Monday, December 19, 2022

CIVIL RIGHTS SITES AND SECRETS # 5





            Today’s adventure first centers around Marion a small but important place in our civil rights history, but first we’ll take a little side trip on the way down. Your GPS will find the best way for you to leave Birmingham toward Marion, but eventually, it will put you on Route 5, a two-lane country road that winds its way through the pines.

We plan to stop at Coretta Scott King’s childhood home and the place where she and Dr. King were married. If you want to GPS it, the coordinates are 32.745697 -87.365767. (You may have already correctly guessed that this is out in the country.) As you are coming down Route 5, just after milepost marker 69, you will turn right on Highway 16. Continue for 3 ½ miles and turn right on Route 29 and in approximately 2.3 miles you will see Mt. Tabor AME Church on your left. Pull into the turning area on the left to park. You will see the childhood home in front of you, now owned by daughter Bernice. No one is living there at this time. The Kings were married on the front porch. You can also see Coretta’s father’s store. There is a bust memorializing Mrs. King at the church.

            This is the small community known as Heiburger. Mrs. King went into Marion to school and graduated from the Lincoln School. Lincoln School dates back to just after the Civil War. This was a school for former enslaved children created and run by nine former enslaved men. It became a Normal School, training teachers for the future. It ultimately, after 100 years found its way to be the roots of Alabama State University.

When you’re finished looking around, head back down Route 29 into Marion. Marion was established in 1817 and first named Muckle Ridge. The name was later changed to Marion in honor of a Revolutionary War hero, Francis Marion. (I think that was a smart idea. I mean, “Muckle Ridge”??) Anyway, it’s the county seat of Perry County with a beautiful antebellum courthouse. It’s population demographics of today are typical of what they have always been – almost 70% Black and just under 30% white. This is important to remember when we consider what happened in Marion in 1965 and what has happened there since then.

            After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (thanks to the Children’s March in Birmingham), public spaces began to be desegregated. The separate waiting rooms, rest rooms, and water fountains slowly became a thing of the past. All the Movement began focusing on voting rights. The emphasis in the Deep South was trying to get people registered to vote. That was a very difficult and challenging task.

The power to decide who could register to vote rested in the hands of the white registrars. Impossible questions were set up, such as “how many bubbles in a bar of Ivory soap,” or “how many jellybeans in a jar. There were more relevant questions which required the one trying to register to describe a portion of the state constitution. Of course, then the registrar had the authority to say if the person had explained that section well enough. There were also poll taxes and “grandfather clauses.” These stated that unless your grandfather had not voted, you could not vote, and, of course, we know the chances of their grandfather ever having voted.

Those difficulties were only part of the problem. The names of those who had tried to register were published in the newspaper. There would be consequences because of those attempts to get the right to vote. You might find yourself suddenly out of a job. Your mortgage at the white-owned bank might be recalled. The loan you took out for your car might be rescinded. When you shopped you might find your line of credit revoked. You might be harassed or beaten. Shots might be fired into your house. Or your family might find you, like Herbert Lee in Amite County, murdered.

It is hard for us today to imagine what it was like for Blacks, especially in the South, up through the 1960s. The people who worked so tirelessly for the right to vote absolutely put their lives on the line every single day. We cannot forget that, not only to honor their memory, but to make sure we don’t lose that right to vote. We must be diligent about the legislation that is happening and use our power of the vote to be sure harmful legislation is not passed.

Now, back to what was happening in Marion. SNCC and SCLC had sent their forces around the state and the intrepid trio of James Bevel, Diane Nash, and James Orange were working hard especially with young people, in Perry and Dallas County (where Selma is located.). By the way, James Bevel and Diane Nash had married in 1961 and had 2 children, but the marriage didn’t last. They were divorced in 1968. You should google Diane Nash as she is definitely one of the unsung heroes of the Movement.

Now I will tell you  an important, little known backstory that truly shaped the Movement. On this particular day in February 1965, James Orange was arrested. Instead of the usual charges, he was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. That was a much more serious charge, one that would send him to prison. He was incarcerated in the jail in Marion at 202 Pickens Street.

