Lone Star in Selma

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Civil War, Civil Rights

If you drive into Selma on Highway 80, you'll be greeted by two reminders of the town's history. One one side of the road, you'll see this:

Directly across the street from that lovely billboard is this NVRMI-sponsored mural that honors some of martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement:

And here, on what might be the strangest street corner in the U.S.A., both legacies intersect - literally:

The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement profoundly affected Selma and the rest of the South, and both eras are part of the same history. But, although Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jefferson Davis awkwardly meet at a local intersection, tourists who visit this town generally choose between one or the other. In fact, the people who participate in the annual Battle of Selma re-enactment don't visit the NVRMI, and vice-versa. Unsurprisingly, local Confederate history buffs don't support the Slavery and Civil War Museum, which is run by the folks at the NVRMI. And if they did, I'd actually pay to watch them spend an hour with Afriye on her Middle Passage tour.

The battle re-enactors are probably the least offensive group, though, when it comes to remembering "the Cause." Merely dressing up in gray uniforms and pretending to whoop Yankee butt seems pretty tame when compared to the group called the "Friends of Forrest." Their mission is to support the legacy of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who organized Ku Klux Klan chapters across the South in the years following the Civil War. This is the man who, as a Confederate general, commanded the massacre of African American soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tennessee after the troops had already surrendered. Nice guy, huh? The club members reason that if Rose Sanders, Joanne Bland and the folks of the NVRMI want to commemorate their heritage, then why can't they uphold the legacy of a man who helped "their people?"

The good news is that as long as people like Sanders and Bland are alive and kicking, we can be sure that organizations like the Friends of Forrest don't have the final word on southern history. Back in 2001, Rose led a coalition that demanded the removal of a Forrest statue from its prominent location at a local cemetary. When the city council moved too slowly on the issue, she physically tried to tear the statue down by herself. (Newspapers across the state printed pictures of this.) And, this group works tirelessly to rename streets around Selma in honor of local movement activists like Rev. L.L. Anderson, Marie Foster and Annie Cooper. 96 year old Cooper made headlines in 1965 when she beat down Sheriff Jim Clark after he struck her during a demonstration. Now she lives on the street that bears her name.

Selma obviously isn't the only town that praises both its Confederate and Civil Rights histories, however. Just go to Atlanta, the city at the center of "Gone With the Wind" and the birthplace of MLK. But, I don't think any city dances between the two legacies as smoothly (and strangely) as Montgomery. Here are a few photos taken by Jerome and me during our last visit...

Civil Rights memorial outside of the Southern Poverty Law Center:

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where MLK served as pastor during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It's across the street from the Lurleen Wallace state building (named in honor of the former governor and wife of George Wallace):

And less than a block from Dexter Ave. is the first White House of the Confederate States of America, which, of course, gets a bit more publicity than Dexter:

Just down the street at Court Square, this sign marks the site of the city's antebellum slave market. The other side of the marker (not shown) describes how, in 1866, former slaves celebrated the first anniversary of emancipation here:

But, just across the square, another marker reminds us of the city's role in the "War Between the States":

I hope you've enjoyed this journey through Alabamian historical memory. Until next time...

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Big House

Since living in Selma, I've had to get used to living in the big house. No, I don't mean a prison; I mean "big house" in the "Gone with the Wind" sense. As in, place where Massa lives. As in, place where clueless tourists visit to see the "splendor" of the Old South.

You can probably understand why I think this is pretty creepy.

When Jerome and I arrived in Selma, we learned that the apartment we'd be subletting is part of a huge historic home built in 1850. It's even listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The neighborhood, called the "Old Town District," is home to antebellum houses that once served as vacation homes for wealthy planters on vacation. Some people, namely the ones who enjoy the "moonlight and magnolias" version of Southern history, would be pleased as punch to live in a place like this. I am not one of those people.

So, why do I know live here? Honestly, I didn't know the house's history before we moved in. Also, the rent is dirt cheap. I know that's a crap excuse, but we're ballin on a budget, so we had to take what we could get. Besides, just because the house was built in 1850 and happens to be in a neighborhood of planters' homes doesn't mean that ours was built with cotton money. It doesn't mean that some rich slave owner ever lived here with his chattel. In fact, the house doesn't even look like a typical antebellum house. This is all true. But I just can't shake the feeling that this was once a house of slavery.

