Thursday, March 26, 2015

We've Got A Movement Down in Selma: Day 5

My friend and sister TK marching
for her uncle's memory.
"My people, my people, listen. The battle is in our hands. The battle is in our hands in Mississippi and Alabama and all over the United States.... And so as we go away this afternoon, let us go away more than ever before committed to this struggle and committed to nonviolence. I must admit to you that there are still some difficult days ahead. We are still in for a season of suffering...."

One of my friends, a young woman who is like a sister after 54 miles of walking, got overheated as the speakers were on the rostrum yesterday afternoon. Together we had walked from Selma to Montgomery, a family welded together one the road. Quite a few miles back we had discussed her high school in Little Rock and the idea of ownership of powerful places. She was befuddled by the fact that some people think her high school — where nine brave sets of feet marched into a schoolhouse and changed history in 1957 — shouldn't continue its powerful mission to push America's youth forward. They think it's too important for students anymore; it should be an historic site and nothing more.

Meanwhile, as historians are asserting control over her school, the place goes to ruin because it can't be a living landscape. A stagnant pool of water breeds mosquitoes out front of the historic steps. But try as they might, teachers and students can't get anyone to get the water flowing, make the place healthier and more welcoming to the students who call that place home. It's because those steps, that building is historic. And in 1957 there was no positive flow system on that now-stagnant pool.

Standing on the street in front of the Capitol building in Montgomery, I get the feeling those historians have. I feel like, in some sense, I can understand the impulse. I feel like those steps are mine, my inherited heritage as an American. I've written about this before, running right back to the very roots of the blog. That story sings to my soul. This march has been a pilgrimage for me. I was so excited to be standing at the head of the column, leading "We Shall Overcome" through a bullhorn as my voice slowly went south from shouting. And hearing the speeches, seeing the spectacle, feeling the power were going to be the highlight of an arduous journey.

Then I saw my friend, her skin flush, looking like she would collapse in an instant. And I forgot where I was. She's family, my sister. I used my magical flat hat and badge to help part the crowds. We set her on a sunny hill. And I hoisted a protest sign to block the sun from her face.

From then on, the speeches didn't matter. The day melted away. Friend after friend came to the hillside. Some were veterans of a 54-mile march. Some had only traveled the last 3 miles with us up Dexter Avenue But they were all family. Some were marching to remember family members who died 50 years ago during the movement. Others were here to be witnesses. Still more just were looking for an activation, for a moment where they've find what they were fighting for. They were looking for their Selma.

I could say it's because I was wearing that damned uniform, that magical hat. But if I said that I'd be lying. I wasn't a park ranger yesterday. I might have had the arrowhead on my shoulder, but it wasn't some sense of duty making me fan folks, talk to them, joke with them about how much Bernice King's cadence is copied from her father's recordings. It was because we're family now. Toss that hat aside, throw the badge away? I'd still have ignored the speeches and helped my friends.

When she arrived, I promised my friend's mother that I'd make sure she got home safe. And yesterday afternoon her mom picked her up in the parking lot of the Lowndes County visitor center a bit battered and wilted, but none-the-worse for wear.

As we said goodbye, I joked. "And get that reflecting pool in front of the school fixed!"

"I don't know about that," she replied.

"Just rattle the cages," I said, "Make some noise."

"That's right," she said, her mother visibly not quite understanding anything that was going on, "I'm an activist now. I can change it."

My heart broke open at that moment and poured out of my eyes. We all changed the world this week. And we'll keep changing it. We are family in no light sense of that word.

We've got a movement going down in Selma.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Can't Turn Around, We've Come This Far By Faith: Day 4

" I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world, that we are not about to turn around. We are on the move now. Yes, we are on the move and no wave of racism can stop us. We are on the move now."

The last time I went to a Catholic Mass was on Easter last year. My head was in a bad place. I felt all alone. Mom was gone. and the landscape of the world looked entirely foreign. Even the Mass itself had changed. New responses replaced old ingrained phrases. My mouth didn't match the rest of the congregation. I was lost.