The rumor went around that the Klan was going to break into the jail, kidnap James Orange, and lynch him.

C.T. Vivian, one of the great preachers of the Movement, acted. He called for a special service at Zion Methodist Church at 301 Pickens Street, just a long block from the jail. After the service, the congregants were going to march to the jail and hold a candlelight vigil, pray and sing through the night to keep the Klan from getting to James Orange.

The sheriff learned of the plan and gathered every lawman possible, police, state police, sheriff’s deputies and any white male over 21 who had a gun and could be deputized. They were all there waiting on that February night.

When the worshippers filed out of the church, suddenly, the streetlamps went out making everything dark. Then the law enforcement rushed forward, beating the crowd with their night sticks or cattle prods. In terror, amidst screaming and begging, they rushed back to the church. Some ran to a little café, Mack’s Café, behind the church. A few state troopers followed them in, continuing to strike at them. One trooper, James Fowler, was beating 82-year-old Cager Lee as his daughter tried to intervene.

Finally, Lee’s grandson, Jimmy Lee Jackson jumped into the fray. Jimmy Lee Jackson was establishing himself in the community as a hard-working, upstanding young man He had already become a deacon in his church. Some writings say he had recently returned from serving in the Army, but that is probably misinformation. He had tried several times to register to vote, but had been unsuccessful.

As they struggled, Fowler drew his gun and shot Jimmy Lee Jackson point blank. While Jackson did not die immediately of his injuries, he did pass away later at the hospital

The aftermath of that night’s terror and Jackson’s death roused the anger of the good people of Perry and Dallas counties. The leaders of the Movement wondered if they could keep everyone reacting nonviolently. It was critical to the Movement that it stay nonviolent. They could see that the people felt they had to do something, anything. They came up with the idea to have a march where they would carry Jimmy Lee Jackson’s body in his coffin from Selma to Montgomery, lay it on the steps of the capitol, and say, “Look what you have done”.

That seemed to satisfy the people’s need to be doing something, not just to go on as if this pointless death had not occurred. But then the leaders got thinking that it wasn’t very respectful to the body or the family to take the coffin on what would be a several days’ march, probably in the rain.

Dr. King, James Bevel and others talked it over at great length. They knew the people had to take some action but carrying Jackson’s body to Montgomery wasn’t the best way. Finally, they came up with the idea to do the march from Selma to Montgomery but call it a Voting Rights March and let the Jackson family bury Jimmy Lee properly.

You won’t find this in most of the reports, but that idea really came from one of the behind-the-scenes unsung heroes of the Movement, one of the matrons of Selma who saw that the leaders were fed as they met in their homes.

So, that’s how we got the famous Voting Rights March of 1965. More about that later. By the way, it wasn’t until 2007 that James Fowler was ever held accountable for the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson when he was indicted on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter. It wasn’t until 2010 when he pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter, saying it was self-defense. He was sentenced to six months in jail, of which he finally served five months.

 

            A great reference in Marion is Della Maynor. While she is too young to have been a foot soldier, she grew up with the stories. She moved away from Marion for a while but has moved back and is one of its best resource persons. She can arrange for you to hear one or two of the foot soldiers, can arrange a tour of the church, and perhaps can even arrange a meal for you if you are a tour group coming through. Della’s contact information is 205-310-9428.

            Even if this is a quick stop on your tour, I suggest you stop at the Zion UMChurch at 301 Pickens Street. There are a number of historical markers there. Stop a moment and look around. Try to imagine that night in February and how terrifying it must have been. Remember what that generation went through to have the right to vote.

            Walk on to the jail at 202 Pickens Street and see the markers there. There has been a local group that had plans to restore the jail and turn it into a voting museum, but that plan seems to be on hold right now.

            If you want to have a meal while in Marion, I highly recommend Lottie’s Restaurant, just around the block from the jail. Lottie’s is at 207 Washington Street. It’s a family-owned business, run by Byron Turner, a relative of Albert Turner, Sr., a civil rights activist who was known as Dr. King’s point man. It was Albert Turner, Sr. who led the mule wagon that carried Dr. King’s body.

