Thursday, June 27, 2019

A Buick Reverie on Kindness and Cruelty

At the little town of Old Texas, Alabama I turned onto Route 29.  I picked it because it was nothing but a thin gray line on the atlas with no towns.  Somewhere around Evergreen I would have to get on a bigger highway, thick red on the map, to take me to the Florida state line above Pensacola but for now I wanted peace and quiet.  Boredom can be a balm for the soul.
Believing you are never totally in control of dark thoughts, but also having faith you can act in ways that temper them, I slid more “new” Dylan into the Buick’s dash.  It was a double record set which won Dylan a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1997, and another for Best Male Rock Vocalist on the song Cold Irons Bound.  Think of it, an album 22 years old is new Dylan.  When you record your first album in 1962, time becomes relative. 

There is a beautiful song in Time Out of Mind I felt like I needed to hear.  My niece sang it at the second wedding of her Dad, my brother.  Though she practiced it over and over she became emotional and had a hard time getting the lyrics out at the wedding.  So understandable.  Good songs create emotion.  The song I was thinking of is somewhere towards the end of the playlist.  There’s only one bad song on that album and it’s the last one, easy to skip.  I planned to let the lovely lyrics of that song and those before it soothe my tired brain.
In late afternoon the sun behind the pines lining the Alabama road cast bands of light across the pavement, broken by smooth skinny shadows.  Tall old pines shed their low branches as though they are throwing the last of their life into green boughs nearer the sky, reaching straight and tall.  The Buick was rolling through shafts of bright light and dark shadow, which flickered onto the windshield, the dash and me.  I drank it in.  The South is so beautiful, if you don’t think about its past.

But the South, like every place in the world, can’t avoid its past.  Too much happened.  The atrocities that took place in the South need to be remembered, considered, and dealt with.  We’ve never done that.  It’s like America’s apartheid without a reconciliation process.  I haven’t yet come to the end of the dark story the South that Alabamans, the rest of the country, and perhaps even I would prefer to forget.  Turning our back on it would be a mistake.  White America’s 21st century defense of “it wasn’t us that did those things” keeps our racist past alive, and keeps the door open to it happening again.  Or has America’s mistreatment of African Americans ever really stopped? Consider this from our past.
Immediately after the Civil War, in 1865, six confederate veterans formed the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee.  Its first leader, or Grand Wizard, was Nathan Bedford Forrest, who is immortalized in monuments across the South.  The Klan was initially made up of well-educated and comparatively wealthy white “gentlemen”; planters, lawyers, merchants, ministers, many of whom would go on to prominent careers in politics.  The KKK became instantly popular.  It developed a complex hierarchy with rules that resembled an army manual.  Think Confederate Army.  The Ku Klan Klan, and other groups like Knights of the White Camelia and Pale Faces, were decentralized but shared aims and tactics which formed a network of terrorist cells.  By the 1868 presidential election those cells were working as a unified military and electoral force supporting white supremacy and politicians who advocated for it throughout the South.  Hang on while I take you at break-neck speed through national politics from the end of the Civil War through the 1868 election. 

·       Five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, President Lincoln was assassinated.

·       The Republican vice president replacing Lincoln, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, pledged to carry out Lincoln’s lenient plan for Reconstruction.  

·       Lincoln feared enforcing a punitive policy aimed at Confederate states would lead to the defeat of the Republican party, allowing Democrats to overturn the Emancipation Proclamation.  Before his death he vetoed a more stringent plan which was championed by Radical Republicans and passed by Congress.

·       Radical Republicans wanted to transform Southern society, disband the planter aristocracy, redistribute land, develop industry, and guarantee civil liberties for former slaves.  They led efforts to impeach President Johnson, a President from their own political party. 

·       After a lengthy investigation the vote in the House was overwhelmingly in favor of impeachment, 126-47 (with 17 not voting).  The House delivered 11 articles of impeachment to the Senate, where a two thirds majority is required to remove a president from office.  The vote was 35-19 on each of three articles voted upon, one vote shy of removal.

·       President Johnson served out his term, pardoning ex-confederate rebels, restoring their rights and property (except slaves) and allowing them to return to government office.  He vetoed all civil rights legislation (vetoes overridden) and urged Southern states not to ratify the 14th amendment granting citizenship and due process to 4 million formerly enslaved blacks.
The Republican party, after achieving the abolition of slavery, immediately backpedaled on its lenient stance of full black citizenship to remain in power in a newly constituted Congress where Southern states once again possessed important votes.  Remember, our democracy was then a collection of but 27 states, 11 of them former Confederate states.  Power had shifted back to an earlier time when the politics of the South had to be reckoned with.  What was the political interest of the of the South?  White supremacy.  

My song came up while I was deep in thought about what I had learned in Montgomery.  I hit replay on the CD player.  Dylan’s piano kicks it off.  Make you Feel My Love is a very simple song.  Six 4 line stanzas, two different rhyme schemes, an instrumental bridge repeated at the end.  It’s musically spare with predominantly piano and some Hammond organ in the background with a little upright bass. 

