A Monument to Freedom


One month from today is the fiftieth anniversary of a major turning point in the Civil Rights Movement—the assault on the Edmund Pettus Bridge known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Nearly two years ago, my husband took me on a surprise trip to Alabama. After an evening at the Monroeville Courthouse watching a local production of To Kill a Mockingbird, we headed north toward Montgomery. At Exit 167 on Interstate 65, we turned west on U.S. Highway 80, the route marchers took from Selma to the statehouse in Montgomery—a 54-mile trek along the highway.

Once off the exit, I was struck by a National Park Service sign that announced the “Selma to Montgomery National Historical Trail.” This was it. The road those courageous men, women, and

children had hiked, risking all. I was overwhelmed and moved to tears—tears that fell intermittently during the entire drive to Selma.

As the trip progressed, my husband, Wendy, and I speculated on what such a long walk (it took five days) would be like. We had only a month earlier entered the Cooper River Bridge Run, a 10K in Charleston, South Carolina. Even though I was a walker, the 6.2 miles generated painful shin splints. How did these people do it?

“They were in their church clothes,” Wendy said. “And dress shoes.”

Shoes worn by Juanita T. Williams
during the Selma to Montgomery March
Oh, my Lord. We wore comfortable clothes and shoes designed for optimum support on a walk only a fraction of the distance. They wore wingtips. Juanita T. Williams, activist, donated her leather loafers to the Smithsonian Institute. The blisters and open sores must have been agonizing.

After driving nearly an hour, my breath caught in my throat. The Edmund Pettus Bridge. The site of such brutality that the rest of the nation could no longer turn away in apathy.

We parked the car and, hand in hand, began to walk across the landmark as my emotions again simmered to the surface.

The bridge’s sidewalk was surprisingly narrow. A thin metal rail provided the only barrier between me and the swirling waters of the Alabama River. My moderate fear of bridges kicked in and I insisted on walking on the road side. However, there was no shoulder between it and the cars, and my husband worried I would be struck by a passing vehicle. They were moving at a pretty good clip. Finally, we compromised with me walking behind him, a foot or so away from the road, as we continued to hold hands.

“How did they fit on this sidewalk?” I asked.

Reviewing the films with that in mind, I saw that they walked in twos, careful not to step into the road. I know they wanted to follow all laws, hoping to prevent excuses, it turns out, the authorities did not need.

We reached the end of the bridge. The National Park Service website describes what happened there in 1965.

“As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, they were met by a column of State Troopers and local volunteer officers of the local sheriff’s department who blocked their path.

The non-violent protesters were told by Maj. John Cloud that they had two minutes to return back to their church and homes. In less than the time allotted, they were attacked by the Law Enforcement Officers with nightsticks and teargas. According to several reports, at least 50 protestors required hospital treatment. The brutality that was displayed on this day was captured by the media; however, the media was held back as the protesters retreated, where the violence continued for some time.”
Reproduction of MLK’s
Birmingham jail cell

What was then Haisten’s Mattress and Awning Company is now the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute. Its collections feature the history of the nonviolence movement as a whole, including the works of Gandhi and Mother Teresa. A replica of Martin Luther King’s cell in the Birmingham jail moved us, but what struck us most was the exhibit that ran throughout the museum. The footprints of Foot Soldiers for the movement.

Shoes of civil rights workers
Not only were shoes featured at this museum, but also at the Martin Luther King Visitor Center in Atlanta. It’s a powerful metaphor. It took the baby steps and grand strides of thousands of people to cross that bridge and lead the rest of us to the freedom King dreamed about.

Two weeks following Bloody Sunday there were not 600 marchers ready to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge. There were 25,000. And with a court order, they completed that march to Montgomery—five months before President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

Yes, the Edmund Pettus Bridge is a shrine. To determination. To courage. To justice.

And I was humbled to be there.

Photo of shoes from http://www.smithsonianlegacies.si.edu/objectdescription.cfm?ID=242

Connections

If you touched an item belonging to someone long deceased, would you sense his spirit? Could you experience her presence? My encounters tell me sometimes yes, sometimes no. I invite you to share your views on this subject.

The historical figure on whom I base my book, Aroon, is Father Nicholas Sheehy of Clogheen and Clonmel, who was executed on March 15, 1766 for treason. It’s not simple, but basically, like Martin Luther King, Jr., he urged the poor Irish to stand up for themselves as men.

