a weekend in Montgomery and Selma

We pulled into Montgomery, Alabama at the Rosa Parks Library and Museum at 11am on Saturday; a few minutes later, the five of us plus my mother-in-law were inside a city bus simulator traveling through history.  We walked through the attached museum and then drove over to the Alabama Department of Archives & History, which has fairly recently been renovated; it had everything from Native American artifacts to Alabama football memorabilia.

After lunch, the five of us drove toward Selma, stopping at the halfway point of the historic march to Montgomery, where the children completed the “junior ranger” program for the National Historic Trail before parking our car next to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and slowly walking across.

Not long before we took this trip, we saw David Letterman’s Netflix special in which he interviewed President Obama and then walked across the bridge with Congressman Lewis (and I saw the movie “Selma” on a recent flight), so I was familiar with its history and significance, but the children didn’t know much about it or the march from Selma to Montgomery until visiting the Civil Rights Trail stops along the way, reading the displays, and asking lots of questions.

After we’d crossed the bridge, a man walked over to us and declared himself the “unofficial tour guide” for Selma and told us additional stories about the historic march and pointed to just down the street, where Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church lay–the starting place for the march, so we drove by it before heading back to Montgomery to my in-laws’ house.

Other than its history, Selma seemed a very sad place.  Many of the storefronts looked boarded up and abandoned.  The homes near the chapel appeared to be dilapidated government housing.  I couldn’t help but feel badly for the people still living there.

We had a wonderful dinner in the river walk area of Montgomery at Central before walking along the river and seeing fireworks from the Biscuits stadium and a statue of Hank Williams in front of the local Beasley Allen office.

On Sunday, we had tickets to the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice created by the Equal Justice Initiative, and it may be the most powerful museum experience I’ve ever had.

I think most of us have heard in history class that kangaroo courts and lynching happened in our country, but I don’t think most of us recognize its volume, frequency, or recency.  Here are the names of lynching victims in Fulton County, where I live:

805 counties all over the country are represented by large steel rectangles hanging from the ceiling of the memorial, and on each rectangle are names like we see on the one above (though most are only one column).  Many of the dates are from post WWII (I couldn’t believe after uniting as a nation to fight genocide in Europe we still had this issue for several decades in America).  There are 4400 names inscribed.

In the museum are displays that include shelves full of glass jars with dirt from sites where lynchings took place.  There are informational placards telling the reasons, such as “for reprimanding white children who threw rocks at her” or “for working to organize a union among sharecroppers” or “talking disrespectfully to young white men” or “for reporting a group of white men who attacked him.”  It’s appalling.

There’s information on disparities in incarceration and how the 13th Amendment’s “except as a punishment for crime…” caveat allowed involuntary servitude to continue after the Amendment’s  ratification.  It’s eye-opening.

We didn’t allow the children into all of the areas of the museum, and while the subject matter was heavy, just as we didn’t skip Hiroshima while in Japan, Manzanar in California,  or the 9/11 Memorial while in New York, we didn’t gloss over this aspect of our history here, and we never will skip the hard parts to see and contemplate while exploring the world’s parks, cities, and attractions.

Our little 2-day roadtrip through the Alabama Civil Rights movement ended with a delicious brunch at Cahawba House with the in-laws before we headed northeast on I-85 back to Atlanta, but the conversations from that weekend and the impact of our experiences together have continued.

The “lynching memorial” (as it’s become commonly known) has received over 100,000 visitors in just a few months.  If you can join their ranks, take a couple hours in Montgomery to learn the lessons presented there.

 

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  1. Deborah Moebes

    This was such a powerful visit. The facts about the 13th Amendment, in particular, galled and astonished me. I’m so grateful we are able to have these conversations with our kids, even though they’re upsetting–I’m always amazed at how much insight they have that we adults lack.

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