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

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.


The Desert Rats

Chihuahua Desert View

I just returned from a four-day trip into the Chihuahuan Desert just across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park. This is my fourth such Christmas trip, taking gifts and a fiesta to the people of the village of San Vicente, Mexico. The program is facilitated by Mision de Candelilla, and gifts are from the families of the Fredericksburg United Methodist Church to the families of San Vicente, all 36 of them, personalized, many from the same families for the 10 year history of this program.  The fiesta is simple: baked beans and fruit and bread and hot chocolate and cookies. Here are some pictorial observations.

Unmarked Grave in La Union, Mexico

Unmarked Grave in La Union, Mexico

These people are descended from both Hispanic and Indian ancestors. Life here is hard. The person buried in this grave appears to be forgotten. The grave is shallow because the rocky ground is very hard to dig.

Indian Woman in San Vicente

Indian Woman in San Vicente

This woman has a prayer shawl knitted by Methodist women in Fredericksburg.

Lilly, and 11 year old from Texas

Lilly, an 11 year old from Texas

Indian Girl

Indian Girl

These two girls, one born on the south side of the nearby river and the other on the north, have very different lives; Lilly was fun to get to know; while I never spoke to the Indian girl, I wish I could communicate in her langage (Spanish) so I could find out more about her life.

Prayer Circle

Prayer Circle or Family Reunion?

A local pastor, Bucho, opens the fiesta with a group prayer. This is more than a Christian tradition, it is a family reunion of the 36 families in the village, who are only all gathered once a year for this event. Most of the people in this village share the Brito name.

Mision de Candelilla team members gather at the river

Mision de Candelilla team members gather at the river

Exploring is part of the fun this group of veteran MDC volunteers has on their trips to Mexico. The other side of the river is Big Bend National Park. These are the fun people!

Volunteers make this mission happen

Volunteers Make This Mission Happen

Hutch is a long time participant in this mission. The drive is 13 hours, there are only outhouses and a single water spigot for plumbing, there is no electricity, and less heat. You can see from his smile what he thinks about it all.

Exploring the Desert

Exploring the Desert

Katherine and Cathy are long time MDC volunteers and love exploring the desert. These two kids had a blast, learning about plants and picking up rocks. Yes, it is very cold and windy.

Fredericksburg Students

Fredericksburg students and their adult “supervisors”

While we were at San Vicente, this group was at a number of other villages with a similar program, headquartered in the village of La Union. Listening to their evening “sharing time” by lantern light was an emotional experience for all, adults and kids alike. As they say, the mission is Changing lives on both sides of the border.  This trip isn’t about the stuff being gifted, its about a relationship between people from Texas and Mexico.

The core work of MDC since 1986 has been providing medical care by volunteer medical professionals and able assistants for 9 villages along the Rio Grande, twice  per village each year. Medical trips are much different than these Christmas trips and are in the spring and fall. Volunteers pay a fee to participate, but most expenses are borne by the mission. If you are looking for adventure, check out their trip schedule. I wrote about this trip for Texas Hill a couple of years ago. The Desert Rats always need volunteers




Nose to the Grindstone

I returned from France just in time to get very busy. All I have left from Via Podiensis are the usual momentos: a credential with stamps, a well worn guidebook, and this beret.

And friends. Lots of friends. Some of those friends will be forming another family in Austria on May 22, when we start down the trail on the European Peace Walk. The EPW ends in Trieste, Italy, but I’m planning to walk at least to Venice. I hear you can kayak the canals.

Le Gite

I’ve stayed in about two dozen different gites now on this walk in France, and those experiences have defined the journey. In this photo, Patrick is dishing up soup to guests at his dining room table.

This gite is Ferm de la Basssyad, between Lauzerte and Moissac. Patrick and his wife are farmers, producing pork, grapes, milk from cows and sheep, and apples. The place is authentic country: a ramshackle collection of buildings and barns without any decoration and barely functional plumbing.

These French and German pilgrims and I shared the table with Patrick, Claudette, her mother, and their daughter. Everything served with very few exceptions was from their farm. Dinner is at 8 (every other was at 7) because the work on the farm isn’t done until then.

