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Monday, March 21, 2011

Quiet Spring Sunday in Selma

The first day of Spring started off slowly for us. Having sort of raced across Mississippi and half of Alabama without coming across anything of interest for which to pause, we were tired and mopey. When we booked the motel room we did so for two nights so that we would be able to explore the historic sites at leisure and rest before moving on.

We made our way into town around ten o'clock and headed out Broad Street which leads to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the March 7, 1965 Bloody Sunday March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. We admired several of the large older buildings and then as we reached the bridge the older and more run down buildings. We planned our first stop to be the National Voting Rights Museum but it had moved from the Selma side of the Alabama River to the other side. We drove down historic Water Street just to see the buildings and to check out the Depot Museum, which traces the history of Selma from before the War to after the Civil Rights movement. It came as no surprise to see that since it was Sunday in the South the museum was closed. We continued back up Water to Broad and then across the Pettus bridge, following the steps taken by 1000's who had marched across it almost 50 years ago.

After having held voting rights classes and starting to get people ready to register to vote, the Reverend Hosea Williams, Jr and John Lewis led a small group of people across the bridge with the intent of carrying their request to vote to Gov. George Wallace in person. On the far side they were met by Alabama State Troopers who attacked them and drove them back into Selma. Two days later, MLK, jr showed up and led them across again, met the troopers and turned back to Selma peacefully and more or less without incident. Several weeks later the Supreme Court stated that the march was legal and by the time the crowd,originally 4,000 strong, reached Montgomery their numbers had soared to around 25,ooo people!

On the other side of the bridge we found the new Voting Rights museum but it too was closed. Across the street, however, was a small park, near the Selma Welcome sign that looked interesting. Monuments to Williams and Lewis have been erected here along with one commemorating Amelia Boynton Robinson and Marie Foster. Mrs Robinson is still alive at 99 years of age. She and her husband knew Booker T Washington at Tuskegee Institute and met MLK, jr in Montgomery. After her husband died she continued working for civil rights and her home was used for planning meetings for the March, which she is considered to have had a major hand in organizing. Mrs Foster in the meantime, frustrated at trying to pass the barricades erected to prevent blacks from registering to vote--such as expecting them to know the number of words in the Constitution!!---once she succeeded, began literacy and citizenship classes. Of course, once that was discovered a law was passed barring more than three black persons meeting to discuss civil rights. Uh-huh. Both ladies were beaten on Bloody Sunday, Mrs Robinson, unconscious. Mrs Foster was one of only three ladies who completed the 50 mile march on Mar 21 and she was instrumental in founding the Voting Rights Museum.

Adjacent to the three monuments is an assembly of rocks with a quote from scripture--Joshua, I believe. Behind this are several boardwalk and stair accesses to the area beneath the bridge. The day being warm and sunny with a slight breeze and incredibly quiet we decided to stroll the unkempt park there. Several young men had parked beneath the bridge and walked onto the embankment to fish the Alabama. We ascended once more and perused the mural on the building next to the park. Other than MLK, jr none of the names were familiar to us, though they were referred to as martyrs to the cause and all of them had died in 1965. I'm not sure anyone was killed on Bloody Sunday so I researched them as well. One of the men was a native of Keene, NH and an elementary school there is named for him. In addition, he is carried as a martyr by the Episcopal Church and is honored by it in August.

I will start the story with the first of the four to die: The story is not atypical for the times--basically Jimmy Lee Jackson, a deacon in his Church, was part of a peaceful march of 500 people in Marion, Al. Troopers etc nervous and vicious started beating these people. Jackson, his 80+grandfather and his mother fled and were pursued. The old man was beaten, his daughter when she came to his aid was also beaten and young Jimmy, 28, was shoved and shot and beaten when he came to his mother's aid. He died in Selma several days later and his case fueled the movement for the March.