I don’t know if I like the music or the lyrics more.  They complement each other.  It’s another one of Dylan’s sad but beautiful love songs delivered in that haunting raspy voice.  I hit replay again.  And again.  I wanted to memorize the lyrics.  Listen to the entire song if you can, the whole album for that matter.  Here’s my picks for the best of Dylan’s writing within Make You Feel My Love.

When evening shadows and the stars appear

And there is no one there to dry your tears,

I could hold you for a million years

To make you feel my love.

The storms are raging on a rolling sea,

And on the highway of regret.

The winds of change are blowing wild and free,

You ain't seen nothing like me yet.

I could make you happy, make your dreams come true,

There's nothing that I would not do,

Go to the ends of the earth for you

To make you feel my love.

How can we as people living together on this earth be both so kind and loving, yet so hateful and murderous?  It’s hard to reconcile.  As much as we need to examine the dark side of our humanity I'm afraid we'll die out if we don't recognize and take in beauty wherever and whenever we find it.  At least I'm afraid I will.  I’m going to keep trying to do both.

to be continued

Monday, June 17, 2019

Heading Out

My road trip plan, such that it was, was completed.  
1.       Get to Alabama
2.       Visit Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma
3.       Take notes

The rest of the trip was free form.  The atlas was telling me the best road straight south was 41.  To get to it I had to backtrack a little east on U.S. 80.   I was anxious to drive a road I’d never been on before.  Sort of fly the coop to use a fowl metaphor.  When I turned right on 41, I knew it was good, a paved road with a center line and side markings.  State road probably.  No towns till Shepardville and then it met up with 89, which went more directly south.  I’d go there and see how it looked. When you are out there on your own you have all the options you want.
It can get lonely if you are alone with your thoughts too long.  I slipped a Dylan CD into the Buick’s dash to keep me company.  When I feel wistful like I was feeling that afternoon I play Dylan’s newer stuff.  There’s joy in some of it but I find lots of melancholy.  I was thinking of that first song in Together Through Life.  I don’t know when he wrote the song, but the album was released in 2009.  It’s a sad love song.  The music feels like the lyrics.  Slow and heavy drum line, accordion in the background, good guitar.   It’s a simple song with four six-line stanzas.  Every fifth line repeats the title “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’“.  My favorite stanzas are the middle two.    

Well, I'm moving after midnight
Down boulevards of broken cars
Don't know what I do without it
Without this love that we call ours
Beyond here lies nothin'
Nothing but the moon and stars

Down every street there's a window
And every window made of glass
We'll keep on loving pretty baby
For as long as love will last
Beyond here lies nothin'
But the mountains of the past

This Buick has a digital compass.  41 was going a little west.  When I got to Ala 89, I decided to take it south instead. 
If I’d had it in the Buick, I would have played “The Death of Emmett Till.”  Dylan recorded it in 1962, at the start of his career.  Powerful lyrics.  Dylan wrote important songs about injustice happening in the South early on and his songs helped raise awareness nationwide.  Historians think the publicity around Emmitt Till, a 14 year old Chicago boy who was sent by his parents to stay with relatives in Money, Mississippi during the summer of 1955 then beaten, murdered, and thrown in a swamp by white men for whistling at a white woman as the story goes “marked a turn” in America’s attitude towards civil rights.  Emmett’s mother, horrified at what had been done to her son, at the horrible beating he took at the hands of his white assailants, insisted the funeral service feature an open casket, so all of America could see what they had done to her son.  A picture of the boy in his coffin made its way to the newspapers.  It’s a gruesome sight, but she and others believed it was time for America to see the truth about the South.

How many times do you suppose that statement “marked a turn” was hopefully announced before change began to happen? How many families, how many communities living through tragedy after tragedy each believed that surely their experience would be the one to cause the  people in our country to say “ENOUGH”?  How many Americans were convinced their situation was too awful to continue.  That good people around them would stand up for what is right, pass new laws, educate each other, and change behavior by working together to end the worst tendencies that exist among us.  Surely this time.  How many times do you suppose that was believed over 300 years of history?  Emmitt Till’s death came 10 years before significant change occurred in the form of the Civil Rights Act in 1963 and the Voting Rights act of 1965.
And then I had an awful thought.  What if there is a formula, a quota, a number that floats out there that must be reached before public opinion tips?  How many deaths, black and white, did it take before the country rose up, followed Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, and supported his cause?  What would be included in that formula?   It might go something like this. 

a) slave deaths during passage to America +b) slaves worked to death on plantations +
c) runaway slaves beaten and killed as examples to others + d) Civil War casualties +
e) blacks attacked and killed during Reconstruction + f) 4,000 lynchings (with many more unknown) during the Jim Crow era + g) four black girls killed by a bomb in a Birmingham church + h) black protestors killed throughout the South during the civil rights era + i) whites sympathetic to the movement who were killed (those would be squared at least, possibly cubed, perhaps taken to the 10th power) = CHANGE

And then an even greater horror came to mind.  What if some version of that same formula were applied to the current rash of people killed in mass shootings in America?  What would that formula look like, and which variable will be the last added before we see an end to that God awful experience in America?  What if we’re only halfway there?  What if we are doomed to live that collective hell for another 260 years?
Our country’s current, ongoing, senseless murderous violence is mass public shootings.  Unlike past historical tragedies where information is sketchy today’s acts are immediately filmed, written about,   quantifiable, fully documented and searchable online.  Mother Jones magazine keeps a database on mass shootings in our country since 1982.  It was the most comprehensive and direct list I could find.  It’s simply an Excel spreadsheet of date and place kept in the rows, and ghastly factors recordings kept in the columns A through X.  Documented briefly are number of deaths, number of injuries, type of weapon used, basic details of the shooters.  It contains more than anyone wants to know or can stand to read.  But we need to know.  We need to know so we can stop it. 