            It’s time to move on to Selma, but on the way you will pass Jimmy Lee Jackson’s grave on Route 14. If you’re in a bus or large van, you really can’t stop there.  If you’re in a car you might be able to pull into the small entryway if it hasn’t been raining but be careful. It is very easy to get stuck.

            The grave is in the old Heard Cemetery, The GPS Coordinates are: N32.658083, W87.273028. If you can, drive by it slowly. You can see which is the grave of Jimmy Lee Jackson, unless some vandals have destroyed it. An assumption on my part, but I think he was buried in the Heard Cemetery because he was with, and had a daughter by, his girlfriend, Addie Heard.)

 

            Next, we’ll head on to Selma for our next stop.

            If your timing shows that you might spend the night in Marion, we have found the Sleep Inn at 1605 Hwy 5, South in Marion – contact # 334-683-8600 to be satisfactory. 

Monday, December 12, 2022

CIVIL RIGHTS SITES AND SECRETS # 4


 Here’s what actual resulted from the Children’s March and the Birmingham protests.

Goals achieved: desegregate dept stores; hire Black clerks; release all demonstrators – establish a bi-racial committee within 2 weeks.

Actual results:

Fire chief  realized that all the hosing had flooded the basement of the 16th St. Baptist Church. He and his men went to the minister and said they would clean it up, which they did.

Gov Wallace pulled out State Troopers

Birmingham News editorial assured readers that none of the pledges were binding –

Klan rallies took place

Gaston Motel was bombed

Robert Kennedy asked James Baldwin to gather “influential Negroes” to brainstorm ways gov’t might improve racial sit,

Birmingham leaders & merchants changed their minds- hire 1 clerk altogether – then none

Medgar Evers shot & killed in Jackson, MS – June 12

Pres Kennedy proposed civil rights bill on Capitol Hill

Demonstrations considered a success for national movement – not so much for local movement –

SCLC became more financially secure which made possible to continue plans for March on Washington

May 20th – Bd. Of Ed expelled over 1,000 –students – NAACP filed suit in US District Ct, which upheld expulsion – then lawyers filed in 5th Circuit Court of Appeals,Atlanta, whose decision allowed kids to go back to school

Mayor/council form of government was finally installed which meant Bull Connor was out of his job as Commissioner of Public Safety.

July – Mayor Boutwell appointed Community Affairs Committee as the biracial committee. there were 153 whites and 28 Blacks

In October there was a push to hire Black police; the city had completely desegregated the hospital and all public buildings and had removed signs differentiating Black and white areas.

They created another biracial committee with 14 whites and 9 Blacks, but history showed that Blacks really had no voice

 

 

            Okay, time to get to specifics. Here’s what I suggest. Drive to the area of 16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. (They want to be called an Institute rather than a Museum because they have a large archives section and are set up for many educational activities).

You will be around the intersection of 16th Street and 6th Avenue. While there is metered parking along 16th Street, you might find some unmetered along 6th Avenue. There is some parking in the 16th Street church parking lot also.

Your first activity could be going through Kelly Ingram Park. This can be a self-guided tour and you can get an audio phone tour by dialing 205-307-5455. You may find that there are individuals who come up to you offering their services as a tour guide. I strongly suggest that you do not engage these people. For years, the park has been a hangout for what the locals call “panhandlers”, and they rarely offer more than you can get from reading the plaques as you walk

If you would like a guided tour, I recommend calling Paulette Roby. She was a foot soldier herself and now serves as Chair of the Civil Rights Activist Committee. She can be reached at 205-518-0321 or civilrightsactivist.fs63@yahoo.com. You can do the tour well with just the audio tour by yourself, but if you have questions or want a more personal tour, Paulette is a good person to have as a guide. Just be sure you let her know what time you are supposed to be at the church or Institute. I suggest asking her how much her honorarium might be, but I would suggest either $100 or $150. The Civil Rights Activist Committee is in the preocess of setting up a new pricing system so I would be hesitant about enlisting them without finding out exactly what would be charged.