Now I'm conflicted. Am I taking back what my ancestors built and making it my own? You know, reclaiming this space as black space… Or am I just a black chick living in the big house?

City Girl Goes Country

I never thought I'd see the day when I'd have to go to Montgomery, Alabama to enjoy city living. Or that I'd miss the “urban flavor” of life in Madison, Wisconsin.

That is, until I moved to Selma.

Joanne Bland used to say that if I ever decided to work for the NVRMI permanently, I'd have to live in Montgomery and drive to Selma every day. I guess she figured that a girl from Houston wouldn't like life in a small town. Like a good urban snob, I laughed at the idea of living in Montgomery. Yes, it is about ten times bigger than Selma (where the population is 20,000). And yes, it is roughly the same size of Madison. But, let me be real here - compared to Houston metro (population 4 million), Madison and Montgomery just don't fit my definition of urban. Living in Selma, though, definitely changed all that.

If you've read this blog before, you'll know that I do love this place. Selma is beautiful, charming and has the best soul food you will ever eat. The folks down here can burn. It's also home to what has to be the largest concentration of in-your-face activists in the country. Every town could use a Rose Sanders or a Joanne Bland. That's why I come back here nearly every year and I can't see a time when I won't. So, I'm not dissing Selma at all. I like it here! But...it's kinda country.

No, it's really, really country. It's "wearing house shoes to a restaurant" country. It's "driving 90 miles to get to a movie theater" country. The other day, no joke, I was walking down the sidewalk and I accidentally stepped on a pile of chicken wing bones. They were just lying there in the middle of downtown Selma. Country.

Now, being country ain't a bad thing. It certainly has its merits. In fact, playing country can get you elected president - just ask Dubya.

Let me stop here and say that some of y'all might think a person from Texas calling anything country is like the pot calling the kettle black. I understand that and I also acknowledge that some things about Houston could be considered country. I saw somebody wearing house shoes while shopping at Kroger when I was home for Christmas. (Granted, it was a Kroger on the eastside.) And, I do drive a pick-up truck with a longhorn sticker on the back window. Nevertheless, I still bristle when a northerner suggests that I might be country. "I'm from Houston," I always say, like that helps my case. People in Madison probably see me in my truck and assume that my other car is a horse.

During my 10-week stint in Selma, though, I think I've become a little more accepting of my inner country girl. I wrote in my first blog that people we meet immediately know that Jerome and I are not from here. Well, no one has asked me where I'm from in the past few weeks. I'm not sure what that means, but I know it's not because I've met everyone in town. Maybe we've started to blend a little, and maybe that's not a horrible thing.

In the end, adjusting to life in a small town hasn't been as hard as I thought it would be, even though I definitely can't wait to shop at a store that isn't Wal-Mart and I still love our weekend excursions to the city. At the same time, I will really miss life in Selma when I leave in two weeks because it appeals to a part of me that I've spent years trying to deny. So, here's my confession:

I'm T...and I'm a little bit country.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

History versus the Historian

On a rainy Friday night a few weeks ago, a popular author visited Selma and all hell broke loose. This man came to town to talk about his new book, which begins with the Selma voting rights campaign and even includes stories from Lowndes County, the place between Selma and Montgomery that often gets ignored in books and films about the Movement. Everyone I talked to seemed happy to have him in town. So, I was more than a little shocked when the popular writer's lecture almost became the scene of an Alabama beat down.

O.k., maybe I'm exaggerating a little about the beat down, but the author later said that he was a bit concerned about his physical safety when a former student activist got in his face during his talk and refused to back down.

Anyone who's ever seen this writer - a distinguished-looking white guy - might be surprised to know that he was the center of chaos that teetered on the brink of violence. He looks exactly like the type of guy who'd be a talking head on a History Channel documentary: white-haired, soft-spoken, and wearing a tweed jacket. None of this mattered, though, to the two men who came to the talk with a bone to pick.

