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As we lined up by gender outside of the building, we didn’t know what was in store. The orders were given for no direct eye contact or standing higher than the master’s shoulder. We were huddle into a dark dungeon, stuffed onto a cramped wooden ship, and then lined up for judgment. There were those chosen to live as slaves and others were sent to die.

            Although this simulation was only that, it gave even the smallest perspective on the life of an African coming to America. This would be an unknown voyage to an unknown world to a life of unknown consequences. The halls of an exhibit showed the hatred of the slaves and African Americans. Blood, burning crosses, and hooded Klansman served as reminders of years of oppression. The exhibits throughout the halls showed pictures and artifacts from the “peculiar institution.” The photographs showed the pain and aguish from the days of the Middle Passage until the 13th Amendment.

 

Hoods of Hatred

Hoods of Hatred

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View of the Edmund Pettus Bridge from the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama.

View of the Edmund Pettus Bridge from the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama.

Our first stop today was the Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama.  Out guide for the majority of the day was a man by the name of Sam Walker.  Sam grew up in Selma, and he was eleven years old in 1965.  Sam shared with our class some of some starting statistics regarding voter registration in Alabama.  Prior to the passing of the Jim Crow laws, there were 180,000-registered black voters in Alabama.  When they passed, Walker claimed that there were less than 5,000.  This loss in voters was simply astonishing.  Some of the obstacles that blacks had to try to overcome to vote were poll taxes (most blacks made between 40 cents and $2; whereas whites made between $7-$10), a literacy test, the “Grandfather Clause”, and a white primary.

"You Can Make History Too!"

"You Can Make History Too!"

            Listening to the struggles that blacks had to endure was simply astonishing.  The right to vote is something that we often take for granted, yet blacks had to fight so hard to attain this right.  Sam also discussed just how satisfied he was with the voter turnout for this past election.  Whether people voted for McCain or Obama, he was happy that America (particularly its youth) was getting out there to vote.

            One of the most notable exhibits in the museum was the “I Was There” Wall.  This wall had little notes written by individuals who were involved in any way with the civil rights movement in Selma.  There was a wide range of individuals who had their names and stories on this wall.  We saw the signatures and stories of Viola Liuzzo’s daughter, the mayor of Selma in 1965, and even a state trooper who was involved with “Bloody Sunday”.  It was very humbling to view just how many people came back to visit this museum; this truly speaks to the impact that this movement had on their lives.

One of the many posts on the "I Was There" wall.

One of the many posts on the "I Was There" wall.

            One of the other special aspects to this museum was how the museum was originally founded.  At the beginning of the museum, there just were not enough funds to create a full-scale museum.  So those involved with the creation of the museum formed a Board of Directors.  Each member on the board was responsible to funding one exhibit.  Thus, these individuals were paying out of their pockets.  Again, this speaks to just how much attaining voting rights meant to the community of Selma.  The unique aspect of the museum is that it highlights the actions of everyone involved in the civil rights movement in Selma.  Often times, we forget to document to courageous actions of the everyday people that fueled this movement.

            The other notable exhibit in the museum was the “Footprints to Freedom Room”.  In this room, there were footprints of individuals that were involved with the march from Selma to Montgomery.  Also in this room were images that documented some of the action in Selma in the 1960’s.  What was so intriguing about these photos was the fact that they were taken by a state trooper during the time.  These images were withheld from the public from 1965-1993 as “evidence”.  When the officer heard that the museum was going to be created, he gladly donated the images to the cause.  Again, these actions by this officer simply speak to the willingness that people had to preserve the rich history that Selma holds.  It was really interesting to visit this museum, as it provided such a different perspective on the actions of Selma at the height of the movement.  

 

One of the exhibits in the "Footprints to Freedom" room.

One of the exhibits in the "Footprints to Freedom" room.

 

Brown Chapel

 

Brown Chapel.

Brown Chapel.

Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama played an essential role in the voting rights movement. The Selma to Montgomery marches would initiate at Brown Chapel, the headquarters of the movement.  Brown Chapel served many roles during the mid 1960s, including administrative office for Dr. King, hospital for the wounded after Bloody Sunday, and shelter for the visitors who answered Dr. King’s call for support for the march to Montgomery. The church was conveniently located across the street from a housing project built for underprivileged African Americans. This location was pivotal because it provided many people to easily join and help the cause by participating in the marches, opening their doors to visitors, and ensuring the sanctity of the church from vandals and bombings.   

Freedom Fighter Sam Walker points to his name printed on the Civil Rights Freedom Wall outside of Brown Chapel.

Freedom Fighter Sam Walker points to his name printed on the Civil Rights Freedom Wall outside of Brown Chapel.

 

Viola Liuzzo

Viola Liuzzo is the only white woman known to have lost her life during the civil rights movement. Leaving her husband and five children at home in Detroit, Viola made her way to Alabama, risking her life for the complete freedom of others. She was shot by four Ku Klux Klan members while driving on Highway 80 with a black man in her car. After she died, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover launched a smear campaign in attempt to ruin her reputation.

