Road Trip Through Civil Rights History

As I hit the road for a weeklong trip to visit the civil rights museums in the southeast, I wasn’t sure why I was doing it even though I did know that I was deeply concerned about the surge in hate crimes after the presidential election.  It seems obvious now that this feeling would be what urged me to go. However, at the time I was only aware that I wanted to have an adventure that would enlighten me about something I cared about.

So, my fellow traveler and friend, Genie Skypek, and I stocked the Prius with thermoses of hot coffee, miniatures of Bacardi rum, cheese, salami, and a rotisserie chicken.  Indeed, we were preparing ourselves for any catastrophe that might interfere with our ever eating or drinking again. Our trip took us to the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis at the Lorraine Hotel and the Whitney Plantation in Wallace just west of New Orleans.

Two things seared themselves into my memory at the Atlanta museum.

Ruby Bridges Age 6 years

First was the huge photo of Ruby Bridges, age 6 with white bow in her hair, sweet smile and big eyes wearing her crisp plaid pinafore. It compelled me to come closer to take a look.  This innocent and lovely child on her way to first grade in Louisiana is surrounded by solemn faced U.S. Marshals. Her skin color is such a threat to the wellbeing of her fellow first graders that she is isolated in the classroom with her teacher for the whole year. That is not the only hell caused by people’s fear of the first African American child to attend an all-white public elementary school in the South. Her father lost his job at the filling station and her grandparents were thrown off the land they had sharecropped for 30 years….all because they wanted their beloved Ruby to have a good education.

Second was my experience as I sat on the stool at the mock-up of the Woolworth luncheon counter. I placed my hands within the outlines in front of me and donned the headphones. Instantly, I heard a male voice so close to my ear that I jumped. That voice was followed by a cacophony of loud, angry and strident male and female voices spewing slurs and threats. The voices were so overwhelming that I felt that my stool was being shaken, although it was not. I lasted barely over a minute before I removed the headphones in tears.  How in the world did the heroes of the sit-ins manage not respond in the face of such vitriolic hate?

As a white person I took some small comfort from the fact that among the many black faces were those of white students, adult men, and women, who joined with their black brethren in the struggle for justice and equality.

Heading to Memphis, we felt a sharp drop in the temperature—60 to 29 degrees. We had warm clothes with us but quickly nixed the idea of going out for dinner when we arrived at the hotel. Besides, we still had enough food in the cooler for at least another week on the road.

In our planning we had thought that a half day at the civil rights museum there would give us enough time.  After four hours, we could easily have spent the rest of the day taking in the information and experience but we were on overload. There was so, so much to see and digest.

The museum is built around the Lorraine Hotel room and balcony, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed.  It actually is a complex of buildings and hosts the civil rights history from the beginning of the resistance during slavery, to the sit-ins, the Montgomery bus boycott, the freedom riders, Selma Bridge, killing of MLK and the rise of Black Power.

 Like many others, I can remember where I was when I heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr had been shot and killed on April 4, 1968. To be able to see the room he slept in and the balcony on which he had stood made me fervently wish that I could have just turned back time and done something. He was only 39 years old. The mystery of who really is responsible for his death lives on despite the conviction of James Earl Ray.  A ton of information gives credence to a conspiracy, which I find plausible, and I’m not one who normally indulges in such thinking.

There is so much to take in at this museum that you just have to go and see for yourself. I can only say that I am grateful for the deepening of my knowledge of the history of slavery and its aftermath. Over the years, I have heard how America’s economic power was built on the backs of slaves and this museum casts a bright light on that fact. One takeaway detail is that there were over 4,000,000 slaves providing work worth more than $3 billion then, which is roughly worth $10 trillion today.

If you can get to this museum before March 6, 2017 you can also see the bone chilling, mind numbing photographic exhibition of slavery around the world by Lisa Kristine.  30 million people are currently trapped in slavery. They work in mines, farm fields, construction sites, brothels, factories, restaurants, construction sites and in homes. Many times they work from childhood to death with no idea that life can be lived any other way.

 We left the museum and headed south…..hoping for warmth.  The Whitney Plantation, opened in 2014, is the only one in the U.S. that is done from the perspective of the slaves.  It is an almost hidden gem sort of in the middle of nowhere that tells a tale that… and I feel safe in saying this…is unknown by the vast majority of Americans.

We arrived just in time to join a small tour group of six people—from the U.S., Australia and Germany.  It’s an honest and heartbreaking tour. Rations of food and starving children; ungodly abuse and horrific machete accidents in the sugar cane fields; women as breeders, whose babies fed the domestic slave trade up north and elsewhere that went on after the African slave trade ended. So much more that I don’t even have the words for. But, it is our history and I deeply believe that we do have to acknowledge our history in order to truly heal.

As dark and wrenching as my emotional experience was on this road trip, I am so very grateful I did it. After decompressing for a couple of days in Apalachicola over wine and oysters, I began to breathe normally again. As I looked back remembering the sights I saw and the information I learned, another emotion bubbled up…that of awe and wonder in the courage of so many good people, who struggled, fought and died to give all people a life of respect, dignity and safely.  I came home with a deep-seated certainty about the resilience of the human spirit that propels me forward to do what I can to influence the arc of the moral universe that Dr. King believed was long but bent towards justice.

Authored by Jan Roberts

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