The Mother Jones data begins with an August 20, 1982 shooting that I don’t recall by a lone gunman in a welding shop in Miami, Florida where 8 were killed, and goes through the recent Virginia Beach shooting on May 31st of this year which took the lives of 12 innocent victims.   37 years of horrible murders with these parameters: at least three persons killed by gun violence, the crime committed by a lone shooter, in a public place.  Here’s the totals. 111 shootings, 111 shooters (of which 110 were male), 111 separate stories, 111 guesses as to why, and 1,139 Americans killed for little or no apparent reason.  Let me make that number of total deaths a tad more emphatic.

Compared to what black people endured in the South, if some calculus exists for modern mass shootings in America, some number we must ultimately reach before real action is taken which impacts the problem, we are not even close to reaching half the deaths required before this fresh new American hell is over.   What if the horrendous number above is just a drop in the bucket of the number we will rack up before mass shootings begin to ebb, then become a relic of the past?  We don’t know.  That part of our American history continues to be written.  It’s been written over most of my adult life. 

When I cruise that list of 111 shootings over 37 years, I only remember some.  I don’t think, as much as we are concerned, any of us can recall all 111.  It happens too frequently now.  It’s part of our collective American life, as the killing of black people in the south at the hands of white supremacists was for a hundred years after the Civil War.    
While we think we put our problems behind us, they go on despite our perceived progress.  On June 16, 2016, a 21 year-old white man is welcomed, as a stranger, into a Bible study at an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina.  Before the group adjourns, he pulls a .45 Glock handgun from his bag and shoots and kill those same black men and women with whom he had conversed, good people who shared their thoughts with him, listened as he talked, and most likely feared him not at all.  Nine dead.  One injured and able to tell the tale.  I felt that one that one personally.  I sometimes go to bible studies.  For a while after that, while sitting in my church with my friends, I imagined someone coming in for the first time, us welcoming him, and then seeing the gun emerge.  But over time I stopped thinking like that.   

In addition to that event, I remember these.  There is just as much pain in the ones I don’t remember.  Here’s the mass gun murders that resonated most with me.

Date                    Community                      #killed/setting                               
7/18/84              San Ysidro Ca.                  22 killed in a McDonalds              
8/20/86              Edmond, OK.                    15 killed in a post office               
4/20/99              Littleton, Co.                    13 students killed in Columbine H.S.       
10/2/06              Lancaster, Pa.                  6 killed in an Amish School                        
4/16/07              Blacksburg, Va.                32 killed at Virginia Tech Univ.
2/14/08              DeKalb, IL                         5 killed in an NIU classroom        
11/5/09              Fort Hood Texas              13 killed on an army base            
7/20/12              Aurora Colorado             12 killed in a movie theater         
8/5/12                Oak Creek, Wis.               7 killed in a Sikh temple               
12/14/12            Newtown, Ct.                   23 children killed in Sandy Hook school   
12/2/15              San Bernardino, CA.       14 killed at a city Christmas Party              
8/12/16              Orlando, Fl.                      49 killed at Pulse Nightclub, LGBT community targeted
10/1/17              Las Vegas, Nv.                  58 killed at outdoor concert from nearby hotel 
11/5/17               Sutherland Springs, Tx.  26 worshipers killed in a Baptist church  
2/14/18              Parkland Fl.                      17 students killed in Marjorie Stoneman H.S.
4/22/18              Nashville, Tn.                   4 killed in a Waffle House
6/28/18              Annapolis, Md.                5 journalists killed at a newspaper
10/27/18            Pittsburgh, Pa.                 11 Jewish worshippers killed in their synagogue
2/15/19              Aurora, IL                          5 killed in a warehouse (1 from Sheridan, IL.)
11/19/18            Chicago, IL                        3 killed inside Mercy Hospital
5/31/19              Virginia Beach, Va.          12 killed in city offices
That’s 22 incidents.  There are 89 more.  Of course, there are big differences between the killing of African Americans after the Civil War through the 1960s and the deaths experienced from the 1980’s and continuing now in communities across the country at the hands of primarily lone gunmen.  Many of the shooters today are mentally ill, some are involved in workplace conflict, some target minority or religious groups, but other motives are totally unexplained.  Some seem to randomly target strangers. Why they kill strangers only God knows, but I have a feeling (s)he may be perplexed too.  As Americans we don’t understand why there is so much hate and why it manifests itself this way, at least this American doesn’t.  Do you?
In the days of reconstruction up through the 1960’s, the dynamic of killing black people outside the law in the South was very different.  Those killers were understood by others around them, their neighbors, their friends, and their actions were supported by many if not most white people.  They were following a common belief, enforcing an unwritten code.  I imagine everyone in the South, and in the nation for matter, whether they agreed with the murderers or not, knew why they were taking those actions.  I don’t think there was much ambiguity.

