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F-e-e-e-e-e-l-ing It: on the Trail to Civil Rights

March 12, 2019

My friend Robert Schwarz has written about his experience as a draftee in combat in Vietnam during 1968-69. When we talk about writing, he says, “You’ve got to make them f-e-e-e-e-e-l it!” And he does, in a very visceral way. I thought I knew about the Civil Rights Movement – I knew some of the story, I had an idea what life had been like for formerly enslaved black people in the South.  I knew the story in a big-picture, intellectual way.  Last week I experienced the story in a much more visceral way.

Edmund Pettis Bridge Selma

Edmuind Pettus Bridge Selma

I went to Selma, Alabama, to the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where a museum tells and shows the story of Bloody Sunday. On March 7, 1965, a group of 600 unarmed people committed to non-violent protest started on a march of just over 50 miles to the Governor’s Office in Montgomery, intending to ask Governor Wallace to let blacks to register to vote.  They were met by about 120 state police and sheriff deputies, some on horseback, who beat them with clubs and attacked them with tear gas. March organizer Amelia Boynton Robinson, 54 years old, was beaten unconscious by the law enforcement officers.  Fifty-six required treatment and 20 were admitted to the one hospital which would treat blacks.. They went back, prepared for another beating. The march eventually happened, but not until the Federal Government intervened. The cover photo is moments before the beatings began. The power of the press was the catalyst to making this an international issue that had to be reckoned with.

Southern Poverty Law Center

Southern Poverty Law Center

I went to Montgomery, where I visited the Southern Poverty Law Center. I learned the stories of 40 people who were murdered, often with tacit approval of or by law enforcement officers, because they were pursuing the right for black people in the south to vote. Some of those murdered were children, and many others were killed for being black. Each murder victim in this place has a picture and a story.

A short distance away was the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Peace and Justice Center

National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama

This story was also hard to take: I learned about lynching of black men, women, and children around the country. They have documented 4,500 cases of lynching, generally conducted with little provocation, often preceded with torture and beatings, and many times with the knowledge or assistance of law enforcement officers. Few cases were investigated by the law or the courts. The Elaine (Arkansas) massacre of 229 men, women, and children was just 100 years ago and is highlighted on this column in the exhibit, one of hundreds of columns resembling a person hanging.

Peace and Justice Center

National Memorial for Peace and Justice, where hanging columns represents lynching victims.

To say this is sobering is an understatement.

Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama

Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama

In 1965, two days in a row, thousands of children marched from the Kelly Ingram Park through the business district in non-violent  protest. They were met by policemen with attack dogs and firefighters with powerful high pressure water.  2500 were arrested and taken to jail, some as young as 6 years old.


Suffragettes pictured in Nashville, Kentucky

Suffragettes pictured in Centennial Park, Nashville, Tennessee

In 1920, a handful of women led a movement that convinced a nation that women should have the right to vote. The final ratification of the 19th Amendment came after Tennessee’s approval in Nashville. One of these women spent five nights in jail in Washington DC for protesting in front of the White House.

Many people have suffered and died to secure the right to vote.

Civil Rights organizers and protesters exhibited great courage, knowing that there was a likelihood of savage beatings at the least. Many were killed.

Civil Rights organizers operated out of churches, and many of the movement’s leaders were pastors. Rev King asked white pastors to support the movement. They remained silent. The Texas Legislature recently enacted voter suppression legislation – they say its about preventing voter fraud, which is almost non-existent. It is voter suppression, and the Supreme Court rejected much of it. I have not yet heard a word of protest from the Christian church.

Alabama has changed, but you don’t have to listen to the news long to know that white supremacy is just below the surface in this country. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis at the age of 39. His non-violent approach to civil rights was so effective that he couldn’t be allowed to continue.

Americans still suffer the aftereffects of slavery.  About 12,000,000 Africans (2,000,000 did not survive the voyage) were kidnapped to be enslaved in the western hemisphere. The sole reason for this was the pursuit of wealth at the expense of others. The Civil War came about because wealthy plantation owners stood to lose money over the coming emancipation. We are not over that yet, especially the southern states. Texas seceded to maintain slavery; if you are not sure about that, read the document.

The battle at Shiloh started here.

I visited Vicksburg, Stones River, and Shiloh, places where unbelievable slaughter of American men took place. The battle at Shiloh (Tennessee) began at this spot, when a Federal scouting party ran across Confederate pickets before sunrise. There were over 23,000 casualties in two days, 500,000 total during the war. All this because of a political disagreement.

Ida B Wells

Ida B Wells, Peace and Justice Center.

If you don’t understand why some black football players refuse to stand or take a knee during the playing of the National Anthem, you aren’t paying attention. It has nothing whatever to do with veterans or service in the military, that is absolute BS. The killings and mass incarceration of black men haven’t stopped. The Germans may have the Holocaust, but we have slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, and systematic denial of human and civil rights. America has a problem with terrorism, and its not coming from Muslims, its coming from us.  White supremacy isn’t a silly idea from the rural south, it is pure evil. If you aren’t sure about this, go to Selma. Go to Montgomery. Go to Birmingham. Go to Little Rock. See the places, hear the story. It is real. They’ll make you f-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-l it.

Lorraine Hotel, Memphis

Lorraine Hotel, Memphis, now the National Civil Rights Museum

Listen to the short speech Martin Luther King gave shortly before he was assassinated on that balcony.

From → Writing Fiction

  1. Great post, Robert! Thanks you for sharing.

  2. Leslie permalink

    Thank you for the courage to tell your experience so honestly. I think you could add a bit about the surprise of Central High to your knowledge of the civil rights movement. We still face great disparities in public education today, and social media is the latest battleground for harassing “the other”.

    • I didn’t get any good photos of Central High. I may write a post just about that profound experience and borrow photos.

  3. Ralph Greenlee permalink

    Great summation of the unimaginable atrocities upon the victims of the African slave trade and their successive progeny in our country. We can never shrink from keeping this sad aspect of our national history. I am old enough to have spent the early years of my life growing up during legal segregation. It made no sense to me as a child and living through the termultuous years leading up to desegregation was an outrageously humiliating and sickening experience for me. Your plea for the feelings we all should experience in standing by the “kneelers” is right on. Thank you Robert.

  4. Excellent, Robert! And thanks for having shared along the way- what an important journey you created for Kay and yourself- you’ve inspired me to do the same, when I get back – could take my grandkids with me…I might consult with you for trip logistics, etc

    Be well

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