I write to you now from Birmingham, Alabama. Far from the frigid snows of Minnesota, my first breath of Southern air made me think I’d landed at the aquarium rather than the airport — humid and warm! Temps were in the seventies, the sun was shining mightily, and even the trees and shrubs were covered in the beginnings of pink and yellow blossoms.
But before my northern friends get too upset with me for boasting of the nice weather, I’ll add that as I write tonight, a cold rain is beating on my bedroom window — local schools are cancelled tomorrow for fear of ice as the temperature plummets. I also saw on Facebook that some of my colleagues around the country have had their flights cancelled and won’t be able to make it to the conference at all. So I’m feeling lucky that I made it here without a hassle.
During my layover in the Chicago-Midway airport, I began to hear a different sort of music in the voices of other passengers awaiting the boarding time — swapping stories , rambling from one tale to the next, these black Southern women weren’t afraid to take time, first visiting this memory, then that one, making sure the actors in these tales had a chance to be seen and known.
I half-listened as I balanced playing cards on my leg, determined to win my game of solitaire before I had to board my flight. Their voices became a comforting patchwork held together with occasional Bless-her-hearts.
One woman said, with pride evident in her voice, “You know, the President is going to be there.”
Then a white Northern voice broke into the gently drawled conversation behind me: “Are you all going to Selma?”
The ladies paused at the question, which to me felt intrusive and presumptuous. But it would seem nothing could shake their dignity, and one gracefully responded:
“I am, yes. I marched in ’65, and I’m going back this weekend.”
“Were you part of SNCC?” the Northerner asked.
After another tiny pause, the gentle voice answered, “No. But one time Freedom Fighters stayed at our home. And my brothers carried the banner in other Jubilees.”
“Selma sure is a small town to have so many people visiting.”
“Yes, about 20,000 people live there.”
As the flight began boarding, the stilted conversation broke up. I made my way onto the plane and found a seat. As matters turned out, my seatmates were Unitarian Universalists from Oregon!
Bob and Peg were lovely companions for our flight to Birmingham. At Peg’s insistence, Bob had come for the march in 1965, and he heard Dr. King’s speech in Montgomery when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He shared memories with me of how tense the South was during his last visit — how he’d been turned away from buying a Coke by a white shopkeeper because he was one of the marchers; how the national guard had pulled out suddenly after the march, and the risk of violence escalated immensely; how he’d had to have an escort when going to and from the church where he was being housed. He remembered receiving the news of the murder of Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb, and a few days later the murder of Unitarian Universalist lay leader Viola Liuzzo. It was a different time then, Bob assured me.
We parted with glad wishes, and I found my wonderful new colleague Monica, who is my local guide during my trip. She and her daughter brought me to my homestay, where we all shared a delicious Southern meal of barbeque. My hosts are lovely, and I have been treated to great conversation and warm hospitality.
I look forward to writing more soon! I send wishes for safe travels to all who are still making their way here — and hoping for roads that are clear and ice-free.