They were ensuring, with their violent acts, that white people in America maintained dominance over black people.  They believed the white “race” was supreme and that in the absence of federal and state laws supporting that belief they were obligated, for the sake of their white neighbors, their children, the people with whom they shared pews at church, to maintain supremacy by whatever means necessary.  All this despite the teachings of their Christian churches.  They believed by instilling terror they were defending something more important, and they used any means necessary, including murder, to do so.
What whites strived to uphold was strict segregation of the perceived races, negro from white.  Some, perhaps more pragmatically, may have been working to keep their workforce intact, beaten down, unable and ill equipped to move North.  Whatever the motive, the rationale and widely held belief was that black people were inferior.  The need to subjugate them played on the ultimate fear that familiarity that social contact on an equal level would result in miscegenation, the interbreeding of people considered to be of different racial types.

Although interestingly that “interbreeding” focused on enforcing a taboo enforced solely on black men fathering children with white women.  The reverse, white men having sexual relations with black women occurred regularly during slavery and beyond.  White men fathered children and denied paternity over and over.   There was a huge paternalistic double standard at play in the supposedly strict guidelines of behavior between white and black men and women during that time in America.  But let’s talk more about the white killers of black people.
As I drove out of Alabama, I tried to imagine the white people who committed those murders that happened all along the route I was driving.  The killings in the 50’s and 60’s could have been carried out by men the same age as my older brothers, or my uncles, even my father.  I had never thought of my white American peers so specifically or pictured them as clearly as after visiting the civil rights museums. 

I was thinking all that as I turned southeast onto Route 10 at Oak Hill towards Pine Apple and Awin.  Those are tiny rural towns, like the one close to the farm grew up on, and I was lost in thought.  I paid them little attention.  It was a wonder I didn’t get lost.  I was thinking of the people that lived there, especially the white people, and their families before them, as well as mine.
My Dad, who would be turn 110 this December if he had somehow managed to stay alive, was a Free Mason, and went to meetings at the Scottish Rite temple in Bloomington.  He achieved his 32nd degree, whatever that is, and when he did, he bought himself a fancy Masonic ring.  It’s damned hard for secret societies to market themselves, or even explain what they’re about. When I was a teenager, Dad wanted me to attend meetings of something associated with the Masonic Lodge called DeMolay but I steadfastly refused.  I think the Masonic Society is the Protestant version of the Knights of Columbus.  I truly don’t know what it is and I’m not going to look it up.  But in the South, there was another secret society which became much more famous.  Infamous is probably a better word.

That organization was the Ku Klux Klan.  This post is getting long.  I’ll talk about the Klan next time, along with an interesting dinner conversation.

Thursday, June 6, 2019


The things you see as you approach a town can inform you about the place.  I hadn’t done any prior research on Selma, or any of the cities I planned to visit, but after Birmingham and Montgomery, I had a feeling Selma was going to be very different.  It was.  Little announces the upcoming town of Selma on U.S. Route 80: billboards, businesses on the fringe, lanes added to the road.  It is cotton country, a handful of souvenir shops and bam! the Edmund Pettus bridge. 

I stopped on the county side of the bridge where a little park had been constructed with wooden stairs and landings took you down the embankment, under the bridge, by the Alabama river.  There was trash down there and the wooden structures were rickety and weather worn.  It needed a good coat of wood preservative.  My guess is money had run out for  upkeep of the park.  I took a picture of a little seen view of the bridge, the underside.

The Edmund Pettus bridge is on solid footing.  I’d say neither the name of that bridge nor the bridge itself are going anywhere. 

Compared to Birmingham and Montgomery, Selma is a small city.  It has been losing population for 58 years.  At its peak in 1960 over 28,000 people lived in Selma.  Now fewer than 18,000 call it home. 

It’s a small town in an agricultural area trying to make it.  Bush Hog, maker of ag equipment, has a presence there along with a paper mill owned by International Paper.  There are small manufacturers like Peerless Pump Company, Plantation Patterns and American Apparel.  Selma’s most recent efforts at development are devoted Civil Rights tourism, which is what brought me there. 

Selma was both mightily attacked and staunchly defended during the Civil War because was one of the South’s main military manufacturing centers.  The Selma iron works and foundry produced munitions and made possible the building of iron clad Confederate warships there.  But of course, it all fell to the Union.  Those enterprises never recovered.

After the Civil War Selma became the county seat of Dallas County and a new county courthouse was built there in 1866.  While the city developed its own police force, the newly built courthouse and grounds were placed under the jurisdiction of the county and its Sheriff.  The courthouse became the scene of numerous “spectacle” lynchings.  Mobs would sometimes take prisoners from the nearby jail and lynch them before trial.  In 1892 Willy Web was arrested in Waynesville, put in jail in Selma,  supposedly to protect him before trial, only to be hauled out of jail hours later by an angry mob (and a complicit jailer) and hanged right there on county property outside the jail with a crowd of locals watching.