In a nutshell, these guys (both white, middle-aged men with the slightly unhinged look of a 60s radical gone bad) felt that the writer's new book had denied them a legacy. Before the event even started, one man was called out because he wouldn't stop ranting about how his organization hadn't been mentioned in the book. An event organizer brought him down to a medium boil, though, and he was more of a nuisance than a menace for the rest of the talk. The other guy was much more of a problem. He basically "showed his ass," as my grandmother would say, by loudly interrupting the writer's speech and completely dominating the Q&A. He became so disruptive that another event organizer politely told him he was no longer welcome at the talk. That's when the real trouble started. On his way to the door, he stopped within striking distance of the writer, who was seated at the front of the room, and physically threatened him, as well as the man who eventually had to escort him out of the building. I guess he's abandoned his commitment to nonviolence.

Watching the way these two men behaved, in comparison to the room full of black activists who also weren't mentioned in the book, I wondered how much race factors into their response. I think that because white men are generally the center of most interpretations of American history, they're not accustomed to being left out of the story. Obviously, issues like class also affect whose stories get told, but I think that the African Americans who didn't make it into the top-down version of history offered by the author never even expected to be included. So, why would they get worked up?

On the other hand, I can understand the men's frustration, even if I disagree with their tactics. Selma is a place where everyone has a story, so it must be exasperating for them to read books that focus on big leaders like King and not the grassroots organizers who were the backbone of the movement. That's pretty much why the NVRMI exists in the first place.

Leaving the event that night, I ran into the president of the museum and we hatched a plan right there in the parking lot. Using the museum's oral history collection, we would create a book filled with first-hand accounts of the movement in the Black Belt. It will be called "The Stories That Were Never Told." Here, the "foot soldiers" can tell it like it was. Renewed after a night full of frustration and anger, I climbed into the car with Jerome and went home.

I love Selma!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

New Kids on the Block

A new kid has come to Selma.

The signs are unmistakable, though I tried my best to ignore the "Selma Interpretive Center Coming Soon" poster hanging on an old building on Water Street, less than a block from the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I walked past the building almost every day when I first got here last month, but I didn't give it much thought at first. It was impossible, however, to miss the Ranger Roy types who attended the Bridge Crossing Jubilee wearing khaki uniforms and large hats. Yes, the government has moved to Selma and they're bringing millions of dollars with them to build a shiny, new museum dedicated to the local Civil Rights Movement.

What's that you say? Selma already has a museum that serves that purpose? Yeah, that's what I thought, too. Nevertheless, the new "Interpretive Center" is coming and I'm not sure what it means for the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, which sits less than a block away from the new place. Now the NVRMI, dedicated to the people who fought the government for their civil rights, has to worry about being taken out by a government-funded museum. Does that qualify as "ironic" or is it just plain sad?

For those of you who have never been to Selma or the NVRMI, let me give you a little background. It's a grassroots museum dedicated to what tour director Joanne Bland calls "the people who marched behind Martin Luther King, Jr." They were the foot soldiers whose names are usually left out of the grand narrative, people like Annie Cooper and Marie Foster, who were organizing in Selma long before the TV cameras arrived. Bland herself attended mass meetings with her grandmother as a child and went to jail for the first time when she was only eleven-years old. Now she gives tourists first-hand accounts of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery March when they visit the museum. She even gives walking tours, complete with a march across the bridge. It's an unforgettable experience.

One of my jobs here is to organize a media archive in a little room on the second floor of the museum. Since working in there, I have found pictures of Ms. Bland giving tours to people as different as Louis Farrakhan, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Chris Tucker and MC Hammer. Yesterday I found a snapshot of her with a man who I swear is Stephen King. I know it seems that with all these rich or influential people visiting (o.k., maybe not Hammer these days), the NVRMI should be swimming in cash. Well, it's not, and it desperately needs more funding to stay afloat. Oh, and did I mention that the museum has over 300 hours of interview footage of people involved in the Movement in the Alabama Black Belt? With a little money and some elbow grease, these oral histories could make the museum one of the most valuable historical archives of the Civil Rights Movement in the country.

But will this new “Interpretive Center” eat into the tourism that keeps the NVRMI open and make their financial situation even worse?

Any thoughts on this? I'd love to hear what some of y'all think about this situation.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A Few Pictures

This is the view of the Edmund Pettus Bridge from the rear side of the National Voting Rights Museum. It still gives me chills.

Here's the Alabama River at sunset (taken from a window at the museum).

