What Alabama taught me about inequality
by Laura Gelder | 04 June 2020
Since the horrific killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and amidst the protests and the riots; the sadness and the anger, one place has come to my mind and one moment that took place there in particular. The place is Selma, Alabama and the moment, well I’ll get to that later.
Until I visited Alabama in 2012 I’m ashamed to say that I knew very little about the American civil rights movement and I landed in Alabama with a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and not much else to inform me on racial inequality in the south.
I was on a fam trip with seven travel agents and we arrived in the town of Selma on a hot and sultry Sunday afternoon, just in time for dinner and iced tea in Sturdivant Hall - a columned plantation house whose beautiful and comfortable rooms made me feel distinctly uncomfortable.
The next day we met our tour guide Joanne in a grease-scented diner and I knew she wasn't going to pull any punches as I tucked into a plate of cheesy grits and she told me: "Girl, you gonna get fat".
Joanne told us how she grew up in a segregated Selma and became involved in the civil rights movement at a young age. By the time she was 11 she had been arrested 13 times and she was one of the youngest people to participate in Bloody Sunday.
This historic day in 1965 was when hundreds of black citizens started a march from Selma to the state capital Montgomery to protest against their constitutional right to vote being denied through intimidation. As Joanne and her fellow protesters went to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge they were met by white policemen and when they refused to turn their peaceful parade around they were brutally beaten with sticks, charged with horses and tear gassed.
The pictures of this state-sponsored brutality appeared all around the world, causing outrage and prompting President Johnson to pass the Voting Right Act which prohibited racial discrimination during elections.
Selma affected me the most because it was Joanne's personal story - the story of a child who wasn't allowed in the ice cream parlour because of the colour of her skin - but we visited many other places that taught us about racism and resilience.
In Montgomery we went to a museum dedicated to Rosa Parks, the ordinary woman whose refusal to give up her bus seat for a white person prompted the town’s black residents, who made up three quarters of the buses' customers, to simply boycott them. Eventually the economic effect of that action lead to a new law allowing black citizens to sit where they wanted to on the bus.
At Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute we saw a dark side to the 1950s America we’d seen in movies like Grease and Back to the Future - where black Americans were forbidden to enter the milkshake bars, play sport alongside white Americans or even use the same washrooms as them.
In the next block was the 16th Street Baptist Church, which housed a black-only congregation and was a centre for the city’s civil rights campaigners in the 60s. We watched a joyful service where ladies in elegant dresses with coiffed hair and spotless white gloves danced, sung and clapped along with a gospel choir. They stood just above the basement where Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson (all 14 years old) and Carol Denise McNair (11) were murdered by a bomb planted by Ku Klux Klan in 1963. It was a bomb so fierce that it decapitated one victim, created a five foot crater in the church, blew a passing motorist out of his car and damaged windows two blocks away.
We learnt that the city was nicknamed ‘Bombingham’ for the sheer amount of explosions it saw during a terror campaign which was waged on the black community for daring to move into so-called white neighbourhoods or challenge segregation.
We read Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham Jail, where he was locked up for leading a peaceful protest march without a permit. In it he calls Birmingham ‘the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States’ with an ‘ugly record of police brutality’.
I read his letter again before I wrote this and it’s tragic how relevant it still is today. In it he addresses those who deplore the demonstrations, saying: “I am sorry that your statement didn’t express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.”
King’s letter is addressed to religious leaders who had called his demonstrations ‘unwise and untimely’ and he talks of his “grave disappointment in the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice” and explains how it's easy for those who have never experienced inequality to ask those who have to be calm and wait for action.
I wonder what he would think of today's America and each time I see the photo of the policeman who knelt on George Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes, his face so blank and unconcerned, I'm reminded of that moment in Selma when I realised that racism was not consigned to history.
We were on the tour bus and Joanne was at the front with her microphone, pointing out a historic building, when we noticed a lone white man standing on the street corner and waving at us slowly but not smiling. Someone piped up: "I think that guy knows you, Joanne".
She told us quite casually that he was a racist and he was always there, always complaining about her tours blocking up the streets and always trying to stop her telling her story. And then she told us to all to just wave right back, before getting on with telling her story.
If you want to help your clients understand the story of America's civil rights struggle, and how to put together an itinerary taking in Alabama and the Civil Rights Trail, click here.
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