This morning, I stood with a group of people of whom I am eminently proud. What we've done in the past few days is fundamentally different than any other interpretive program undertaken by the National Park Service. Period. Full Stop.

We have embarked on a radical new form of interpretation, discovered almost accidentally. It's something I might call democratic interpretation if I was even so presumptuous as to name it. I'm not sure it can be named by any one person. There is no interpreter, there is no audience. There is only We. The playing field is leveled.

We are a community learning from one another. We respect each other but are frank enough to ask tough questions honestly and openly. And the answers we share are at once profound and simple. There is no way any of us will forget this week's events.

In some way, this week hasn't been about the march from Selma to Montgomery as much as it has been about being human. We've been recreating a march, but that quickly evaporated as a goal. This week has been about people making real, lasting, meaningful connections with one another, understanding each other in a visceral way that's hard to categorize.

I will never forget the long talk about popcorn and rice that Aja and I shared as she unknowingly helped me keep my mind occupied through a painful mile or two. Or exploding fist-bumps with Hanif, or the fact he realized being a historian means you can study all of history, ricocheting from decade to decade and not just focusing on some boring myopic corner of the past. He left for home too soon in the march for me to ask what the Arabic writing on his arm said. I'll never forget hearing how gay folks aren't really as bad off as I thought in South Carolina. I'll never forget hearing about how you can fight for social justice on the clock, then go right back to doing it when you get back home at the end of the day. I'll never forget shaking hands and hugging and laughing. I'll never forget we have lived as a truly caring community these past few days.

I won't forget the causes I've seen dangling from placards on backpacks and plastered across protest signs in crayon and glitter either. "I march for Education." "Women's Rights are Human Rights." "I march for Change." "I walk because this is the 'America' I believe in."

But mostly I won't forget the simple fact that I am not alone. Today we crossed into the City of Montgomery. None of us ever could have achieved the momentous feat alone. We are not individuals; we are a true "We."

Sitting in the sanctuary at the City of Saint Jude tonight, swaying to the tune of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," I realized it was the first time I've been in a Catholic Mass since two days before my Mom's funeral. I also realized I would never be truly alone in this world - even when I'm hundreds of miles from the people I love. If I just put in the effort, I can have every single human beside me as a friend. All I need do is stop to strike up a conversation.

And I knew that for the last three miles on the long trek to the capitol tomorrow I would be with my family.

All 300 of us.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Thunder of the Marching Men of Joshua: Day 3

"Let us march on ballot boxes until the Wallaces of our nation tremble away in silence.... There is nothing wrong with marching in this sense.The Bible tells us that the mighty men of Joshua merely walked about the walled city of Jericho and the barriers to freedom came tumbling down."

I was thinking of Viola today. She drove the family's 1963 Oldsmobile to Selma from Michigan, desperate to make some sort of difference. She trekked 800 miles to try to put even a small dent in the color line's seemingly impenetrable iron curtain. And the home she left wasn't all milk and honey. Detroit was scarred with segregation, a literal 6-foot high "Berlin Wall" separating white families from their black brethren.

But the movement was in Selma. So Viola drove.

We came here too this week. The places we all left behind are pockmarked and scarred by new battles, new fissures, new cracks. But the movement is here. So we move with it.

Viola was white. In 1965 that meant she was "normal." Not in reality, but in society's warped sense of the word. And today, I fit that bill too. I'm white. I'm male and straight. I'm middle class. I'm steadily employed with health benefits and a loving wife who supports me constantly.

It means a lot to me that another "normal" person came here in 1965. It means a lot that this wasn't only a black man's fight, but a fight undertaken by all mankind. It makes it a little easier to feel like I'm allowed to fight for others' freedom from my highly privileged position. After all, if you don't leverage that privilege to the good of all mankind, what good is it anyways?