They served homemade pumpkin & vegetable soup, pork in gravy over noodles, and apple crumble. All home made, all fabulous.

Nothing fancy, Claudette hosts about 400 pilgrims a year and treats all as family. Another extraordinary experience! And the soup- amazing.

Problems, Solutions, and Things I’m Trying Not To Worry About

Bruce wrote me to say it was time for me to come home. So now I’m trying to focus on making a 7 am flight next Tuesday. Solution: I booked a bed near the airport via AirBnb and my host says not to worry about, they will get me there.

This morning I looked at the soles of my boots and discovered I’ve worn through the sole at the heels. Will they make another 60 kilometers? Solution: my Chaco sandals will be a suitable backup.

I have little food with me. Will I be able to get lunch? Open grocery stores and restaurants are rare out here. Solution: this place showed up at noon, and I had a fizzy water and the best sandwich I’ve had in France. The owner was a hoot.

Am I going to drag ass this afternoon? It’s a 24 kilometer day! Solution: I met Bernardo at the store and talked with him for all 9 kilometers remaining. He is a German internal medicine doctor and we had a great conversation. He has gone on another 10 kilometers.

Am I going to find a bed? The first gite I checked in this village was full. Solution: I asked the lady I got a Perrier water from, and she referred me to this sweet place. And they serve dinner!

When worries pop up, I think of this sign, and stop worrying.

My Only Regret is

I’m with Monique, the owner of this restaurant. I’ve been wondering about French country cooking, and my only regret is that one of you readers wasn’t here to help me eat this meal.

One of my trail friends, Solomon, told me I should find a Michelin-rated restaurant along the trail and have a fantastic, if expensive, lunch. Then, Robert, my Belgian host last night, suggested that I do just that. I don’t know how he got the idea, he didn’t recommend this to the other pilgrims.

The catch was that I would be at the restaurant, Down the trail in Bach, 1 1/2 hours before they opened. It is only open at noon a few days a week, and this was one of those days, so I took this as serendipity. I cooled my heels in the church yard from 10:30 to 11:45, when Monique came out to me and invited me inside.

I was the first customer, although it filled up soon. Monique explained that she cooks the same food her mother and grandmother did. I let her pick the menu, telling her I wanted good country cooking.

I was served the best glass of wine I’ve had in France and beef broth with tapioca (I think). Tasty! There was enough left for you to fill up on too!

Then quiche and beef tongue.

Potatoes, butter beans with carrots, and a vegetable and cheese casserole.

Beef with carrots in a light sauce.

More beef, with tangy things like peas.

At least, dessert: really really tasty pastry, chocolate cake, and a cream sauce. By this time I wasn’t sure I would be able to walk out the door, much less 12 kilometers to my gite.

Tonight I’m in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere by myself. I had some trail snacks for dinner and am under two quilts, ready for an early night. Lunch? €23. I wish you’d been there to share it. My favorite dish? The vegetable (legumes in French) casserole. I’ll make that at home. But it will be the only course! And maybe you can join me.

Mort Pour Le France

Every village has a monument to Les Enfants who died between 1914 and 1918, defending their country against an invasion from Germany.

These tiny villages must have suffered greatly with the loss of a generation of young men. Another pelerin, a Québécois whose primary language is French, told me that often all these young men were in the same unit and died on the same day. He read that the population of the area has not recovered after a hundred years. In one day 27,000 French soldiers were killed August 22nd 1914 at the Battle of Charleroi.

Here some men outside of Faycelles have crushed grapes the old fashioned way and are taking the remainder out of the press. My friend said this used to be a big wine production area, but that a disease from the United States killed all their vines. I assume this was Pierce’s Disease.

I have seen only one vineyard so far, but this grapevine by a nice home makes me want to plant some vines to cover my back deck.

This is a typical trail- it looks to be centuries old, both containing livestock in the fields and giving a path to drive the livestock to another pasture. This may not be the original Camino path used by the Bishop of Le Puy whose pilgrimage to Santiago in 951 AD started the tradition, but the villages enroute certainly are.

I’ve seen many of these old cisterns along the trail, and they include a trench to collect water flowing down the trail. This one has been restored, I think.