 

Monument at the site where Viola Liuzzo was killed off of Highway 80.

Monument at the site where Viola Liuzzo was killed off of Highway 80.

We visited Viola’s memorial site off of Highway 80 on the way to Montgomery. It was simple, yet it is important to remember how many innocent people sacrificed their life in order to continue the civil rights movement. “I was so surprised at how a monumental site is found off of a highway with no markings. You could pass it, not realizing that it is an extremely important part of civil rights history.” 

 

View of Highway 80.

View of Highway 80.

 

 

 

Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Edmund Pettus Bridge.

 

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama is the infamous site of the Bloody Sunday conflict on March 7, 1965.  Over 600 civil rights workers marched from Selma to Montgomery when Alabama state troopers stopped them after crossing they crossed the bridge. The marchers were beaten with nightsticks and were doused with teargas. Over seventy marchers returned to Brown Chapel seriously injured. Fortunately, there were no deaths.

 

Memorial located at the end of the bridge. "When your children shall ask you in time to come saying what mean these 12 stones? Then you shall tell them how you made it over."

Memorial located at the end of the bridge. "When your children shall ask you in time to come saying what mean these 12 stones? Then you shall tell them how you made it over."

Today, our class marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge just as the civil rights workers did over fifty years ago. Fellow classmate Matt Dinwiddie explained just how moving this experience was: “It was as if my steps were following in the foot prints of so many courageous young and old men and women who risked their lives to give me the opportunity to vote.” 

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"There's Hope For the World"

"There's Hope For the World"

 

“History records and the pen moves on.” -Richard Arrington Jr.

Our class was fortunate to bump into Mayor Arrington at the Civil Rights Institute.  Elected in 1979, Mayor Arrington was the first black mayor of Birmingham, and he served Birmingham for 20 years.  We had the opportunity to listen to Mayor Arrington talk about the new book he just wrote: “There is Hope for the World”.  Afterwards, our group had the chance to get a picture with him.  

Evan, Ian, Jackie and Kristen with Birmingham Mayor Arrington.

Evan, Ian, Jackie and Kristen with Birmingham Mayor Arrington.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

“I like to believe that the negative extremes of Birmingham’s past will resolve into the positive and utopian extreme of her future; that the sins of a dark yesterday will be redeemed in the achievements of a bright tomorrow. I have this hope because, once on a summer day, a dream came true.  The city of Birmingham discovered a conscience.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Having seen the city in its present form and taking a step back into the plight that the city had endured for so long, Dr. King’s words seemed to resonate with our group throughout the day.  After visiting Kelly Ingram Park, the next stop on our agenda was the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  The first thing our group did was watch a short film that detailed some of the early history of Birmingham.  In this video, we learned that Birmingham was once referred to as the “Magic City”.  Because Birmingham had the raw materials needed to create steel, it provided various opportunities for jobs.  Since the beginning of the city’s founding, blacks have fueled the city’s progress.  In the 1920’s, blacks accounted for 65% of Birmingham’s workforce.  However,  blacks received the lowest paid jobs and suffered from cruel working conditions.  This was just early signs of impending injustices that blacks would have to face.

Following the video, we entered the main exhibit of the museum.  While what we have learned provided context for the movement, the visual simulations we encountered gave our newly found knowledge-base a “face”.  Having been educated about the varying segreation ordinances, it was not until we saw the disparity between the public accomodations, education, and jobs that whites and blacks received that we fully understood. For example, in 1944, the average class size in black schools was 42.8 students.  In white schools, the average class was 24.3 students.  In addition, black teachers received 60% of the pay of a white teacher.  Even after a lawsuit was filed in 1947 that equalized salaries for black and white teachers, blacks still had to pay for textbooks and classroom materials.  By controlling what was “separate and equal”, whites were able to exert a seemingly unyielding force of superiority over the black community.  However, the black’s fight for justice was about to prove this notion to be void.

While legislation was passed that began to offer blacks some rights (eg- Brown v. Board of Education and Browder v. Gayle), the Supreme Court did not offer guidelines for dismantling the “separate but equal” clause.  It is astonishing to think that the abuse that took place soon thereafer came from the same system that we put so much trust in today. Having learned of the atrocities of the Freedom Rides, the visual representation of a burned bus (modeled after events that took place during the “Freedom Ride” in Anniston, Alabama) made us reevaluate our justice system, knowing that many officials and police officers did little to secure their safety.  This was just one example of the violence that the blacks endured.  We saw many other images such as: dogs attacking teenagers, protesters being beaten or hosed, and people being poisened with teargas.

While the museum offered powerful exhibits, archives, and galleries regarding the injustices that blacks once faced in our own country, the “Human Rights Gallery” offered an interactive look into the struggles that others across the globe face or have faced.  Such horrors as Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa, Darfur, and the Solidarity Movement in Poland were all detailed.  Facing these powerful images simply makes one aware of the oppression, violence, and struggles that humans have had to endure in their endeavors for equal rights.  However, after viewing all of the displays, we took with us the knowledge that is is possible to overcome oppresion.  We must keep this in mind as human rights are violated across the globe.