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Southern odyssey

Tour of early Civil Rights locations has both personal and historical meaning

I spent a great deal of my youth learning about the struggles of African-Americans during the civil rights movement and listening to firsthand accounts of what life was like during the decades leading up to that era.

Though I was born and raised in Chicago, the South has always had a special place in my heart.

My mom, Willa Lee, was born in a small town about 30 miles south of Memphis, Tenn., called Senatobia, Miss. — two places I spent many days visiting while growing up.

My mother, who moved to Gary, Ind., as a young girl with my grandmother, would tell me about her regular pilgrimages to Mississippi to visit family.

"I spent my summers with my grandparents in Senatobia," she said. "I'd travel there by train."

"When I boarded the train in Chicago from Central Station, you could sit anywhere there was a seat," she said. "Returning home after summer vacation was a very different experience."

"The station was not just smaller, it was segregated with 'Colored Waiting Room' signs, and the boarding process was also segregated," she noted.

"When the train arrived in Memphis, there was again the process of segregating the passengers," she said. "We were then below the Mason Dixon Line."

Hearing the recollections of my parents and relatives who lived through those times helped strengthen my connection with them and to previous generations. As a child, I became fascinated with the civil rights movement and the sociological impact of race on history and modern society in America.

This summer gave me a chance to retrace some of the steps of my ancestors and others who played such an important role in breaking down societal barriers. My wife, Bridget, and I, along with my parents, traveled to family reunions in Alabama and Tennessee, offering us the perfect opportunity to take a tour of many historic civil rights sites.

The first family gathering took place on the last weekend in June in Florence, Ala., so we came two days early to tour sites in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma — three cities critical to the civil rights movement.

Upon our arrival in Birmingham, I was anxious to finally be able to explore the place where so many important events had occurred.

We drove downtown to visit the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the National Civil Rights Museum and Kelly Ingram Park — named in honor of a local white fireman who was the first American sailor killed in World War I.

We learned that in 1963, the park served as part of a route for a march to City Hall to oppose racial discrimination.

On our visit to the museum, we enjoyed the various pictorial and video displays that depicted the violent struggles that often occurred in Birmingham, nicknamed "Bombingham" back then. One of the most compelling was a display showing police disrupting demonstrations with dogs and fire hoses.

For me, as a young person growing up on the south side of Chicago, those images left the most indelible marks in my mind. They were also reminiscent of the conflicts that took place between police and demonstrators in my hometown during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

I was enamored with the courage and perseverance that the people involved in those protests showed.

I could only imagine how frightened they must have been during that era, but they continued to fight violence using passive resistance and impassioned determination.

The next day we visited possibly the most famous historic civil rights site in the state of Alabama, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, located across from the museum.

The church was the site of one of the deadliest incidents in the civil rights era. On Sept. 15, 1963, just days after a controversial ruling in favor of integrating Birmingham schools, Klansmen bombed the church, killing four young girls who were in the basement preparing for Sunday School.

For me, being in that building was probably the most emotional part of the entire trip. The deaths of 11-year old Denise McNair, along with Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley — who were all 14 — were exceptionally shocking. It was incomprehensible how people could be filled with so much hate and inhumanity that they would destroy a church on Sunday knowing the potential consequences.

Such incidents have always made me wonder how so many people were able to keep their composure and not retaliate. But it is that resolve to maintain focus on the ultimate goal of equality that makes me proud to be of such a heroic legacy.

Bridget and I shared some of the same feelings about the trip. But, for her, much of what we saw and heard was new information, she said. "I learned so much more than I ever had since we didn't learn much about the movement in school," she said.

"I was saddened and angered by most of what I learned," she said. "I was, and am, thankful that I did not have to live through that era, or at least the most of it. I felt humbled by the sacrifices that were made by so many people, that I could enjoy the rights and freedoms I have now."

Each location provided powerful information that would very useful for her part-time work as a cultural sensitivity instructor, she said.

We journeyed to Montgomery to visit the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, known as the actual birthplace of the movement. The church sits in the shadow of the state Capitol building, just a block away, and is the only church that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ever led as pastor.

It was in the church's ground floor room, where our tour began, that Dr. King and others devised the plan for the Montgomery bus boycott following the arrest of seamstress Rosa Parks.

