A targeted civil rights tour

by | Aug 10, 2023 | Other News

When I booked my flights for the 2018 Association of Holocaust Organizations conference held in Mobile, Ala., I did not think about extending my trip to visit the then brand-new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, a two-hour drive north. I vowed that I would make it back one day, and this summer I embarked on that journey.

In June, I joined The March Down Freedom’s Road with a group of educators, sponsored by Classrooms Without Borders, a wonderful educational organization based in Pittsburgh. The goal was to visit as many important civil rights sites as we could in a week, so the educators would take important firsthand experiences, insight, and new materials back to their classrooms and students.

As with my trip to Poland last summer, it was an honor to share the educational experiences with those who are dedicated to sharing REAL history’s lessons with tomorrow’s leaders. (Ironically, I was in Alabama during the last tense Virginia Beach School Board meeting that debated banning certain “explicit” books from school libraries, a battle that Holocaust Commission members and concerned citizens had been fighting for months. Luckily, after much community effort, the measure that would have removed The Diary of Anne Frank from libraries was defeated by one vote.)



We started at the intimate museum located in the former Woolworth’s department store in Greensboro, N.C., and examined some public art addressing the strides made in the civil rights movement there. We had the first of many discussions throughout the trip about historic markers. We always looked at who erected them and when, and what their true message, and audience, was intended to be. Sometimes it was history, and sometimes it was a combination of “spin” and intimidation, depending on the creator.


Next stop: Atlanta 

We rose early for a 7 am departure. The parallels and contrasts to the era we were there to study, and the Freedom Rides of 1961, were obvious. Back then, racially mixed groups from “the North” risked their lives to ride buses through the segregated South, from Washington, DC to New Orleans, not knowing what awaited them along the way. As they disembarked at station after station to test whether the new federal non-segregation laws were being enforced in Southern states, they were met with at best suspicion and derision, and at worst, murderous intent towards their peaceful, justice-seeking goals.

Meanwhile, our racially diverse group from “the North” boarded a well-appointed, air-conditioned bus, having stayed in the same hotel and eaten the same breakfast in the same dining room. Unlike Freedom Riders headed into the unknown, we all had our phones, so we could keep abreast of anything, from weather to restaurants (where all of us could be served) to historical documents and videos about the era offered to us by our traveling scholars.

In Atlanta at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, we had a much different “museum experience” than we did in Greensboro. At the former small-town Woolworth’s, our group was taken around by a local guide through each exhibit, culminating with our entry into “the lunch counter,” where in 1960, four North Carolina A&T State University students dared to sit down and ask to purchase cups of coffee. By contrast, in the three-story, state-of-the-art museum in Atlanta’s Centennial Park complex, tours were self-guided through the two-floor Civil Rights Era exhibit and the Human Rights exhibit into which it morphed, moving past the 50s and 60s into how the global concept of Human Rights grew out of that time. The museums have very different constituencies, donors, and budgets, so they look at the era from different angles.

That night we had a true Southern dinner at Mary Mac’s Tea House, the last of 46 “Tea Houses” opened by women after World War II in Atlanta, with Freedom Rider Charles Person. At 80 years old, Person told us in riveting and sharp detail about his nonviolence training, and of his fateful Freedom Ride in May, 1961. He was on the Trailways bus accompanying the famous Greyhound that was firebombed in Anniston, Ala. He was subsequently, with his fellow Freedom Riders, “stranded” in Birmingham when no drivers would take them to New Orleans. Almost killed by the mob there, he was saved by a photographer’s flash stunning his attacker, and then aided by a city bus driver who directed him “across the tracks,” where he called Reverend Abernathy for help. These are the stories of which adventure films are made.

His soft manner and gentle determination to teach youth not to hate reminded me of Holocaust survivor David Katz, who told those listening to him that he did not hate. Person said he has a standing invitation to the surviving men who beat him within an inch of his life to come meet with him now, and talk to him about that day, so they can all find closure. Not surprisingly, none have called.



Heading west into Alabama the next day, our first stop was Montgomery. Though it is the state capital, it seemed a ghost town. Perhaps it was the summer heat, but the streets were largely empty, of both cars and pedestrians. We walked from the fountain-centered traffic circle that used to be a slave auction site, up the main street past the first church that Martin Luther King Jr. pastored, to the Capitol building, perched majestically on a hill amid grounds designed by famed landscape architect Frederic Law Olmstead. Flanking the monumental staircase were two statues: one of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and one of Dr. J. Marion Sims, the so-called “Father of Modern Gynecology.” Sims made his reputation experimenting on enslaved black women without their consent or anesthesia. Honestly, it was hard to have respect for an institution that would choose these two people for its most honored spaces.

