STAYED ON FREEDOM: Reflections on Selma


Back home, Gil in Asbury Park, NJ, and me in Helena, MT. Our time in Selma and Birmingham was very full in all ways –all that we saw and felt; so many people that we got to know; the rich stories that we were privileged to hear. There is so much to tell that I don’t want to attempt it in my first writing. Here are some moments from our trip with more journal entries to come. We'll start with Selma.

Selma, Thursday Afternoon, June 10, 2010

Gil, Tonya and I drove the back road to Selma, talking all the way. Gil shared a story of a time he visited his grandfather in Greensboro, NC, and some fellow college students asked him to go out with them. His grandfather, born at the end of slavery, wouldn’t let him go because of the dangers for a young black man driving about with two white women. Later at dinner when Tonya was going on about her love of the southern accent, Gil told her that we had to be careful not to speak too loudly in case other diners thought we were making fun. As we asked him questions, he said that he was very aware that 50 years ago, he wouldn’t have been able to eat at that restaurant. I was reminded that breaking bread together, black and white, is no small act. Only fifty years ago, our dinner would not have been legal.

Returning to our accents, I made sure that the young man serving our table knew that we were appreciating his accent and not laughing at him. He was good-natured. Gil shook his head at us. Later the waiter came back and asked in his musical southern drawl, “What do you mean by my accent?” He didn’t think he sounded any different, but he did say that we should hear his cousin.

It had cooled down some by the time we finished dinner, down to 90. We got back in our car as the crickets serenaded in the night.

Selma, Friday Morning, June 11, 2010

Our production assistant, Teddy, met at us at the hotel at 8:00 am and got a good idea of what he would be dealing with. He seemed to be made of the stuff that could withstand our humor and possibly even enjoy our rapport. The four of us met for an hour talking about where Selma fit into the history of the civil rights movement, outlining an abbreviated timeline of what happened when. Bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955-56; Freedom Rides in 1961; desegregation campaign in Birmingham, March on Washington, and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 (100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation); and the three Selma marches for Voting Rights –Bloody Sunday, Turnaround Tuesday, and the final march to Montgomery—in 1965.

Two hours later we met Joyce O’Neil and Dorothea Huggins at Browns Chapel A.M.E. Church, the rallying site before each march in Selma. They had been present on Turnaround Tuesday just as Gil had been. This was the name given to the march on the Tuesday after Bloody Sunday, the first march when state troopers and the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, some mounted on horseback, attacked the peaceful demonstration. Images of the law officers’ brutal attacks with billy clubs, tear gas, rubber tubes wrapped in barbed wire, and bull whips were televised nationally.

Just two days later, people all over the country and the world had organized to answer Dr. King’s call for clergy and others to gather in Selma for a second march. Gil was in this group as well as Joyce and Mrs. Huggins.

As we entered the chapel I watched Gil’s face as I listened to the women talking about how they couldn’t believe the huge response of people who came to Selma that day. Tears welled up in my elder brother’s eyes. This was his first time back since that day, 45 years ago. Joyce said, “Don’t start or I will too.” My chest was heavy, my body quiet, unbelieving that I was sharing this profound moment. It is not trite to say that if those walls could talk, they would have many stories to tell. The stories hung in the air much like the humidity hung outside, thick and palpable.

I couldn’t hear the music of the 600 gathered on Turnaround Tuesday, packing the pews, aisles, balcony, pulpit area, and choir loft, “We shall overcome,” “I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom,” “This little light of mine.” I couldn’t hear them, but I could sense the emotion of the crowd even as I took in the empty, quiet sanctuary, the stained glass window depicting Jesus’ presence, and the familiar old-building smell.