You can arrange your schedule either way, but we always do the 16th Street Church tour next. That leaves a little more open-ending time for the Institute. To make your reservations (and you really should make them ahead) go online to the website for 16th Street Baptist Church and follow the prompts to book a tour. You will need to enter your credit card info at that time to pay. Of course, you can do this stop without the tour by just looking at the outside of the church and see where the bomb was placed, but they do a good job with the hour-long tour and being inside and seeing about the stained glass windows is well worth it. At this time, adults are $10 and students are $6.

 

Here is a little backstory. This is now sometimes mentioned during the church tour, but it didn’t used to be told. On September 15th when the church bombing occurred, there were also two boys murdered that day, Johnny Robinson, aged 16, and Virgil Ware, aged 13.

After the bombing at the church in the morning, protests errupted in many areas of Birmingham. Johnny Robinson was part of one when a Confederate-flag-draped car full of white teens drove by with the teens shouting racial slurs. The group of Black youth threw bricks at the car, and the police quickly arrived at the scene. The Black youth scattered and as Johnny Robinson ran down an alley, he was shot in the back by a policeman. No grand jury ever indicted the police and that murder case just faded away.

That same day, Virgil Ware was riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bike as they began their paper route. Two white Eagle Scouts, Larry Sims and Michael Farley, were returning from a Klan rally, when they came upon the two Ware brothers. Intending to scare them, Larry Sims fired a few shots at them, hitting Virgil in the chest, killing him. Sims was charged with second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to seven months in jail, however, a judge reduced the sentence. Sims only received two years probation for killing thirteen-year old Virgil Ware.

 

After you have had the tour of the 16th Street Baptist Church, simply cross the street to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. It is best if you go online and make your reservation ahead of time, but you will not have to pay until you are ready to enter. Presently, the fees are: 3 & under – free; youth - $13; college student with ID - $13; adult (18-64) -$15; Senior (64 and over) - $13. It is important to check out the rules of entry, especially the size of bags allowed. They are very strict about that. There are some lockers available to leave your larger bags in at the entry area, but it is better to leave them locked in your vehicle.

Guidelines for  the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Face coverings are optional
Social distancing is required
Visitors showing signs of illness will be asked to visit at a later date
 Advanced online timed ticketing is required and are non-refundable.
 Last admission ticket Tuesday through Friday is 4pm.  Last admission ticket on Saturday is 4pm.
 All bags must be smaller than 9 ½ inches x 8 ½ inches to be carried into the Institute.
Any item not meeting this requirement should be left at home or in the car.
 Medical bags and diaper/baby bags containing essentials will be allowed.
 Water fountains are not available for use.
 No food or drink is allowed in the Galleries.
Hand sanitizer stations are available for visitor use throughout the Institute.
No touching of exhibits or exhibit cases is permitted.

 

The starting video gives a good background of Birmingham, and then you are on your own to go through the displays. They show very well how systemic racism developed and was enforced. The “Black Codes” were set up to ensure that Blacks were held down as second-class citizens. Blacks could be arrested for things like sitting on the sidewalk before noon, touching a white person or looking them in the eyes. If a Black was unemployed and had less than $15 in his pocket, he could be arrested.

You will see pictures of people I have mentioned before, such as Diane Nash, the activist who came down from Fisk University. You can see a map of Birmingham which so visually shows how redlining kept Blacks living only in certain areas. It is shocking to see how 43% of the population was confined to 10% of the available land. There is a lot to take in at the museum. I suggest you take your time, try to absorb as much as possible, and spend the most time on the things that really speak to you.

I am always moved by the statues at the end. They are life-size figures of a diverse group from different walks of life, but all walking together for racial justice. As you walk through them, you are reminded that you, too, are to be walking that way.

 

When you’ve finished all that, it’s time for lunch! If you are a tour group or large family group, you have several options depending on your size.

We have rented the Shuttlesworth Room (also called Lecture Room) at the BCRI when we were a group of 25 or smaller. Contact Group Coordinator, Marshay Webb at 866-328-9696. At this time the rental fee is $250.