It is cold today. I have walked 343 kilometers so far.

The area has sheep, cattle, and goats, and small cheese factories for the area. The French are very picky about their cheese.


I had coffee in the tiny village of Faycelles yesterday. That is it in the background.

It has a pretty Church and I git a stamp in the tourist office. I thought it was the prettiest village I had seen but didn’t get photos.

Late that afternoon in the village of Gréalou I met my host, Esther, who was warm and friendly. She said they were going to a celebration at Faycelles that evening, did I want to go? But if we went there would only be soup for dinner. I immediately said yes, enthusiastically.

Dinner was “just” homemade vegetable soup, with pumpkin, carrots, potatoes, bell peppers, celery, fresh turmeric, and more. Served with goat milk.

Esther drove her helper Lucas, another pilgrim Sophie, and I to Faycelles. The celebration recognized 20 years of designation of this part of the Camino as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

People were preparing to light luminaries made of clay pots filled with wax and a big cloth wick. 1100 of them.

People poured into the tiny village. Wine and beer flowed.

At dark the flames were lit.

This old fortification turned into

This. Thousands of people flowed onto the trail, which I had walked earlier that afternoon, guided by the luminaries.

Fantastic scenes were created by animated figures made of steel and salvaged parts.

The lighted city is in the background.

Walking through the ring of fire was the dramatic finale.

This tightrope unicycle was the most intriguing. Now I’m back on the trail for the next adventure.

3 Hour Dinners

Dinner at my house may be 20 minutes. Here, they can take 3 hours.

The owner met us at the church in Saint Felix and guided us up to the house.

I’m staying in a house with three other guests and the host. We were called to dinner at 6:30 and are just now finishing

The owner has guests because it is fun. He doesn’t want people every night.

The conversation is all in French.

The cheese plate is second to last, but the discussion of the various cheeses on it, where they came from, takes a full half hour.

Appetizers of cheese wrapped in ham, wine, and tomatoes is followed by a cold sliced meat plate and sliced tomatoes, by mashed potatoes with codfish, by more wine, and finally fruit cocktail. I should have taken more pictures in 3 hours.

Monastic Life

This is a longer than usual post as this is a spectacular place. My good friend Ralph told me that Conques was magical, so when I arrived my expectations were high. The trail coming in to town was a steep and tough descent.

My walking companion Josette banged up her right foot and was barely able to walk in the morning.

The welcome by volunteers in the e Benedictine Abbye was warm and friendly with all the usual procedures except that our packs were put in fumigated plastic bags (bedbug prevention). Boots and walking sticks in the courtyard.

The sleeping room is ordinary with an excellent bathroom right next door (unisex, as seems to be the custom).

Dinner at 7:00 pm in the refectory was chicken, carrot salad, potatoes with cheese, and good wine. Cheese and cake for dessert. One of the hospitaliers told me the blue cheese was local and where the variety originated.

We had been at the Cathedral earlier for a choral concert by a group of talented women, and now returned there for a pilgrim blessing by the Benedictine brothers. Because I was an English speaker, I was invited to make a reading, as were a Frenchman, a German, and a Spanish woman. The reading wasn’t familiar but was Old Testament-ish, probably from the Psalms.

Following we were invited to an organ concert. I explored the second floor of the immense stone church. The organist played a hymn I remember my mother playing, a very emotional experience for me. The acoustics of a pipe organ in a stone cathedral are amazing. He wrapped up the concert with a spectacular rendition of “The House of the Rising Sun”. He told me afterward that it was made popular in France by a French singer and he hadn’t known of its American origin until some American visitors told him.

Then we went outside and listened to a long history of the town in French. I couldn’t put together the story from what I understood. This is the famous facade of “Last Judgement” in daylight. What followed next (10:30 pm) was incredible.

Using a light projection system (laser?) the colors originally painted there were restored in great detail and vibrancy. An altogether amazing evening!

I am laying in today, recovering from 11 days on the trail. Josette and I shared a last lunch of bread and cheese and grapes, then she caught the bus back to Le Puy. She became a good friend.

Here is a piece of the concert. Conques is indeed magical. I’m back on the trail at 7:30 am, am getting deep into rural French culture.