by Alberta Phillips
Posted in the Austin-American Statesman Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Over the years, I’ve studied the civil rights movement, reading such books as Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters” and watching documentaries such as “Eyes on the Prize.” And last month, I was fortunate to hear from some of the heroes of the movement during the Civil Rights Summit hosted by the LBJ Presidential Library to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Next year will be another milestone for LBJ’s legacy, when the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
I’ve observed history through many portals. But nothing prepared me for a weeklong civil rights tour, from Atlanta to Montgomery by way of Birmingham and Selma. During the tour that ended last week, I along with 27 other participants witnessed history that startled and amazed, hurt and inspired. Talks with people who participated in those events at the very places in which they occurred brought to life ghosts of the South.
They were eye-opening experiences, which filled in many of the gaps left out of history books. Doors were opened for us because, after all, it was Julian Bond, himself a civil rights legend, who led our tour organized by the University of Virginia. In reliving those tragedies and triumphs, we gained a deeper knowledge of a past that still is shaping the present. In a world of instant gratification and abundance, it was humbling to see close-up the sacrifices made by ordinary people — black and white — to advance equality. They leaned in, even as they marched into a burning house.
I asked people such as Joanne Bland and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, both survivors of Bloody Sunday, how they summoned the courage to brave dogs, nightsticks and water hoses. It was their faith in God and their cause that steeled their nerves. Indeed, the black church was the center of the movement throughout the South. And four churches in particular stood out: Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, led by a then 25-year-old Martin Luther King Jr., was the focal point for the Montgomery bus boycott; First Baptist Church, led by Ralph Abernathy, founded in 1867, two years after the Civil War ended, became a refuge in Montgomery for the 1960s freedom riders; Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma was ground zero for the voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery; and Trinity Lutheran Church in Montgomery, whose black congregation was led by a white pastor, Robert Graetz. Graetz was the secretary of the Montgomery Improvement Association, founded to support the bus boycott. He told our group that his skin color did not shield him from a violent white backlash: His home, like those of King and Abernathy, was bombed.
In Atlanta we visited the King Center, which houses the King Library and Archives, chronicling the life of King and other major civil rights leaders and events. A crypt that houses the bodies of King and his wife, Coretta, sits in a reflection pool next to the old Ebenezer Baptist Church, an historic site and museum. The King family home is a short walk away. We attended Sunday services at the new Ebenezer across from King’s gravesite. To our delight, King’s sister, Christine King Farris, chatted with us about growing up a King.
The first thing you see when you enter downtown Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park is a bronze sculpture of four girls. One kneels behind another as she ties the bow on her friend’s dress. Another is seated on a bench reading the Bible. One girl, dressed in her Sunday best, stands behind the bench. A pair of shoes stands nearby. It is Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963. The girls are preparing for a youth program at church. That image of innocence is shattered in the pews of 16th Street Baptist Church, as a church member recounts the bombing by KKK members that killed Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.
Justice was delayed, but not denied. Birmingham lawyer Doug Jones provided a riveting account of how he, as U.S. attorney, led the team, which reopened the case and won convictions of two former KKK members in the murders of the four girls — some 38 years later.
In Selma and Montgomery, we experienced the daily indignities blacks faced as recently as the 1960s because of Jim Crow codes. We knew about segregated water fountains. But we were stunned to learn that separate Bibles were used in courtrooms to prevent white people from soiling their hands on Bibles touched by blacks.
It’s easy to forget how young much of the movement was, until you are confronted by photographs of the many hopeful faces of “freedom riders,” students of all races who boarded interstate buses across the country to go south to help register voters. Consider that Lewis was 25 in 1965, when he led 600 orderly protesters across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Bland was 11. Lewis still bears the physical scars from the beating on the bridge by Alabama state troopers.
Today, we complain about long lines at the polls. Today, young people are apathetic about voting. Today, many states, including Texas, have resurrected barriers to the ballot box. That all seems immoral, given the price so many paid to win the vote. As Lewis told us, “We gave a little blood on that bridge.”
They didn’t make excuses. And we shouldn’t either. Cast your ballot.
Learn more about the U.Va. Lifetime Learning Civil Rights South Seminar 2014 and view event photos.