By Sandra McDonald | May 22, 2023
Putting it simply, no essay or amount of words could exemplify our trip. Some things in this world have to be seen and experienced to understand fully. Moreover, in my humble opinion, one can’t see the world through a false lens and think they’ve seen everything.
The Civil Rights Movement is sometimes beyond my generation’s comprehension. Our existence is separated from the movement by what seems like dozens of historic moments that still influence our world every day: the Cold War, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the most recent iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement, just to name three.
I enrolled in this journalism course – and with it the opportunity for a class trip across the South during spring break – to better understand the history of the Civil Rights Movement.
A year ago, my editor at the Independent Florida Alligator assigned me to cover a Juneteenth Day event at a park in Gainesville. I had only the vaguest idea of what Juneteenth even was. It was one of the first times I saw the Black community coming together to celebrate their heritage and their freedom. As someone who doesn’t readily identify with any particular ethnic heritage, experiencing this holiday was something of a culture shock. I felt awkward and out of place – as if taking up space that belonged to someone else.
Despite graduating from a predominantly Black high school, as an aspiring journalist I still have a lot to learn about Black matters and spaces and how to properly report on them. Civil rights remains one of the biggest stories to cover in our nation; as many of those who we met in the various cities we traveled to during spring break said, the fight is not won. There are many words to write about the quest for progress, and I want to be prepared to help.
The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, provides what may be the best snapshot of the experience of Black Americans in the U.S. Its tagline – from enslavement to mass incarceration – sends you first to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, or what is known as the Middle Passage. From selling slaves on Black Fridays to lynching to the South’s fierce defense of segregation to being on the other line of a phone during a simulated prison visitation session, there are many visceral moments to encounter. With all of this happening on the grounds of a former cotton warehouse that used Black slave labor, it’s as if you’re standing where history happened. You’re confronted with information lost in textbooks and see things you won’t forget.
Yet that was only the first morning of our weeklong trip. As we went on, day after day, I set out to stand and reflect in the same spots as that civil rights history happened, as least as captured in some of the era’s iconic photographs.
On a cold, windy morning in Selma, Alabama, I found the spot where future U.S. Rep. John Lewis was beaten during the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I was lost for words at the simplicity of the space when I walked across the bridge. It was not a heroic stand for civil rights as I had seen it before – it was horror personified. The brutality of the attack stunned me. I realized for the first time that these civil rights leaders were not born as the otherworldly figures of progress that we now know them as. I felt the pain of everyday people forced to become extraordinary in order to reject cruelty and enact change. For the first time, I truly mourned Lewis and those who fought with him. I hadn’t had a reason to do so before.
I also realized that I had always looked at these old photos, and the people in them, all wrong. I now saw them as they were – incredibly brave and selfless. Wish we could have spent more time there, but the trail was long and time short.
I have never seen grass as green as the Mississippi Delta has. Such lushness, I thought, should not belong to one of the poorest places in the country. Even so, the air had an inexplicable chill to it, and it wasn’t just the weather. We stopped at the Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, now a decrepit shell of wood and vine, but in 1955 it was where Emmett Till, 14, whistled at a white woman.
Till did not think his whistle, no matter the reason, would help to begin a massive national upheaval in civil rights and even journalism. After his disfigured body floated to the surface of the Tallahatchie River, his mother Mamie Till-Mobley decided enough was enough. By allowing his remains to be shown in JET magazine, she made sure the world would see that her son died of racial persecution caused by society as much as by his killers.
A photo included in “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation” – a book by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff which my class read in preparation of our trip – shows segregation-era Black reporters seated during a trial near the all-white jury that allowed Till’s murder to go unpunished. As a student journalist, I marveled at the camaraderie presented in “The Race Beat.” Reporters, independent of race, were said to have shared notes and traveled on those same Delta roads we did. These individuals did complicated and incredible work in a place where they, too, were forced to be exemplary and pursue change.
But change comes slowly. In Little Rock, Arkansas, I took the path of Elizabeth Eckford, the 14-year-old girl who walked through hell and back just in hopes getting to her new high school. A famous photo of shows Elizabeth walking through a mob of angry white students protesting desegregation on her way to the previously all-white Central High School. Turned away, she instead sat at a bus stop for half an hour to go back home. Why? Her family didn’t have a phone, and thus organizers for the girl and the other members of the Little Rock Nine forgot to tell her family that the momentous first day would happen the next one.
My high school textbooks taught about civil rights through old photographs in stale and somewhat sterilized chapters – yes, those that our state leaders wish to censor as we speak. I knew only the highlights of the Civil Rights Movement before our trip. I join those who worry that some of the history could soon be lost. It’s been 60 years since the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, which means most of the boys and girls involved then are between 70 and 80 years old now. In another 10 years, how many of them will remain with us?
So what are we left with? The Civil Rights Movement is the foundation of what progress we have made, and it cannot be lost. The sacrifices of those who lived it speak the same indelible words: Freedom is not free.
At the same time, knowing what I do now after our trip, those uncomplicated textbooks and photos will not suffice to keep the memory alive. Everyone should take the time to visit each city along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. What better way to appreciate our past and never forget.