I saw this child at the march re-enactment on March 5 and I had to take a picture. I loved seeing so many kids participating in the Bridge Crossing Jubilee.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Wisconsin Cargo

Early last Tuesday morning, a group of college students were causally strolling down Water Street in Selma when they were greeted by a slave catcher. The black woman, clad in West African attire, strode angrily towards the group and yelled, "You niggers need to fall in line. Move!"

It took a few minutes for the group to realize what was happening. You see, these kids from the University of Wisconsin-Madison had only been in Selma for one day, but they were so accustomed to being yelled at by strange black women that they didn't suspect what was coming. Although this crazy chick in a head wrap called them names and made them face the wall with their legs spread, they thought it was just another day in Alabama. But, by the time the slave catcher had separated the women from the men and led us through a dark tunnel, everyone knew what was happening. The screams and the sound of crashing waves were unmistakable. We were on the Middle Passage.

Remember when I said that there's no such thing as an audience in Selma? I wasn't joking.

The "slave catcher" is named Afriye, and her tour of the Slavery and Civil War Museum isn't something a tourist can easily forget. Afriye enlisted Jerome and me to escort the unsuspecting group of UW students to the museum that morning and I knew that she planned to start the tour early; however, even I was a little rattled when she met us on the street and made us do embarrassing things in broad daylight. I actually felt relieved when she led us into the building (making us stoop because "filthy niggers" like ourselves could not look her in the eye), but once inside I immediately wanted to escape. "Uncomfortable" doesn't even begin to describe the experience. As one student said after the tour, "I felt about one hundred different emotions in twenty minutes."

Now, I don't want to tell you too much about Afriye's tour because I hope that some of y'all will make the journey to Selma and try it for yourselves. What I can tell you is that, like the Voting Rights Museum, what the SCWM lacks in funds it makes up for in pure emotion. Ten minutes into the tour, I could hear sniffles coming from other group members. By the time Afriye turned on the lights and returned to her normal, peaceful self, several people were sobbing loudly.

One student seemed particularly affected by the tour. A Nigerian who grew up in Madison, she cried throughout the de-briefing. I kept glancing at this young woman -who would look at home in any one of my family pictures - because her reaction to the tour seemed familiar. The first time I ever visited a plantation, I couldn't control the tears that seemed to burn a trail down my face. This student, and a few others, looked like I had felt on that day in Louisiana when I stood in the rain and cried for my enslaved ancestors. Afriye’s tour was especially touching because it hadn’t ended with her telling us about African Americans' eventual freedom; she stopped it while we were still "slaves." No bright bows wrapped around pretty little packages here. So we carried the weight of that morning for awhile, and not even the fried chicken we ate for lunch would cheer us up. In fact, the entire group would remain somber for the rest of the day. We couldn’t wash the stink of that morning from our bodies, and maybe we weren’t supposed to.


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Uncle Earl

Uncle Earl liked to say that he was the first person I ever called the "n-word." When I was four, the story goes, he was taking a nap and I wanted to play. I tried to wake him, and when he didn't budge, I knocked him upside the head and said, "Wake up, nigga!"

If you felt even slightly uncomfortable when you read this story, then imagine how I feel. Uncle Earl loved to share this delightful little tale with everybody every year during the holidays. The last time he told it was when I brought Jerome to meet him and his wife, Aunt Bobbie, for the first time in January. He was standing at the stove frying up a batch of catfish when he turned to Jerome and said, "You know what your girlfriend told me when she was little? Well, I was taking a nap one day and..."

Personally, I think Uncle Earl took pleasure in bringing me, the PhD student, down a peg or two. Here's another example: when I told him that I was writing about the Jim Crow era, he scoffed and said, "What do you know about that? Why don't you go to the country and pick cotton for a few months? Until then, you can't tell nobody about Jim Crow." He was always raw with me, which is why we always ended up talking (and arguing) about history during my visits. But, he said these things out of love, and that's what made him so great. When I asked him once why he moved away from Texas as a teenager, his reply was simple, yet hardcore: "Have you ever heard of eye rape?"

So, I'm going to try not to make my eulogy for Uncle Earl syrupy sweet 'cause he just wasn't that kinda man. Instead, I'll use this space to just say goodbye to the man who cooked the best food I've ever tasted (gumbo, pork fried rice, ribs, greens, ox tails, and most of all, his famous homemade rolls) and who made me watch Roots during a summer vacation when I was 13 so I'd think twice before casually using the "n-word." We're gonna miss ya, Wat.