On Aug 13, 1965 the Keene, NH native, Jonathon Myrick Daniels, was one of 40 or so protesters who went to Ft Defiance to picket whites only stores. They were arrested and held for about a week. When released they were given no transport back to Ft Defiance. Jonathon, a Catholic priest and two black protesters headed to a store for a cold drink when they were confronted by an unpaid deputy with a shotgun. The gun was leveled at a young black girl, Jonathon threw her to the ground and was hit with the full blast of the gun and died instantly. The priest was shot in the lower back as he ran away with the other protester. A commemorative service was held at the location and Ruby Sales, the girl he saved was part of it.

The Rev James Reeb had arrived in Selma to take part in the second march organized by MLK, jr, who had sent out a call to the Southern Conference Ministers for supporters to assemble in Selma. Reeb and two others had gone to a black restaurant for dinner and upon leaving and walking back to their hotel were accosted by white attackers. Reeb was hit brutally in the head with a metal rod and was assisted by the other two to a black clinic, where the doctor realized the injuries were greater than he could handle. An ambulance was sent for to take Reeb to Birmingham --it was sabotaged--another was sent for and he arrived seriously injured. He died two days later.

Lastly,Violet Gregg Liuzzo, marched to Montgomery and was bringing others back to Selma in her car when another vehicle attempted to force her off the road. When that didn't work the car came abreast of hers and her car was shot up --she herself was shot twice in the head and the car veered off the road into a ditch.

I remember these horror stories as I was living and teaching in Troy, NY ---many of my students were black and yet at this point in time the mood was still quite peaceful. So much of this seemed to be happening in another world. By the time I left Troy in 1968 the violence on a smaller level had caught up with us and the school was locked at all times, basketball games were played without spectators and vandalism had become rampant.

We returned to Selma still not knowing these specific stories but wondering who these people were and the role they had played in the upheaval that was the civil rights south.

We both felt somewhat disappointed that everything seemed to be closed but since the day was not to be wasted we decided to seek out Alabama's first capital city--Cahawba. Once a bustling river city at the confluence of the Cahawba and Alabama rivers the place was hit with several whammies that turned it into a ghost-town. Getting to it involved a lovely drive through flowers and Spanish moss draped trees, through which the sunlight and shadows alternated in strobe-light fashion. The bugs are huge and on this first day of Spring the bumble bees seemed curious--they would fly up to us and hover like a hummingbird--looking at us like the Nasonex bee--as though they couldn't figure out if we were a new kind of flower or maybe just an early scented plant. It was weird!

There is little left of the original town--yellow fever often took its toll on the population, floods became problematic, the Confederate government had a foundry and arsenal in Selma so the railroad was taken up and rebuilt there, the county seat was moved and so eventually the population moved to where business could flourish. Houses were literally moved from Cahawba to Selma in whole or taken apart for the bricks and rebuilt elsewhere. Kirkpatrick bought up a lot of the land and the family was there into the 1930's when the Depression finally forced them to sell and move. The last black family buried in the Black cemetery was in 1957 and that family still owns, though I don't think lives, in the almost totally plant covered house, the picture of which I took from Bill's window.

The New Cemetery has been so severely vandalized --it is tragic to see. And the black cemetery has only a few graves marked with posts though there are probably hundreds buried there. It would seem that the place would be sad but it is strangely peaceful and sitting overlooking the river one could almost imagine the bustle of the town behind one on Capital Street--deserted but for the ghosts.

Returning to town I took some more pictures of some more of the antebellum homes. Went to the Steak Pit, which Bill insisted on calling the Snake Pit. He had steak---thin, almost raw and pan fried! I had fried oysters---small and burned --and a sweet potato. The salad bar was excellent. But, boy, these Southerners--at least in Alabama don't know how to eat. Fast Food flourishes here and cafeterias are upscale eating.

Back to the room, research, uploads of pix, blog and one more chapter in Hornet's Nest--almost done and I'm loving it. But why did he even mention Lizbeth's sister--is she the Amazon?

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