by the Union to carry thirteen canons along the Mississippi.  Inside, the boat was so hot only immigrants could be talked into working there.  It had a short life, sinking in 1862 but was resurrected in 1965 and displayed at the park in 1972.  Also scattered throughout the park are 140 artistic monuments honoring every state that fought in the battle as well as individual officers or groups who served.    For years, a reunion of veterans from both sides was held here.

View of Atlanta from top of Kennesaw Mountain
We probably would never have visited the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park if our son were not attending school in Georgia.  It is one of the many “lesser” battles and yet was a part of General Sherman’s famous march to Atlanta in June, 1864.  Kennesaw Mountain was a large, natural barrier protecting the approach to railroads in Atlanta.  The Northern army used maneuvering tactics to minimize an attack uphill and eventually reached the other side.  It is hard today to visualize the battle since nature has filled in cleared spaces but a drive takes you to the top of the mountain to see Atlanta in the distance. 
Locomotive inside Southern Museum of Civil War
and Locomotive History

The biggest surprise of the trip was the discovery in Kennesaw of the excellent Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, a member of the Smithsonian Affiliations Program.  That’s a big name for a small museum but this one details the importance of railroads and manufacturing in the outcome of the Civil War. 
After seeing the displayed statistics, I realized the South had little chance to win.  The North had 21,000 miles of railroad – the South 1,000.  The North produced 234,000 tons of rails – the South  26,000.  The North manufactured 2.5 million guns – the South only 250,000.  Food was brought in regularly by rail to Union soldiers.  Southern boys had to forage for nourishment.  And, most crucially, an entire construction corps of eventually 10,000 men under Herman Haupt developed construction techniques to more quickly rebuild Union railroads destroyed by the South and to prevent reconstruction by the Confederacy of their own railroads. 


Judging by exit signs on the Interstate Highways, many Civil War sites have been preserved.  The American Battlefield Protection Program was established to classify the preservation status of battlegrounds.  They had to choose which sites among 8,000 battles deserved protection and rate them according to importance.  Add that to the 135 Civil War Museums in the country, and one could use every vacation reliving our country’s most painful time.  Yet, we should all visit a few of the sites to understand how close and personal this war was.  My conflict from 100 years later is nothing compared to those who had to fight on one side or the other – a choice we are fortunate not to have.

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