Viola was shot along the roadside after veering off of Route 80 to find shelter from rampaging Klansmen. White men, men who looked just like me, killed her. They killed her for sitting beside a black man in her car, for shuttling marchers back to their homes. They shot her in the head twice and the 1963 Oldsmobile with Michigan license plates veered hard into a ditch.

The black man beside her, Leroy Moton, dipped his fingers into Viola's gushing wounds and smeared her blood on his own face, his own body. Even in death, Viola Liuzzo was helping her fellow man. When the Klan members checked the car, they found the two bloodied corpses. But one wasn't dead.

We stood next to Viola's monument today, a giant tombstone shaped chunk of rock along Route 80. As some of the group shuffled down the hill to resume the long march to Montgomery, I lingered at that wrought iron fence for a few more precious moments staring into Viola's eyes.

She gave up so much for so many people. She died for an idea. She died for a simple act of kindness into which she had invested hours, fortune and heart. She died, in some ways, for me.

The iron bar was cold but I gripped it hard. She didn't need to die. Hate is irrational. And murder for blind hatred is doubly irrational. But it sometimes feels like a cycle that can never end.

Viola won in the end. She never saw it, but black men and women who lived just a scant few steps from where she died found their full citizenship in the ballot when LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6th. Viola was cold in the ground but America was still marching forward.

Two weeks after Klansmen took chunks from Viola's exquisite face with a shotgun, someone in Detroit burned a cross on her family's front lawn. No good deed goes unpunished.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Like An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Day 2

Rain can't dampen the spirit
or the message of the Selma 50th Marchers
"They told us we wouldn’t get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, 'We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around.'"

I met Edith today. We were walking down the road and Edith was with us. She didn't say much. She just sort of gurgled, dangling from a sling on her mother's chest.

Edith is a baby making the march from Selma to Montgomery. That in and of itself is a fascinating idea. Her mother is white, a kindhearted woman from the Midwest whose sister is rolling a stroller along for support. But Edith seems happiest walking with her mother, bouncing along in time to mom's rhythmic steps along Route 80.

Edith's father is from Kenya. They call their children, "Amerikenyan." I like the ring of that.

Edith wouldn't exist if it weren't for the men and women who plunged across Lowndes County in 1965. Her mother has fair skin; she has a dapled brown face and a beautiful little smile. But Edith was a crime at one point in the eyes of some Americans: miscegenation. Wandering down that same stretch of highway we walked today 50 years ago, Edith's very existence was crime in Alabama. And Maryland. And Virginia.

But no one was holding Edith's skin against her today. She was part of our family.

And we are a family now. It's odd to think of that idea from an interpretive perspective, but there are very few other words which truly fit. Wandering down the road and chatting about our world, our society, our nation, our lives with these couple hundred complete strangers feels like a family reunion.

And even the traffic passing by joins in. Some honk, some wave. Trucks yield to the demands of the students as they crank their arms through the air, begging for just one more blast of an air horn. Almost everyone is thrilled to see us. Rubberneckers abound in the westbound lanes, traffic crawling by us in both directions, brown arms protruding from windows and wagging through the air furiously in joy.

There are a few who aren't joyful. Some fair faces scowl. A couple make lewd gestures at men and women who only wish them well. I hope they grouse because they are late for a doctor's appointment or their son's birthday; I fear their anger bubbles up from an entirely different wellspring.

Ranger Anthony building a house of the mind as the march
spilled into Lowndes County and its toughest 24 mile stretch.
Nearly every face that snarls when we wave or sing seems to look like mine. Nary a black face seems upset to see hundreds of engaged citizens recreating an historic trek across an historic landscape to dramatize a still sadly shameful condition.

But we march for them, too. That's the nature of believing in freedom. It's about extending it to all, not just some. The American song is sung by a rich chorus of voices. And every throat should be free to warble notes with the rest, as long as they aren't attempting to silence their fellow singers out of spite, anger or hatred.