The next year a lynch mob numbering 100 seized Daniel Edwards from the Selma jail, hanged him from a tree, and fired multiple rounds into his body for allegedly being intimate with a white woman.  Pinned to his back was a note that read “This was the work of 100 best citizens of the South Side.” 

In 1935, Joe “Spinner” Johnson, leader of the Alabama Sharecroppers Union, was beaten by a mob in his own field, taken to the jail in Selma, and beaten more there.  His body was later discovered in a field near Greensboro.  I couldn’t escape the horror of lynching no matter where I went. 

Despite those historical events, Civil Rights tourism in Selma is all about the Edmund Pettus bridge.

First a little about the bridge’s namesake.  Edmund Pettus grew up in Alabama, got a law degree, left to fight in the Mexican-American War, hung around to fight Indians too, came back to become a circuit judge, then resigned and settled back in Dallas County to work as a lawyer.

Pettus was enthusiastic about the Confederate cause and protecting the institution of slavery, which went hand in hand.  He was a delegate to the secession convention in Mississippi, where his brother John was governor.  Pettus organized the Confederate 20th Alabama Infantry, and became its lieutenant colonel.

He fought all over the South, ending up as a brigadier general.  He was captured three times and managed to escape twice.  In custody after the surrender at Appomattox, he was paroled, later pardoned, and went home to resume his law practice in Selma. 

After the end of Reconstruction, when federal troops were withdrawn from the South in 1877 (think of the end of martial law) Pettus served as chair of Alabama’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention.  He was also named Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.  He became rich and bought farmland.

At 1987 at the age of 75 he won a seat in the United States Senate by using his position in the Alabama Klan.  He campaigned on his vocal opposition to the constitutional amendments after the war that made slaves free citizens and gave them the right to vote.  He was re-elected to a second term and died in office in 1903.  As a senator Edmund Pettus was described as “the last of the Confederate brigadiers to sit in the upper house of Congress.
So, it was appropriate that Bloody Sunday occurred on Edmund Pettus’ bridge, almost as if the Civil War brigadier general was still fighting to keep black people in their place a hundred years later.
The Dallas county Voters League began a voter registration campaign in Selma in 1963 and had been working hard for two years to overcome the obstacles both state and county officials put before black voters before SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, joined them in a renewed effort to register black voters in 1965. 
Finding resistance by white officials intractable, many activists of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined them.  This brought prominent civil rights activists to Selma.  Local and regional protests began, with 3,000 people arrested by the end of February.  Martin Luther King Jr. joined their efforts, and talked to President Lyndon Johnson about his plan a strategy for drawing attention to the injustice of literacy tests in particular, throughout the South, and his decision to use Selma to achieve that objective.  The situation in Selma grew tense.

On February 26, 1965 Jimmie Lee Jackson, an African American civil rights activist in nearby Marion, Alabama and a deacon in his Baptist church was beaten and shot by an Alabama State Trooper while taking part in a peaceful voting rights march in his city.  He was unarmed and died eight days later.  To defuse and refocus the black community’s outrage, James Bevel, who along with Amelia Boynton and others had organized the Selma project in 1963, announced a march of dramatic length, from Selma to Montgomery, the state capitol. 

The first march took place on March 7.  As marchers passed the midpoint of the bridge, where they left the city and crossed over into Dallas County jurisdiction, state troopers, local law enforcement, and local citizens described as “posse men” attacked the unarmed marchers with billy clubs and tear gas.  Law enforcement officials beat Amelia Boynton unconscious, and the media publicized a picture of her seen worldwide lying wounded on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  Also injured that day were current representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives John Lewis and Elijah Cummings.  The marchers were driven back into Selma.

The second march took place March 9th led by Rev. Martin Luther King.  The marchers were again confronted at the county line.  But when troopers stepped aside to let them pass, King led the marchers back to the church, obeying a federal injunction while seeking protection from the federal court for the march.  That night in Selma, a group of white men beat and murdered civil rights activist James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, one of many white citizens, primarily from the North, who came to Selma to participate in the second march.  National outrage followed.

This is me writing off the top of my head here, not condensing history via Wikipedia.  What does it say about us a nation when we virtually ignore 4,000 lynchings of African Americans throughout the South for over 70 years and are suddenly incensed at the death of one white minister in Alabama?  Do you think the phrase “black lives matter” would have even been considered at that time?  I don’t.  I don’t think anyone even pretended that was true.

Martin Luther King and the protestors in Alabama demanded protection for the Selma marchers and a new federal voting rights law so that African Americans could register and vote everywhere in America without harassment.  President Johnson held an historic, nationally televised joint session of Congress on March 15 to ask for the bill’s introduction and passage.

Despite that pressure the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, refused to protect the marchers.  President Johnson put 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard under federal command and they, along with FBI agents and Federal Marshalls, ensured the safety of the marchers.  With protection in place the march began in Selma.  They finally crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge and made their way to Montgomery on U.S. Route 80.  The marchers averaged ten miles a day, with black churches housing them and volunteers feeding them along the route.  By the time they reached Montgomery, on March 25th, 25,000 people, white and black together, from the North, South, and across the country had entered the capitol in support of voting rights. 

