So much has been happening over the past two days, I hardly know how to make sense of it for you, dear reader! Volunteering here at the Living Legacy Project’s event in Birmingham (which can be live streamed here) has been a joy and a privilege, and with so much going on, it has also been a rigorous schedule to keep.
We started bright and early on Thursday morning, setting up the bookstall and registering new guests. On the way into town with Monica, my local guide and volunteer-boss, a local columnist came on the radio, saying, “In Alabama, we have a long and illustrious history of defending our rights…often at the expense of the rights of others.” In this particular case, John Archibald was alluding to the recent judicial altercations over same-sex marriage, but his words ring true across issues.
After lunch, we all piled into two big buses and headed for Selma, which is nearly 90 miles away.
Now, I was anticipating warm weather here in Alabama — at least, warmer than Minnesota! However, as we hurried out the door, we had to brace ourselves against snow and sleet, which is a highly unusual weather pattern for this area. Just the day before, I’d been admiring the blooming trees and sunny skies. On this leg of the journey, however, the skies were flat and grey.
We drove for about an hour and a half, down winding highways and hilly two-lane roads. As we went deeper into the countryside, we watched grassy fields roll by, broken up by dilapidated buildings alternated with stately brick homes and the occasional field of abandoned vehicles, rusting away in the weeds. The forests were just starting to bud, dusted with that haze of vibrant green. Strangely, there didn’t seem to be any people out and about — perhaps it was the drizzly cold that kept them inside, but it lent the grey scenery a haunted, abandoned feeling as our bus rolled along.
Gordon Gibson came on the microphone at one point: “Think for a moment — I don’t know if it was this exact stretch of road, but it was one just like it, back when they were driving Jim Reeb to Birmingham’s hospital after he was beaten into unconsciousness in Selma that night. It was roads like these they were navigating in the dark, terrified, desperately trying to save his life.” After a pause, he added, “They couldn’t, of course. With his injuries being what they were, nobody could have.”
The bus settled into an uneasy, mindful silence as we stared out the windows at pecan trees and lonely yards. We seemed so far from the bustle of urban life, and as we went deeper into the hills and gullies, I could feel the norms and expectations of city living just falling away. We were in the Deep South, indeed.
Then we rumbled into Selma — which appeared to be physically unchanged since 1965.
Half the buildings were unoccupied and falling apart, windows broken or boarded or just plain empty. There were no tourist attractions, no thematic restaurants, no big museums. We saw people (at last), but we were told a good number of those on the sidewalks were preemptive visitors anticipating the Jubilee March this weekend. Here and there, a portable toilet had been stationed (which was good news, since we had been warned there wouldn’t be any).
We piled out near a cafe — the one James Reeb had eaten at with his friends right before being attacked. On that spot, in the middle of the sidewalk, a bronze plaque had been erected to memorialize his death.
And ten feet away was the surviving family of Rev. Reeb, over a dozen people who had flown in from all over the country for this anniversary recognition of their father’s (or grandfather’s) death. Standing with them were Rev. Clark Olsen and Rev. Orloff Miller, who had been there during the attack. They were surrounded by media. When the media cloud cleared, the family came over and greeted us so graciously, as we all huddled in the cold wind under a sheltering tent.
We piled back into the bus and saw a few more local sights, including a stop at Brown Chapel, where the pastor unexpectedly showed up and invited us in for an impromptu singalong, where we clapped in a joyful but utterly uncoordinated way, our voices echoing and blending together under that huge domed ceiling.
Dinner was delicious, a true Southern meal at the local Wallace Community College — named, of course, after the Alabama governor who had caused Bloody Sunday to become a day of violence by directing troops to stop the march after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Like many aspects of race here in the South, the contrasts are juxtaposed starkly, overlapping in close proximity, strangely integrated in their distinct separation. Some members of our group pondered whether the college had been named after the former state governor before or after he repented, just prior to his death, of his role in escalating the violence the Civil Rights Movement.
And then we headed over to the Tabernacle Baptist Church, for a powerful Mass Meeting and Memorial Service for the fallen martyrs James Reeb, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and Viola Liuzzo, among others. You can read about that experience in my previous post, Memorial of the Martyrs.
By the time the service let out on Thursday night, it was late. We shivered and huddled our way back into our bus seats for the long drive back to the hotel in Birmingham. Pulling up at quarter past midnight, we all fumbled our way through the still-unfamiliar hallways to our half-remembered rooms — some of us meeting our roommates for the first time right before crawling into bed.
There was a lot to dream about that night.
[Note: Due to technological difficulties, photos will be added later.]