We ordered lunch from a Black-owned business – Chef Clayton. Everything was delivered on time and was a box lunch with a bottle of water, chips and a delicious sandwich, all for $12 at that time. Chef Clayton can be reached at chefclayton01@gmail.com or 205-223-3084. We have also ordered lunch from Roly Poly Sandwiches at 205-848-8401 or orderrolypoly.com and eaten in Kelly Ingram Park at the picnic tables. For larger groups we have rented the Fellowship Hall at Trinity United Methodist Church at 1400 Oxmoor Road because we are former members there. The contact person would be Peggy Gunnels at 205-879-1737 or pgunnels@trinitybirmingham.com.

The reason we get a room for our lunch is because this is the time we bring in foot soldiers to talk to us. There is something very powerful about hearing the stories first hand. We also are aware that because of their age, we may not always have this privilege At this time, we give each speaker an honorarium of $150, but if you should contact them it would be best to ask first.

Unfortunately, we have lost several of the foot soldiers we had speak to us, but here are some names for you: Joann Logan and her sister, Sarah Dawson. They have two very different perspectives and they also bring a lot of fascinating archival material. They can be reached through Joann at joannlogan11122@gmail.com or 205-919-5589.

Again, you might contact Paulette Roby at 205-518-0321 or civilrightsactivist.fs63@yahoo.com. If she can’t do it, she might have other contacts for you.

If you are a large group with an extremely generous budget, you might try to contact Carolyn McKinstry. Carolyn Maull McKinstry is a survivor of the Civil Rights struggle and an eyewitness to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. As a teenager, she marched under Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and bravely faced Bull Connor's German shepherds and stinging fire hoses during the battle for equal rights in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. However, she is a very sought-after speaker who has appeared on Oprah, NPR, etc. and lectured all over the world. I have no idea what her speaker’s fee might be now. You can read her book, While the World Watched, to get a good perspective.

After lunch and hearing the speakers, you can climb into your bus or cars and drive west on 6th Avenue, then turn left on 15th Street and left again on 5th Avenue (streets are one-way around here). On the left, note the A.G. Gaston Motel at 1519 5th Avenue, North. This was the headquarters whenever Dr. King was in town. It was bombed right after the negotiations in May 1963, but Dr. King was not there at that time and there was little damage done. The motel is being refurbished under the Historic Preservation Society at this time.

If you are interested, the Alabama Hall of Fame Jazz Museum is nearby at 1701 4th Ave, N. It has been undergoing renovation recently and may be reopened by the time you make a trip there. Their contact number is 205-327-9424.

Although there is not much to remind one of it, you might drive through 4th Avenue, which was considered the Wall Street of the Black community.

If you drive down 3rd Avenue, you will pass the majestic Alabama Theater at 1817 3rd Avenue, N. It is the extremely ornate theater whose organ rose up out of the floor which was THE place to go in the day – except, of course, Blacks were not allowed in that theater. They often went down the street to the Lyric at 1800 3rd Ave, N where at least they were allowed to sit in the balcony.

Another possible place to stop is a little outside the downtown area. We generally go west on 3rd Ave , but I suggest you just put it on your GPS. The address is 1137 2nd Ave, W. Rickwood Field is the oldest still actively used baseball park in the United States. It has lots of fascinating segregationist and baseball history. Willie Mayes grew up just down the street. The number is 205-999-4742. You might try ahead of time reaching Gerald Watkins at 205-922-3725 or glwatkinsjr@yahoo.com.

An interesting place to visit is Vulcan, the statue of the Roman god of fire and forge which overlooks Birmingham. This magnificent statue was crafted to represent Birmingham, the steel city, at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. It was designed by Giuseppe Moretti who created the clay forms that were then completed with the steel from a local steel mill. There is a nice, little museum and a park associated with the statue. It’s also a wonderful viewing spot to get an overlook view of Birmingham from the observation tower, especially at night.

You’ve had a full day, so I suggest you just go back to the hotel. A great place for dinner is the iconic Jim and Nick’s, especially if you like bar-b-que. Their address is 220 Oxmoor Road, Homewood 35209, and phone number is 205-942-3336. If you plan far enough ahead you can get the private room. There is no extra cost. (Love their cheese biscuits!)

In our next blog, you’ll head for Marion, Selma and on toward Montgomery.