One of the many to take part in that march was Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year old white civil rights activist, member of the NAACP and the Unitarian Universalist Church in Detroit, Michigan.  She had driven to Alabama after attending a protest at Wayne State University in Detroit on March 16th where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for people of all faiths to come and help, saying the struggle “was everybody’s fight.”  She left her five young children in the care of her husband and her best friend, a black woman named Sarah Evans, with whom she shared similar views on the civil rights movement.

Once in Alabama she took part in the marches and after the last march ended put her Oldsmobile to use shuttling marchers from Montgomery back to Selma on the same U.S. Route 80 I had just travelled in the Buick.  She was assisted by Leroy Moton, a 19 year old African American.  Leroy was later to report that talking to Viola in the car that day was the first time he had ever had a conversation with a white woman.

While driving along U.S. Route 80 a car tried to force them off the road.  Viola continued.  After dropping passengers in Selma and heading back to Montgomery, she and Leroy stopped for gas at a local filling station near Lowndesboro (I’d gone through there in the Buick) and were subjected to abusive shouts and racist scorn.  Soon after, when Liuzzo stopped at a red light, four members of the local Ku Klux Klan pulled up alongside her.  Seeing a white woman with a black man in the car together they gave chase to the Oldsmobile. 

Viola tried to outrun them.  They overtook the Olds and shot directly through the driver’s side window at Liuzzo, fatally wounding her with two shots to the head.  She died in a ditch alongside the road.  Leroy Moton was not injured, but survived only by laying motionless, covered in Viola’s blood, when the Klansmen reached the car to check on their victims. 

Viola Liuzzo’s funeral, held on March 30th in Detroit, was attended by prominent members of the civil rights movement as well as Teamster’s President Jimmy Hoffa and UAW president Walter Reuther. 

Less than two weeks after Viola’s death charred crosses were found in front of four Detroit homes.  One was the Liuzzo residence.  In the aftermath of the tragedy that befell the Liuzzo family, her friend Sarah Evans went on to become the permanent caretaker of Viola’s five young children.

The federal Voting Rights Act became law on August 6, 1965.

I cruised the streets of Selma in the Buick.  It’s a depressed town.  There’s a nice historic district, which reminded me of the formerly glorious homes in Cairo, Illinois, and Live Oak cemetery where Edmund Pettus is buried.  The civil rights museums were inexplicably closed.  I had planned to spend the night in Selma but lost my enthusiasm. 

My trip had not gone as planned.  Instead of talking to southerners of today I became lost in my own head imagining the southerners, particularly the white ones, of yesterday.  I didn’t like what I was thinking.  When faced with doubts, I always say, turn to comfort food. 

I pulled the Buick into a shabby looking Sonic, got out of the Buick to stretch my legs, and spread my atlas out on a picnic table.  There was a clunky steel box hanging by the table.  I pushed a button.  A disembodied voice came out of a speaker.

“Welcome to Sonic, what can I bring you?”

“I’ll have a hot dog and a big water with ice please.”

“What do you want on your dawg?”

“Everything but ketchup, extra hot peppers, plenty of onions, and celery salt.”

I didn’t know if they were familiar with Chicago dogs in Selma but something close to that was what I was after. 

The sun was hanging well above the horizon and it was warm, even though it was late February.  I wondered if it was hot for those marchers in 1965.  I had to quit thinking about it.  I focused instead on roads.  Just how far is it to Pensacola I wondered.

The hot dog came, and it was disappointing.  It wasn’t very hot.  The bun, although it was poppy seed, was stale.  It had all the right condiments for a Chicago dog: the sport peppers, the tomatoes slices cut in half moons, the dyed green relish, nicely chopped fresh onions and yellow mustard.  But when you put all that on top of a barely warm wiener in a dried-out bun, you ruin the experience.  I managed to choke it down though.  I hadn’t eaten since the motel breakfast.

Google maps told me it was 3 hours and 11 minutes to Pensacola if I stayed off I 65 and used two lane roads.  Sounded good to me.  I had a sudden urge to leave Alabama.  While I had gained only a passers-by knowledge of the state and its people in 2019, I’d learned way too much about its past.  I started thinking about crossing into Florida.  I paid my bill, the only civil rights tourism dollars I contributed to Selma, left the waitress a good tip (bad food is never their fault, it’s the cooks) and steered the Buick back onto the road.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Road to Selma

It’s the first week of June and I’m still writing about a trip I took in the Buick on the back roads of Alabama in February.  My apologies.  I learned too much, both on the trip and in doing research back in the shack, not to tell the whole story. 

I’m sure there is a lot going on in Montgomery.  I mean, it’s the capitol of Alabama, a city of 200,000 plus, and the state’s largest city after Birmingham.

Montgomery is a university town, home to Alabama State, both an Auburn and a Troy University campus, Faulkner University and Huntingdon College.  It has a Hyundai manufacturing plant, Maxwell Air Force Base and cultural attractions like the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.  But after my visit to the legacy museum, immediately following the lynching museum, I just wanted to get the hell out of the there.