And we're marching for Edith. She'll be back in just a couple decades to do it all over again.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Walking through 1965 on an Alabama Highway: Day 1

"...privileged to see life in a vital
totality never otherwise experienced."
"Outside in the backyards I had just passed other youngsters engaged in their game 'State Trooper' in which half the number lined up locked arms, and proceeded to march singing 'We Shall Overcome,' then were set upon and beat down by the others wielding sticks and branches. In situations like these, one must observe the tragedy: that the misdeeds of our immature society are imprinted in the minds of innocent children."
Carl Benkert, Freedom Songs: Selma, Alabama, 1965

We were marching down the road. Seriously. We were marching down a rural Alabama highway. Hundreds of us. Marching.

Selma is a convoluted sight. At once, it engenders hope and sorrow. And today as we began the 50th anniversary commemoration of the third march from Selma to Montgomery, a march instigated by a simple instance of police violence against a young man in Marion, Alabama, it was a particularly striking town.

Brown Chapel is in the heart of the projects, a national jewel nestled among families just trying to eek by. As we began to trudge down the street, a drum line and Boy Scout Troop from the Atlanta-area leading the way, some of the young residents of the Carver Projects scribbled on a woman's yellow t-shirt. Back at home, her classroom of young scholars had used Sharpies to write messages of encouragement on their teacher's shirt. And now, in the heart of a community ravaged by decades of systematized racism, Selma's own children were excitedly doing the same, filling the empty space.

Near the road, the hulks of proud middle-class homes sat burned, their walls scorched and charred above boarded-over windows. Selma is a still stark scar of a long-ago wound, the remnant of a promise of freedom in 1863 not quite fulfilled.

We turned the corner, a stop light that looked like it dated from the 1960s still dangling over our head. And believe me, I know stop lights. Crouse-Hinds back home in Syracuse makes them. It's not ambiance, though. This is no living history village. It hangs like that because it's likely never been replaced, another sign of the scars and heartbreak, privation and damage done by a war left unfinished for 15 decades.

Up and over The Bridge. If there is only one bridge worth mentioning in America, and perhaps there is only one bridge worth mentioning in America, it is that bridge. There young men and women, peaceful fathers and grandmothers alike bled for freedom, walked for freedom, chanted for freedom, prayed for freedom. And the irony of it all was that the bleeding and walking and chanting and praying should have been unnecessary.

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote," the echo of a war to destroy slavery still resounds, "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

A ways up the road, as feet tramped along U.S. Route 80, I pressed play on my iPhone. The interpretive staff wanted to inspire the marchers, put spring in their step. And being the technophile, it was left to me to ultimately engineer the task. Out from a speaker on my hip piped the voices of Common and John Legend. Had we cleared it with Columbia Records? No. Does it matter? No. Any company named after the very embodiment of freedom herself has no right to complain when the song Glory floats above a reenactment of the march from Selma to Montgomery.

The pace livened. The interpreters smiled. Behind me, I heard a middle-aged white school teacher singing along with the refrain, half under her breath as if embarrassed that she cared enough to know every last word.

The song trailed off. I flipped off the speaker.

A few dozen feet ahead of me, I heard the silence almost immediately broken by a voice, a young black woman on the verge of striking out on a life of her own.

"No Justice?" she called.

From around her came the obvious reply, reflexively: "No Peace!"

Again and again she repeated it. And the reply got stronger. When she lengthened her words, they lengthened hers. Staccato yielded staccato. Legato yielded legato.

Marching somewhere just a few feet ahead of me were a handful of seniors from the Ferguson-Florissant School District. They're the same age Michael Brown was on August 9th of last year. They have every right to chant. They have every right to be angry. They have every right to be afraid. The world, this American landscape pockmarked by 400 years of systematized racial violence and the half-effective backsliding outcomes of a war fought to destroy that system in the 1860s, seems dead set against them.

"No Justice?"

The cries continued.

"No Peace!"

Echoing through the air.

"No Justice?"

They were a warped refrain of sorrow.

"No Peace!"

A sad reflection on where our nation sits. We might have marched so far since 1863, but we have so much farther left to march.