We later visited the More Up Campus, founded by African American artist and activist Michelle Browder, which housed her monumental sculpture honoring three of the women on whom Sims experimented, after their (first) names were discovered through research: Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. Were they honored at the state capital? No. But at least they were honored, by Browder, by us, and now by you, for learning their stories.

I could have spent a full day in the Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Incarceration, which opened in 2021. But the three hours I spent there were powerful and eye-opening. The varied exhibits were personal yet global at the same time, from the opening room that put you on an over-crowded slave ship in choppy Atlantic waters, reading the poetry of Maya Angelou, through what life was like as an African American through slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, the subsequent school-to prison-pipeline, and the continued fight for recognition and voice in American society. Photos are not allowed in the museum, and cell phone use is prohibited. Like many memorial museums, the experience feels almost holy for its quiet contemplation, as I often shook my head in pained disbelief, until the tears fell from my eyes at what my country had done to so many of its people.

This is the museum associated with the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, known to many as the Lynching Memorial, that I had waited five years to see. As our timed entry approached, so did ominous clouds. Unfortunately, my long-anticipated visit to this memorial, whose hanging blocks I had wanted to compare physically to the massive stones of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the heart of Berlin, was pre-empted by a severe thunderstorm and tornado warning that closed the outdoor memorial for the day. We had to keep on our own March Down Freedom’s Road, so my visit there will have to wait.



In Selma we found another “ghost town,” and toured a hometown museum, this time the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute. Don’t let the grand name fool you. This organization, located in a small one-story building at the foot of the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, is operated by only a handful of dedicated employees. Yet there we saw original photos from the police photographer on Bloody Sunday, donated decades later. There we learned about the “Courageous 8,” all leaders of the Dallas County Voters League. These African American citizens (four of whom were women, who are often left out of the discussions and honors of the Movement), planned and organized for years to meet the moment, and inspired others not to back down. I also learned that in 1901 the Alabama Constitution was re-written to keep blacks and poor whites from unifying, undermining their right to vote. These are things that will no doubt not be taught in schools in the current climate of “anti-wokeness.” Except perhaps in some schools in Pittsburgh…

We stopped at a local sandwich shop for lunch, and while waiting for our orders, a couple at a table along the wall asked about our large, clearly tourist group. We struck up a conversation with James Moore and his wife and learned that he had marched as a teen on Bloody Sunday. We had literally stumbled across a “survivor!” He told us about his experiences during the aborted march that turned violent that day, and on the protected march days later all the way to Montgomery, while his wife chided him. “James, that story gets better every time you tell it!”

After lunch we heard from Jo Ann Bland, one of the youngest marchers that fateful day, who unlike James, often meets with groups to share her story. Like listening to a Holocaust survivor, hearing from a witness to our country’s more sordid history is powerful and sobering. Bland shared the struggles of her life growing up black in Alabama in the 1950s and 60s, and the activism that led her to be arrested and jailed as a girl several times at sit-ins for voting rights even before the Selma to Montgomery march. She got into a lot of “good trouble.” Her message, like that of the few remaining Holocaust survivors still sharing their stories today: the fight for justice and freedom isn’t over.

This was clear when we visited a beautifully manicured Confederate cemetery, complete with hundreds of fresh Confederate flags, maintained by the Daughters of the Confederacy and like-minded groups, nestled in an African American neighborhood. We all felt indignant that it even existed, but as with some pogrom sites in Poland, we just took in the information, and were glad to leave the place.

While in Selma we took our own march across the Pettus bridge, which still carries the name of a slaveholding Confederate general. At its foot on the other side, 40 yards from where the late Congressman John Lewis received a concussion from the blow of a state trooper’s Billy club, we held a memorial service. As I did at sites of mass atrocities in Poland last summer, I said kaddish for the victims of the violence of the era.



In Birmingham (known at the time as “Bombingham” for the number of white supremacist and KKK explosions targeting black citizens), we heard a firsthand account from Rev. Carolyn McKinstry, a survivor of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which killed four girls in 1963. She inspired us as we continued our journey to Memphis, including the museum that encompasses the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Like standing in a concentration camp or at Ground Zero in New York, the feeling of being in the place where innocents were slaughtered is other-worldly.


Learn and act

It is one thing to know about these sites, but it is another to be in them, to breathe the air and walk the ground where tragic history was made, and then make the connections to the history of our country as it is currently unfolding, particularly in the Southern states we were traversing. Hard won rights are being walked back as today’s freedom fighters continue to struggle for equality and representation.

In Alabama last month, the state legislature passed legislation in direct contradiction to a Supreme Court ruling to redistrict the state to give Black voters a majority in just a second of its nine Congressional districts, even though African Americans make up 40% of the state’s population. Is this democracy?

Scholar Michael Naragon summed up the trip’s purpose: “Now that you have learned something, you are obligated to do something with the history you have learned.”

The March continues. We must all dedicate ourselves to learning and teaching the true history of our country.

-Elena Barr Baum