Soon a group of teachers from Mississippi arrived to hear Gil speak. They were in a tour group that was visiting various sites of the civil rights movement. I believe that they’d already been to Montgomery. Mrs. Huggin’s husband, Lawrence Huggins, was one of the leaders of the tour. When he heard that Gil would be at Browns Chapel that morning, he arranged for the group to meet him. So here we were to see Browns Chapel, and Gil was called upon to share his story. The three locals’ appreciation for Gil’s visit moved me. Here they had also been in the marches, and the Huggins had participated in an earlier one called the Teachers March* on January 22, 1965; but they still expressed thanks, after all these years, that Gil would have come from Boston to Selma to be with them. I’d never thought to make that distinction. I saw all these people working together. Right then, I got a picture of the Selma folks, the survivors oft Bloody Sunday; and how Gil and the others who arrived two days later were reinforcements as well as validation. “Yes, the rest of the world is paying attention.” Their cries of pain and shouts for justice were being heard and responded to.

There were about 25 Mississippi educators scattered among the center section of pews. Gil, donned with a tie with the words of the Emancipation Proclamation on it, talked about that Tuesday, March 9, 1965, the rally and march. He told of how the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge turned out to be largely ceremonial, that Dr. King had agreed ahead of time with the police to have the march stop on the bridge and then turn back after Dr. King and other leaders at the front of the march knelt in prayer. (Gil told me later that he could hear their prayers as a mumble back where he was in the crowd.) It would be 9 days later that the march would be completed to Montgomery. Gil would join the marchers for the final two days.

Then Gil told of his friend, white Unitarian pastor Jim Reeb, who he got to know on the flight from Boston. After the Turnaround Tuesday march, Jim went to a diner with three white friends. After eating, they came out of the diner and turned the wrong way. Instead of back towards Browns Chapel, they turned towards a bar known as a segregationists’ hang-out. Some of those segregationists jumped the group, calling them “nigger lovers,” striking Jim with a bat, inflicting traumatic head injuries. He died two days later in a Birmingham hospital.

We stayed a bit longer after the tour group left Browns Chapel. I heard more about the Teachers March. The students had tremendous respect for their teachers (Mrs. Huggins had been Joyce’s physical education teacher, Mr. Huggins was Coach Huggins). I asked Mrs. Huggins if she had thought back then that things would change; she gave a resounding yes. She also laughed that the white people didn’t know that the best seats in the movie house were in the balcony. She also said that she and her friends would sometimes drink out of the white water fountain to see if “the white water tasted better.” The four civil rights veterans shared stories about being prepared before each demonstration in case they went to jail, carrying a toothbrush and any medications they would need. Eventually we went back out in the sun.

There was a marble memorial, the writing a proofreaders nightmare. Where it should have been chiseled, “I have a dream,” it read, “I had a dream.” Huggins said that it was a mistake and pointed out that the mortuary association had erected the memorial, and that “they are used to thinking in the past tense.” He always makes sure the children across the street in the projects know what it is supposed to read. “I don’t want them thinking the dream is over.”

Selma, Friday Afternoon, June 11, 2010

After a major lunch of soul food (including my very favorite kind of baked macaroni and cheese!), sweet tea, and sweet potato pie at Essie’s Café, we drove to the site where the Rev. Jim Reeb was beaten. We stood in the intense heat and humidity by the marker commemorating his death, a bronze carving of his face stood out from the marker, which was searing hot to the touch. I was surprised at how young he was. Gil reminded me that he, Gil, had been only 31 at the time. I couldn’t help but place my palm on the ground to feel the sidewalk and somehow honor Reeb’s life and death with my remembering. Again, my chest was heavy.

After Tonya and Teddy finished filming us at the marker, they shifted the camera to the brick building that stood where the diner had been, Gil walked down to a group sitting outside a barbershop. Soon he came back with a smile on his face. He said that he had not expected the group of mostly young people to thank him for coming to Selma back then, for fighting for their rights. I could see that he was pleasantly surprised. We had him recount the story on camera. (Again, picture us standing in intense heat and humidity, sweat literally and liberally rolling down our skin, clothes clinging.) Camera rolling, an older white man walked up and stood by us listening to Gil talk. When we finished, he introduced himself and told us stories about his experience at the time of the voting rights movement, how we was coerced by his boss into joining the White Citizens Council. He was sent to register to vote and then vote by his employer, “This is what your job will be today, to go down and vote.” His boss had worked a deal to have his workers go register and vote, clearly to stack the vote. We heard how he had found old newspapers in his attic. As he looked through them, he found all the papers from the significant days of the marches and surrounding time. We later saw the collection at the Voters Rights Museum, which we visited next.

