Shiloh, TN Memphis, TN Little Rock, AR Money, MS Vicksburg, MS Jackson, MS Selma, AL Montgomery, AL Birmingham, AL Atlanta, GA Stone Mountain, GA Charleston, SC
Originally published in Norwood School Magazine November 2001
The photographs of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon strike us as images that will live with us forever, somehow already iconic of American history. Never again will we see downtown Manhattan in the same manner, nor will our children, for we will strive to instill in them the depth and magnitude of these events so that generations to come may never forget these events. And though people and places of late have brought us together as a country, it is such symbolism that has also driven and kept us apart, for those that wonder why the South cannot let go of its past do not fully understand the resonance and durability of the American memory.
My journey through the South began with a friend from college on a Sunday night in an SUV with a cooler full of turkey sandwiches and a rough outline of points of interest in the South, relating to the Civil War and the civil rights movement.
Shiloh was the first stop after two long days of driving without so much as a park or landmark under our belt. Shiloh, named for a small church near the major part of the battle, was a turning point for the Union, as they fought back a major advance by the Confederates and opened a route that lead eventually to Atlanta and the end of the war. The field resembled those that Washingtonians are accustomed to through the pantheon of Civil War sites in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, dotted with monuments sent from states all over the country, though primarily the North. A five mile car tour walked us through the battle, but I was stuck more by the isolation of the area and its relative insignificance to contemporary life. The town of Shiloh is still unincorporated and could be any other Southern town except for the nearly 25,000 casualties of war from the two days of fighting.
Shiloh & Memphis
Later that day, we made our way to Memphis for the National Civil Rights Museum, which was built on the grounds of the Loraine Motel where Martin Luther King was staying on the night of his assassination in 1968. We found ourselves at the beginning of our journey, but at the end of King’s. The exhibit was general to the movement, but the tour ended eerily in King’s room, footsteps away from the balcony from which the famous photograph shows men pointing in the direction of the shots fired. The self-guided group we were with all fell silent, looking for something to do, but there was nothing to do but stand and absorb the time and space. An aura was in the air that even silenced young children who probably did not even understand where they were.
Outside of the building was a lone protester with large signs decrying an $8 million museum expansion project. Posters and pamphlets urged that such funds should be spent on the needs of the black community today, not solely on remembering one from the past. At the time, I did not take much notice.
Across the Mississippi River, past a construction sign warning “Whole Lotta Pavin’ Goin’ On,” we left Tennessee and entered Arkansas en route to Little Rock. Central High School was occupied militarily in the fall of 1957 by the 101st Airborne, decedents of those who landed in France in 1944 and progenitors of those who would land in Cam Ranh Bay in 1965. The school itself is still in operation and has nothing on its grounds marking the struggle between Governor Orvall Faubus and the NAACP. Across the street, though, is a small museum, built into an old Mobil Gas station, at which reporters gathered while covering the story, one of the first race-related events to capture attention on network newscasts. A black woman in her thirties manned the cash register at the gift shop. Too young to remember the Little Rock 9, she explained that the museum had only opened a few years ago and asked rhetorically what had taken so long for the town to come to grips with its past. She and I glanced at each other and nodded. To answer that question would have taken all day, and we had more stops make.
Little Rock & Vicksburg
I felt drawn to the small town of Money, Mississippi. It is not even a town. Money could be a crossroads but for a second road. Lying along the side of a train track we found a small general store I was in search of, where 14 year-old Emmett Till from Chicago unwittingly broke Southern manner and spoke “fresh” to a white girl. Later that night in 1955, he was taken from his house by two white men and thrown off of the Tallahatchie Bridge. His lynching and the acquittal of his murderers sparked a media frenzy and subsequently the modern civil rights movement.
Unlike the local Virginia landscape, littered with historical markers, Money was unmarked and almost untraceable. Five hours after leaving Little Rock, and several dirt and gravel roads after leaving the highway, we were losing hope of finding the remnants of the general store that reportedly still stood. We had not seen a living soul in over an hour when before us we saw what was once Bryant’s groceries. A burned out building was all that was left, adjacent to three houses. I wondered if those who lived there were aware of the history that lay in this abandoned lot. I also wondered if history had abandoned this site or if I was in search of a place valued by no one else. Ten minutes after arriving, our visit was done, our departure hastened by the smell of a dead dog on the roadside.
We awoke Thursday morning not fully expecting the volume of history we would consume over the course of that one day. We had been reading Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, an account of many of the cities we were visiting by the author, a print journalist who took three years to figure out what made the South tick. Arriving in Vicksburg we were well prepared. The battlefield was a bit incongruous since the battle was a siege of the city. The eighteen mile driving tour of the site was tedious since generals and enlisted men criss-crossed the same patches of land repeatedly for months. Signs were planted in erratic rows, requiring an expert to retrace steps. We headed downtown, near the floating Harrah’s casinos that now dot the riverfront, to the Old Courthouse Museum, which Horwitz had described in detail for the its lack of political-correctness. Alongside clippings of Jefferson Davis’s hair were picture of “adoring” slaves and quotes praising black Confederate veterans from the unlikely Nathan Bedford Forrest, first Imperial Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The gift shop peddled only Southern war heroes, namely pictures of Lee and Davis, but ironically I was returned in change a $50 bill and a $5 bill, adorned with the faces of Grant and Lincoln.
The city most intent on smothering the past was Jackson, the state capital, home of Medgar Evers, the assassinated local organizer, and the seat of Governor Ross Barnett, who crusaded to block the enrollment of James Meredith at the Ole Miss campus in Oxford. In the entire of Old Capital Building Museum, only one placard dealt with the issues for which I knew the city, so we headed east towards Alabama.