Next on the agenda was Selma, but I was not exactly itching to see Selma either.  What I wanted was the quiet of the countryside and the emptiness of farm fields interrupted only by a seldom traveled two lane road.  I wanted to set the Buick on cruise, lean back, and let what I had just learned sink in while another Alabama glided past me under a blue sky; the Alabama of trees and birds, wind, sun and soil.

I got my wish.  I needed gas but figured I would get it somewhere down the road.  From downtown I took the first street that had traffic lights going west.  That turned into US route 80, a nice two-lane road.  The town fell away quickly.  It felt good being out where nature takes over from manmade constructs. 

Something is going on in rural America.  I noticed it again in Arkansas when I was headed back to Illinois.  We’re losing our farmhouses.  There used to be places, a little group of trees, a yard, a machine shed at least, maybe an old barn.  The corn cribs disappeared years ago.  The farm fields are big now.  Hardly any fences because livestock is rare.  Nothing to fence in any longer. 

No one lives out there because the small farms are gone.  Whoever buys and maintains the huge machines that work the land live somewhere else.  They swoop in at planting time, hire out the fertilizer, herbicide, and insecticide applications, and come back with huge harvesters to take in the crop.  Farmhouses get in the way.  They tear them down, push the foundations into the basements, fill them in and farm over them.  It’s eerie, but only to people like me who remember how it used to be.  Kids will know it no other way.

I drove through the emptiness on a beautiful spring day.  It’s only 50 some miles to Selma so I went slowly.  It was all cotton fields out there, not yet planted.  I imagined lines of slaves stooping to drop cotton seeds into furrows made by mule drawn plows, coming back after it had sprouted to chop it, or thin it out, with heavy hoes.  And then later, 140 days or so, when the cotton was high, coming back to pick it.  Generations of black lives were spent in those fields.  Those simple tasks, planting, cultivating, picking-promised such a lucrative harvest that white men stole human beings from Africa and kept them in captivity just for that purpose.  Plant, chop, and harvest cotton.  Year after year until machines finally replaced them in the 1950’s. 

Ghosts of souls who labored for two hundred years in the fields stretched out on either side of me, then morphed into visions of 25,000 voting rights activists marching for justice in 1965 down the road known in Alabama as “Jefferson Davis Highway”, the same U.S. Route 80 the Buick and I were travelling.  There were three marches between Montgomery and Selma that year.  The issue they were trying to draw America’s attention to was voting rights.  Voting rights.  Still an issue in 1965, one hundred years after the end of the Civil War.

Despite the 14th and 15th amendments to our U.S. constitution, the right of blacks to vote by the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, and American women achieving suffrage with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, blacks were regularly denied the right to vote in Southern states through a variety of means.  First and ongoing was outright violence, but as the years went by more sophisticated means were added.

After regaining control of their state legislatures, white southern Democrats added to previous efforts and achieved widespread legal disenfranchisement of black voters.  From 1890 to 1908, southern state legislators (think deep confederate South not border states) passed new state constitutions, amended old constitutions, and enacted other state laws that made voter registration and voting more difficult, especially when administered by white staff in discriminatory ways. 

Among their bag of tricks were poll taxes, literacy tests, constantly changing voting procedures to make voting more difficult, and property requirements.  Mississippi’s constitution, rewritten in 1890 to institutionalize such practices, survived a supreme Court challenge in Williams vs. Mississippi and other states soon followed suit.  They succeeded in disenfranchising most of the black citizens, as well as many poor whites in their states, and voter rolls dropped dramatically in each state.  The Republican party was nearly eliminated in the region for decades, and Democrats established one party control.

Louisiana’s rewritten 1989 constitution had the most dramatic effect on black voters among all the deep South states.  In 1896 Louisiana’s voter rolls contained 130,334 black voters.  After applying hurdles to voter registration established in their new constitution, black voters in Louisiana dropped to 5,320 in 1890.  By 1910 only 730 black voters remained in the entire state.  Legal disenfranchisement of black voters in the deep South was brutally efficient.  Because black Southerners did not appear on local voter rolls, they were automatically excluded from serving in local courts.  Juries were virtually all white clear across the deep South.  The fix was in and it stayed that way.

Come back with me on the road to Selma in more modern times, to 2019 or 1965.  2019 is easier.  Let’s stay there for a while.

The Buick’s dwindling gas tank was a worry and there were no stations in sight.  No towns either.  The situation was getting serious.  I was to the point of watching the gauge closely hoping the needle would bounce off the big E.  At least the gauge worked.  In the old Buick the gauge was broken and given its age, plus the folly of putting more money into a machine worth so little (my god, what if they thought of human bodies in that way?) I didn’t fix it, depending instead on the trip meter.

I forget how many miles I had figured I could get off a full tank of gas in the 2000 LeSabre but using a number on an odometer buried in the dash as an indicator for fuel is much more easily ignored than an actual gas gauge, which I sometimes ignore also.  Knowing I have this tendency, I carry a small red gas can, empty, in the trunk.  Putting one’s thumb out with a gas can in hand next to a disabled car is one of the last acceptable ways to hitchhike these days.  I did that on one of my trips to the boundary waters with my son somewhere in Minnesota, I think.  I digress.  Let’s stay in Alabama.