Parks had been charged with refusing to give up her bus seat to a white rider. That action sparked a demonstration against the segregation of the city's transit system that lasted over a year, resulting in the U.S. Supreme Court declaring that the Alabama laws requiring segregated buses unconstitutional.

"In the 1950s, Rosa Parks was not expected just to give up her seat and walk to the back of the bus," said Montgomery native Miriam Norris, the church tour guide and historian. "She was expected to get off the bus, walk around the outside and re-board through the rear door."

"That was the level of indignity that black people lived with here in the Deep South in the 1950s."

Norris, who attended Dexter Street as a child, said that despite those slights and the daily social conflict of the time, she enjoyed growing up in Montgomery. She noted that today her childhood church now boasts white members and is attended nearly every Sunday by visitors of various ethnicities.

The second part of the tour included a trip to the Dexter Parsonage Museum. The parsonage was the home that the church provided for Dr. King and his family from September 1954 until his departure in 1959.

The house had sustained damage to the front porch when it was bombed during the bus boycott. At the time, Coretta Scott King was home with one of her children, but luckily they both escaped unharmed.

The home has been restored, including original furniture, to represent the period of the King family's residence. There was also a plaque next to a divot in the concrete at the site where the bomb was thrown onto the house's front porch.

The decor and furnishings reminded me of the home that my great-grandparents owned in Senatobia, Miss. I was struck by how modest the parsonage was and how small it seemed compared to what I remember of similar style homes in my childhood. Despite the simplicity of some of the furniture, the home seemed rather formal, with a parlor and a dining room complete with doilies.

That formality was one of the quaint differences that seem to distinguish the South from the North in my childhood recollections.

Our tour had shown us that in the years since the civil rights movement, the city of Montgomery had transformed from a place of turbulence and conflict into a place of progress and acceptance. Unfortunately, the years had not seemed to be as kind to our next stop — Selma.

Some of my most vivid memories of the movement include photos and documentary footage of marchers walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on their way to the state Capitol in their effort to achieve voting rights.

In the early 1960s, Selma was a focal point for desegregation and voting-rights campaigns, with three marches stepping off from the famous bridge. Seeing the bridge for the first time was an important moment for me, akin to my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower or later the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Important American history was made there, and I found its personal impact was quite moving.

It's because of the courageous people who participated in those marches that I and others like me have the option of casting a ballot. And with this landmark presidential election, it made being in Selma all the more profound.

However, disappointment set in following our visit to the bridge as we realized that much of the rest of the town was like a trip back in time — a reminder of the tough economic times Selma had experienced.

The town's downtown river walk was run down with decaying, boarded-up storefronts. It reminded me of so many small towns that once had bustling Main Streets but have watched all their old locally owned businesses deteriorate and eventually shut down.

It was a sad fate for a place with such historic significance. After driving around for a short while, we decided to head back to Montgomery, where we visited the Rosa Parks Civil Rights Museum to conclude our Alabama tour.

A few weeks later, we embarked on the second phase of the journey by visiting Memphis, Tenn., the place where Dr. King made his famous and now prophetic "Mountaintop" speech on April 3, 1968, and was assassinated the next day while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

The Lorraine, along with the Young and Morrow building and the Main Street Rooming House where James Earl Ray is believed to have fired the fatal gunshot that killed Dr. King, have been transformed into the campus of the National Civil Rights Museum.

The difference between visiting this museum and a typical museum was that seeing the hotel room, balcony and the room where the shot fatal was fired made this place feel more like a crime scene. There was an eerie sense of sadness and death, at least for me.

There are permanent markers of where Dr. King fell after being shot, and you can see the window where the shooter was believed to have stood. There was even a replica of the rifle used in the murder.

It all made for an interesting, yet melancholy experience as I realized the impact the assassination had on the overall civil rights movement. Dr. King's death sparked riots nationwide and despair in the minds of many who had been hopeful for the future of blacks in America.

But since then, progress has been made. So much so, that today an African-American man is the nation's next president. How proud would Dr. King be if he were alive today, I wonder. Very proud, I imagine, and gratified to know his view from the mountaintop is being shared by so many others, like my family and I, who held his vision of hope and change so dear.

E-mail: jlee@desnews.com