The march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 is often noted as the last of the great marches, in which the divisions within the civil rights movement were still set aside in the spirit of unity. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and John Lewis’s Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee debated loudly but privately the merits of a march in the face of militant opposition from Governor George Wallace. The march went on and did draw the ire of hastily deputized state troopers who fire tear gas and trampled protestors as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Selma has not changed greatly. Mayor Joe Smitherman, who was serving his first term in 1965 was still in office until earlier this year after losing his tenth reelection bid in favor of Selma’s first black mayor since Reconstruction. The depressed town offered the small National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, which we hoped was more compelling as an institute since the museum consisted of a small series of rooms with hand-lettered markers and comments. As we were leaving, a school group was having trouble gathering about twenty-five students into the lobby. Down the street we walked several blocks before finding a restaurant open and it was only one in the afternoon. Many locations were simply abandoned, especially on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, which lay as a paradox of progress and decline.
Selma & Montgomery
The drive towards Montgomery followed the route the marchers took, signs marking the campsites on each of the three nights. Along the road, my friend brought the car to a halt when we passed what he thought was a related site, the gravesite of Viola Liutzo, a white volunteer murdered while shuttling marchers back to Selma. On the side of Route 50 lay only the tombstone surrounded by a rod-iron fence and flowers.
We arrived in Montgomery as the day was dying and hoped only to see a few historic buildings as we drove through. We were welcomed, however, at the visitor center by news that two twenty-five cent trolleys toured the city for another hour and a half and could get us to the capitol building before it closed. Racing up the stairs where King spoke at the end of the March to Montgomery, we also passed a bronze star marking the spot where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office and where Wallace made his “Segregation Forever” speech. From that point we could also see the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where King preached later that night in 1965 but also nine years earlier when he first arrived in town, the little known son of Martin Luther King, Sr., preacher at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta since 1931. It was during this time that he lead the Montgomery Improvement Association, precursor to SCLC, in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. We were the only passengers on the trolley driver’s last run of the day and he took us off his route to a smattering of sites that seemed contrary to each other: the first White House of the Confederacy, the Rosa Parks arrest site, slave holding quarters in the business district, Martin Luther King’s house. We departed Montgomery only a few hours after arriving, but, for better or worse, it was a city that embraced its past in all forms. It was still Thursday. We had awoken in Vicksburg, but we decided to make the drive to Birmingham before checking in for the evening, making five cities in one day.
Birmingham had no Civil War history to speak of since it had not been populated until near the turn of the century. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was the only museum on the trip that dealt not only with American civil rights issues, but also with human rights, including a section on the United Nations and Universal Declaration of Rights. Across the street was the West Park where news cameras recorded fire hoses and police dogs being let loose on protestors, as well as the 16th Street Baptist Church, firebombed shortly after the March on Washington.
From Birmingham, we headed to Atlanta, the antithesis of Montgomery, attempting the smooth over rough edges of history for the sake of a better business climate. This appeared to satisfy no one. The Atlanta History Museum, a twenty minute drive from downtown and barely within the city proper, spoke fleetingly of the city’s role in the Civil War, noting passively that it was occupied first by the Confederates and then by the Federals. For civil rights, there were old segregated water fountain signs and a picture of King, but they were lost amidst replica skyscrapers and maps of the commercial district. A separate museum on the war made little note of Atlanta, despite it being a lynch pin of travel and trade, and concluded somehow that one of the legacies of the Civil War is Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves, themselves a target of American Indian civil rights groups. Atlanta also houses the birthplace and gravesite of King as well as a museum in his honor.
Birgmingham & Atlanta
Just fifteen minutes east lay Stone Mountain, former headquarters of the Klan, and location of the “Confederate Mount Rushmore” with chiseled images of Jefferson David, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, all on horseback with their heads bowed. We stood among a large crowd taking note of the site, but also aware that our view would soon change, as a laser light show darted before us with advertisements for Verizon and the words of King layered on top of those who stood opposed to all for which he fought. The crowd applauded without regard to any of these apparent conflicts; we ran for the car, attempting to made some headway towards home even though it was well past ten. But as we sat in traffic, mapping out a plan, we realized something was missing from our trek, and that something was Ft. Sumter.
So it was that we headed south toward Charleston, arriving in the early morning hours. After passing through the Citadel and spotting shot glasses reading “If at first you don’t Secede, Try, Try Again,” we hopped the ferry out to the island fort. Though I have read about the fall of Ft. Sumter since elementary school, it had never occurred to me that the fort had fallen so quickly because all of the guns were aimed the wrong way, towards sea, not the city of Charleston. Eager to make its place in history by solidifying its secession (South Carolina had also declared independence from Britain first, in 1775), the rebel soldiers had an easy target as Sumter expended most of its ammunition in a vain attempt to blow holes in its own walls so that the cannon could then take aim on the harbor. You often forget how simple some parts of history are when mundane realities are explained.
Stone Mountain & Charleston
We departed Charleston and began the long journey home towards Washington with many thoughts in mind, but more questions than answers. With the exception of Jackson, every town and city had at least begun to come to terms with the civil rights movement in a manner that still eluded many with the civil war. Streets named for Martin Luther King show progress until you see unemployed and impoverished black men and women sitting on these streets still looking for the “promised land” about which King spoke. Faces on statues of Confederate soldiers speak to a past that will not be again to some who are thankful for that and others who still hope the South will indeed rise again. Everywhere we went, images of the past were apparent, children taught to learn what they were and why they were important; those children growing into adults that still searched for understanding, and understanding of the South is a difficult task.