|Oregon Legal Heritage|
By Mary Oberst & Elise Gautier
We share a personal interest in the history of the civil rights movement, and when we think of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, two places march into our thoughts: Montgomery, where one woman, Rosa Parks, refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white man; and Selma, where hundreds of people marched across a bridge to protest their inability to register to vote. Last December, we decided to go there; we wanted just to see the places we've read about so often.
Fifty years after the fact, Alabama seems to have embraced its civil rights history. The new Rosa Parks Museum occupies the corner in downtown Montgomery where Mrs. Parks was arrested for not giving up her bus seat. The museum is large, state-of-the-art and interactive. It tells the background story of segregated life in Montgomery, and the familiar story of Mrs. Parks's solemn and defiant act in 1955. Nearly 50 years later, not standing up on a city bus may seem like a simple act. It was not. It took enormous personal courage.
The museum also extols the courage and tenacity of the
people who made the year-long bus boycott a success - in all kinds of
weather, at all hours of the day and night, and despite arrests and
threats, the African-American citizens of Montgomery relied on one another
to avoid taking any bus anywhere. The effort was extraordinary and,
50 years later, is still powerful to contemplate. (The U.S. Supreme
Court ruled that segregation on buses was unconstitutional.)
The Montgomery bus boycott established Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the newpreacher in town, as the leader of the civil rights movement and nonviolence as the strategy to gain those rights. Dr. King's church in Montgomery stands in the shadow of the state capitol. We thought about that: the state legislators and the governor working daily to perpetuate segregation - just a block away from Dr. King's church, where the daily work was to liberate.
Fifty-four miles away, in Selma, the Chamber of Commerce is decorated with a beautiful poster of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the 'Bridge to the Future.' In fact, the bridge logo appears on signs all over town, on advertising banners and store-fronts. The Edmund Pettus Bridge is Selma.
The bridge was the site of the Voting Rights March on March 7, 1965, 'Bloody Sunday.' Five hundred and twenty-five marchers crossed the high arch of the bridge and met a phalanx of mounted state troopers, who beat them with billy clubs, set off tear gas bombs and chased them back across the bridge. The brutality was televised nationwide, and hundreds of people went to Selma to help. Two weeks later, the marchers, led by Dr. King and protected by federal troops, marched across the bridge and down the highway to Montgomery. By the time they reached the capitol, 25,000 people had joined the march. In August of that year, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The bridge is still there, still in use, and it is crossed every March in a commemoration of Bloody Sunday. A mural and a park at the far end of the bridge, where the clubs flew and the tear gas blew, memorialize the people - African-American and white - who died in that voting rights struggle.
The National Voting Rights Museum sits a block from the foot of the bridge, in a narrow, old commercial building. It's small and low-tech, it operates on a shoestring, and it left us weak. Inside, one wall, the 'I Was There' wall, is covered with notes from people who marched to Montgomery and subsequently visited the museum. In another room, the walls are covered with black-and-white photographs of Bloody Sunday. The photographer, a police surveillance man, captured the violent onslaught of the troopers and the horrific retreat of the nonviolent marchers almost second-by-second. (The police had intended to use the photos to identify and arrest the marchers. Years later, when the museum was about to open, the photographer contacted the museum, described his assignment at the time, and arranged to have the photos removed from police archives and delivered to the museum.) In the center of this room are three tables covered with plaster casts of footprints. When a person who marched visits the museum, the museum staff takes a plaster impression of his or her foot and writes a quick biography. As our museum guide - a marcher - explained, 'We marched for voting rights. We marched to vote. The movement was all about feet.'
Selma also offers a self-guided walking tour of the path that marchers took from their homes in the housing project to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The tour begins at the corner of Martin Luther King Street and Jeff Davis Avenue. Walking that street and crossing the bridge during our December visit renewed our appreciation of the history we have read. We realized that the high arch in the bridge prevented the last of the marchers from seeing what was happening to the marchers in the front. We sensed the terror that the marchers felt as the police chased them from the bridge all the way back to the projects at the other end of a hostile town. Most of all, we appreciated deeply the sheer physical courage of those marchers - to gain the right to vote.
But what about life in Montgomery and Selma in December 2001? Did the events of 1955 and 1965 ultimately resolve racial tension, provide all segments of the population with an opportunity to earn a family wage and improve their housing? No. There's still much to be done to fulfill Dr. King's dream of human dignity and racial harmony, and not just in Alabama. If that seems difficult, think for a moment about the courage and tenacity of the people in Selma and Montgomery.
The Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery: www.tsum.edu/ -museum.
The National Voting Rights Museum in Selma: www.voterights. org.
The King Center in Atlanta: www.thekingcenter.org.
The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta: www.nps.gov/malu/index.htm.
Rosa Parks by Douglas Brinkley.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson.
Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis (now a member of Congress from Georgia).
To Kill a Mockingbird (fiction) by Harper Lee. (If you prefer movies, the movie version, starring Gregory Peck, is also excellent.)
Praying for Sheetrock: A Work of Nonfiction by Melissa Fay Greene.
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 by Taylor Branch.
Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 by Taylor Branch.
Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 19541965 by Juan Williams.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mary Oberst is a publications lawyer in the OSB CLE Publications Department and serves as staff liaison for the OSB Civil Rights Section. Elise Gautier, an inactive OSB member, is a free-lance editor and publication designer. She is the editor of the Oregon Civil Rights Newsletter, published by the OSB Civil Rights Section.
© 2002 Mary Oberst/Elise Gautier