Our last filming of the day was at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a very busy thoroughfare across the Alabama River. Gil and I walked a little ways onto it, but it was soon apparent that it was an unsteady place to be with all the traffic. We got some quick pictures of Gil walking off the bridge. By then, it was time to head back to Birmingham and check into the hotel. We loaded up on cold drinks (lots-o-cold drinks) and made our way back with the AC on full blast. We would arrive to find that our clothes in our suitcases were all damp from the humidity. We too were soaked from our experience of Selma, christened with the waters of a heartbreaking yet fierce turning point in history.

*Hear Lawrence Huggins talk about the Teachers March:

Another video link on the Teachers March:

The National Voting Rights Museum:

From Gil Birmingham, Sunday Morning, June 13, 2010 Friends, my Truth in Progress colleague, Marilyn and I have been in Selma and are now in Birmingham, interviewing people, and filming and taking pictures as we explore the differences and similarities of The Civil Rights Movement and the LGBT human rights movement. If you have not become a friend and supporter of Truth in Progress, I invite you to do so.

On Friday, we were in Selma. As I visited Brown Chapel AME Church where the Selma to Montgomery March began, the Selma Voting Rights Museum, stood again on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and visited the monument honoring Rev. James Reeb, the white Unitarian Minister from Boston who was beaten and later died, I was overcome with emotion evoked by the the 45 year old memories. Jim Reeb and I were getting to know each other in Boston and we were on the same plane that flew south. As I entered Brown Chapel AME Church, I could almost see, and hear and feel the presence of the Civil Rights leaders and persons from all over the nation who were present on what has become "Turn Around Tuesday". It is called this because as many of you know, we were invited by Martin Luther King to come to Selma following "Bloody Sunday". After gathering in Brown Chapel Church, we marched to the bridge, and Dr. KIng and other leaders knelt down in prayer and then we returned to the Church. An agreement between the leaders & government had been reached that the March would not begin that day, but later when issues of protection had been worked out. Many were disappointed. Vincent Harding captures that disappointment in his book; Martin Luther King; the Inconvenient Hero. Last night, Saturday, we participated in Birmingham's Gay Pride Parade. It is held at night because of the oppressive heat and humidity of summer Birmingham. When the Parade was initiated years ago, it was almost impossible for persons with HIV/Aids to march under the blazing sun because of their illness and the medications they were taking, thus logically, a parade at night. Because of my walking disability, the Birmingham PFLAG chapter made arrangements for me to ride in a car driven by a member of the Episcopal Church-related Integrity. One of the prominent posters was an enlarged picture of Bishop Gene Robinson that was on the cover of The Advocate Magazine. Marilyn, free spirit that she is, walked and then hitched a ride with a motorcycle group that rode in the parade. A coming attraction will be pictures of Marilyn and Gil in the Birmingham Gay Pride Parade on our web site. An observation: I was amazed at the number of African American LGBT persons and same sex couples who lined the parade route and participated in the parade!

Earlier, we met with members of Birmingham's PFLAG chapter for lunch. What a wonderful, marvelous and enthusiastic group of persons. They were responsible for my securing my transportation for the parade.

I was less-than-enthusiastic about Truth in Progress coming to Alabama; it was Marilyn's vision and now I am pleased she persisted. Returning to my native south that I left because a certain school, its acronym DDS, would not admit me because of my race in 1954, has caused some psychological and justice commitment differences between my geographical roots and me. But at the age of 76, a return to my roots has made possible, restoration and reconciliation.

Truth in Progress had made be believe more than ever the words of Martin Luther KIng: "INJUSTICE ANYWHERE, IS A THREAT TO JUSTICE EVERYWHERE". When we consider the injustices of war, imbalances in economics and education, joblessness, and the abuse of the environment (BP), etc., the foolishness of denying persons their human rights because they are LGBT, or because of their race or gender or sexual orientation, is nonsensical, irrational, anti-American and spiritually demeaning.