I visited the tomb of Father Sheehy in 2005. Did I feel something? Yes. Was it overwhelming? No. Nevertheless, standing in the ancient graveyard on that misty day, while unseen ravens squawked from overhanging trees, I felt something. I was there for a reason, I believed, called to be in this place, and I would return.

Since then, I started this blog, which has put me, via the internet, in virtual contact with Father Sheehy. As I wrote in my last post, a descendant of Mr. Billy Griffiths confirmed that a cure Father Sheehy reputedly left to the Griffiths did indeed exist, even to this day. She could not confirm its effectiveness, but she assured me that, as late as the 1970s, folks still sought it out.

I have had other encounters with Father Sheehy’s footprint on this earth. A young Irish student from Clonmel, County Tipperary, the very town that held the priest’s trial and execution, contacted me seeking more information about the historical figure. I told Ciera what I knew, sent a few photos, and in return, she emailed pictures of the museum’s artifacts. Relics of which I was unaware.

These items included Father Sheehy’s signature, which once again, caused me to speculate on this legend as a flesh-and-blood man. In what ways was he just like us? How was he exceptional?

Ciera was permitted, by appointment, to view this and his purple stole. She sent me the photo she took. The symbol of his station among the common people whom he died to defend. Even gazing at the item on my computer screen, I was in awe of his courage and commitment.

On this very day, I’ve received more information from an historian from Clogheen, County Tipperary, the village to which Nicholas Sheehy ministered. I will share that in another post.

The man was real. His mission was righteous. And he paid the ultimate price.

A Message from Montgomery

Note: Please be forewarned that I have included a disturbing photo at the end of this post.

The morning of my sixtieth birthday, my husband, Wendy, and I drove into downtown Montgomery, Alabama, counting on road signs to guide us to civil rights landmarks. We passed one for the Civil Rights Memorial and, while backtracking to find it, an iconic red-brick church rose up before us. My heart caught in my throat at the site of the Dexter Street Baptist Church where MLK, Jr. was pastor from 1954 to 1960.

 
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested after she famously remained seated on a Montgomery bus. One day later, people crowded into this very church where they decided to launch the bus boycott. Wendy and I speculated on the fear that must have permeated the sanctuary barely four months after the widely publicized torture and murder of Emmit Till. (Photo is at the end of the post.) We are in awe of the astounding courage this non-violent protest required.

Unfortunately, a funeral was scheduled for that morning, so we were unable to go inside.

Wendy had read that the Civil Rights Memorial was only a block away, so we rounded a corner and came right up on it. I quickly recognized the black-table fountain from my Southern Poverty Law Center literature. This gorgeous monument was designed by Maya Lin, designer of DC’s Vietnam War Memorial. She was inspired by MLK’s paraphrase of Amos 5:24, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Photo from www.splc.org
 

Inside, we learned that she left a space on the civil rights timeline to
indicate that there were many incidents before this time and after.

I was not surprised that, to enter, we had to go through airport-like security since I was well aware of the many death threats against founder Morris Dees. Also, you may remember the 2009 murder of a Holocaust Museum security guard by an aging white supremacist.

Among other things, the museum featured a fascinating mural of the major events during the Civil Rights Era. But there was also a reminder that, on a smaller scale (thank God), these types of things still go on. One example was a pair of young men who were “looking for people to kill.” Black, Hispanic, anyone as long as they weren’t white. They eventually killed a young girl because “she trusted us and she was in-between.”

One of the last exhibits was the Wall of Tolerance, a digital display where the names of people who have taken the following pledge flow down the screen.

“By placing my name on the Wall of Tolerance, I pledge to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance. I will work in my daily life for justice, equality and human rights – the ideals for which the Civil Rights martyrs died.”

Both Wendy and I proudly added our names and immediately watched them roll before my tear-filled eyes. I tried several times to photograph them, but none came out. The photo below came from the SPLC website.

I was one year old when the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was handed down. I grew up with this movement in the background and was profoundly affected by it as a teenager. Human dignity and civil rights issues have molded my life. I feel very strongly that forgetting the sacrifices of the martyrs who came before us risks a return to the oppression that provoked it.
 
Photo of 14-year old Emmit Till
in his casket. The inset shows
the boy before the murder.