I consulted my Rand McNally road atlas while cruising along Jefferson Davis Highway that afternoon, which is less distracting than texting while driving because the print is larger, and it is an exercise that requires no thumb movements.  I was in Lowndes County, population 9,974.  There was no town visible on my route to Selma.  The best I could find was an intersection at U.S. 80 and a road that by its thickness on the map looked to be of fair size, Route 97.  I decided if there was no gas at that intersection, I would head south on 97 to Hayneville and pray I had enough gas to reach there.

Back in the shack I learned that Hayneville, population 853, is the county seat of Lowndes County.  The internet offered evidence of two branch banks and a Subway restaurant, but no gas.  Interestingly, on the web page I visited, which contains random and crazy facts about towns from other sources, Hayneville is among the Top 101 U.S. towns and cities in two categories. 

·       #67 of Top 101 cities with the least cars per house, population 500+

·       #47 of Top 101 cities with the highest percentage of residents voting for ________ in the 2012 Presidential Election.  (In 2012 it was Obama vs. Romney)

Care to fill in the blank as to who they voted for so heavily?


To my great relief I did not visit Hayneville because at the Intersection of U.S. Route 80 and Alabama Route 97 in Lowndes County I happened upon this establishment:

Billy’s Tires Hand Car Wash and Detail

While I admit I am sometimes fooled by chains which appear on the outside to be independent businesses, I’m confident Billy’s is a one of kind operation.  If not, the signage alone should be considered a stroke of genius by some graphic artist trying to depict local flavor.  I am endeared to anyone who runs out of room to add the last letter on a line in a sign like Billy did with that S on Tires.  

The Buick was relatively clean, my tires were OK, and I'm not much for details so I didn’t go inside and meet Billy.  I wanted to, but I couldn’t muster an excuse.  Besides that, I needed gas and a bathroom.  I went next door to a nondescript BP station.  I didn’t take a picture.  You’ve seen plenty of them.  Next to the BP was a corrugated tin sided structure called the Route 80 CafĂ©.  Deer Hunters were welcome, but it was closed.  I had a feeling it was a side business for the BP.  Maybe Billy’s was too.

When I entered the BP, I was hit by the smell of old grease.  Lots of those two pump rural gas stations fry chicken and leave it in a glass case on the counter under a heat lamp.  Sometimes there is pizza by the slice in there too, the cheese and perfect circles of pepperoni all shiny and glistening.  Those items, coupled with a nice display of various flavors of beef jerky stacked in partially open cardboard containers next to the hot case, completed an almost irresistible array of ready to eat gas station food offerings.

I went to use the bathroom before I filled the Buick's gas tank and as luck would have it became privy to local drama.  The apparent store owner, an older woman speaking in a thick foreign accent, was chiding her young cashier for excessive calls coming in on her business phone from someone known to both.  I guessed the caller to be an estranged partner or ex-spouse.  I walked into the middle of the conversation, which continued while I stood in front of the urinal (very thin walls) and kept up unabated as I quickly shopped and approached the counter.  I resisted the formerly mentioned items on the counter and opted instead for a bag of big individually wrapped LifeSavers.  Wint O Green.

“He is tying up my business line.  You tell him if he doesn’t stop you will LOSE YOUR JOB.”

“Ah tole him.  I said ‘Darryl you keep calling the store I’ma get fired’ but he don listen.”

I wondered how busy that business line was but put that aside.

“Maybe you tell him.  Would ya?  He was burnin’ up all the minutes on ma cell and I blocked him. Now he doin this.  I don know what more ah can do.”

“Not my place to talk to that man.  Your problem.  But it’s becoming my problem you see?  DO YOU SEE?”

“I done got a restraining order.  But it says he cain’t call me.  Says nothing ‘bout your number.”

I just wanted to pay for my mints, gas up, and head out.  The store owner turned to me.

“What would you do?”

Why me?  Why do people ask me things like that?  Involve me when I have no duty to respond?  I don’t know but they do.  I’m afraid I look like a patsy.  Somehow easy.  I should say its none of my business, but I rarely do.

“You might consider calling the sheriff, talking to him, and seeing exactly what  that order of protection applies to.  Telling him what is happening.  Maybe he or someone in his office will call they guy.  Just having a deputy talk to him might have some effect.”

I could see that made the cashier nervous.

“Might make him really mad too,” she said.

“Orders of protection are just that.  For your protection.  If you’ve gone so far as to get an order, you might as well have it enforced.  If it is not already part of the order, you could have it amended to include harassment here.  He is harassing you.  He may cause you to lose employment.  You don’t have to take that.  Don’t be afraid to ask for  more help.”

Neither of them said anything, but the stink eye look the owner had been giving her cashier was beginning to soften.  The cashier was so young, and obviously afraid.  Do I look like a social worker?  What does a social worker look like anyway?  Does it show?  Still?

“How much for these mints?”

I paid and walked out.  As the door was closing the owner yelled thanks.  Just as I regretted not meeting Billy, I would have loved to stick around and meet a member of the Lowndes County law enforcement community, but I was on my way to Selma and the Edmund Pettus bridge.