Civil Rights – Bodies on the Line

The south is the epicenter for incredible violence when it comes to civil rights. Starting with slavery, moving through the Civil War, convict labor, lynchings and the Klan, then retaliation to civil and voting rights protesters, reprisal bombings, mass incarceration, and today’s easy access to guns. That’s not to say it is the only violent place in the US. But the history of people putting their bodies on the line for freedom, to stop freedom, to be treated equally and to subjugate them, is omnipresent in the south.

In my Civil Rights tour I decided not to visit places of assassination (Lorraine Motel, Emmett Till bridge, Medgar Evers home, or the 16th Street Baptist Church), but I saw many commemorations to violence and death everywhere. In this post I highlight the Freedom Rides in AL and MS and Selma’s Bloody Sunday. For context, you first have to understand the place of slavery and civil war in Alabama.

Montgomery was the birthplace of the Confederacy – created in the old state capitol, home to its first constitution, white house, and orders to fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina which officially started the Civil War.

It was the capitol of the domestic slave trade meaning it was a transit station for slaves coming in, being sold, and being shipped out. Alabama had nearly half a million enslaved people by the start of the Civil War. The slave auction block, train and river depots, and capitol status demonstrate how the city’s history is entwined with the violence that was enslavement. Likewise, the Civil War is commemorated throughout the city. The city demonstrates the systemic entrenchment of white supremacy and racism in its heritage, its laws, and its landmarks.

Freedom Rides and Mississippi Incarceration

The Governor of Alabama in 1961, John Patterson, spoke about the Freedom Riders as agitators who came to southern cities to stir up the local folk by race mixing. I guess he conveniently forgot the mobs who met the buses and beat the riders. Keep in mind that at that time, AL and MS legally enforced segregation and Jim Crow laws. People had to put their bodies on the line for each and every freedom and equality.

John Lewis, a civil rights icon who is now a Representative from Georgia, was just a young man in 1961 when he actively opposed segregation at lunch counters while he was a student at American Baptist College in Nashville (HBCU). Lewis joined the second Freedom Ride out of Nashville, after the violent Anniston, AL bus bombing and Birmingham beating of riders. He traveled with other black and white, male and female riders and rode to Montgomery and then Jackson, MS.

In Montgomery the riders, including Lewis, were viciously attacked and beaten for 30 minutes by white mobs, including the Klan, before police arrived. Undeterred, they kept riding to Jackson, this time under protection from U.S. Marshalls.

Upon arrival in Jackson, MS, Lewis and 300 others over the summer were arrested for breach of peace, because they did not honor segregation rules at the bus station. Their slogan was “jail, no bail” and when the local jail filled, he and others, including women, were sent to the most notorious penitentiary in Mississippi – the Parchman State Prison Farm, to serve their 40 day misdemeanor sentences. There, they were treated to the full complement of dehumanizing brute force that law enforcement could conjure. Women were subjected to vaginal inspection. Men were forced to walk naked down hallways in the prison on the way to their cells. Conditions in the prison cells were horrendous. Parchman had long been nicknamed, Destination Doom. Their stories can be found here.

The violence that befell the Freedom Riders was over their demands to desegregate interstate bus stations – in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Jackson. In fact, dozens of stations across the south were targeted and arrests and violence occurred in many of those places. People were willing to put their bodies on the line so that black people would be treated equally.

Panel at the Freedom Rides Museum, operated by the Alabama Historical Commission, Montgomery, AL

In December 1961 the Interstate Commerce Commission finally issued regulations with fines, prohibiting segregation in interstate bus stations and on the buses as they traveled.

Selma Bloody Sunday

In 1965 the civil rights movement targeted voting rights for black citizens who were routinely denied voter registration in southern states. This denial was particularly glaring in Alabama, where in many places the black population outnumbered the white population, but blacks were not treated equally. Less than 1% of blacks in the Selma area were registered to vote, despite attempts over the years to register people. Civil rights groups, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headed by Martin Luther King, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) led by John Lewis, along with local voting rights groups organized a march from Selma to Montgomery in order to actively demonstrate the denial of voting rights.

The lead up to the march included a violent response to black teachers that marched to the Selma courthouse demanding to register to vote and were denied. It included a nighttime police response to a voter rally in a nearby town that resulted in the death of unarmed Jimmie Lee Jackson. It included rejections by the police of peaceful marchers led by Martin Luther King to the Selma courthouse to register to vote.

On Bloody Sunday, Hosea Williams and John Lewis led the marchers on their initial attempt to travel by foot from Selma to Montgomery, roughly 50 miles. The nation watched as those two men crumpled when police with dogs and state trooper forces were unleashed on them. Marchers were beat back across the Edmund Pettus bridge. Less well known is that marchers retreated back to the Brown Chapel A.M.E. church where they had started. They were chased down by law enforcement on horses who used teargas and who beat the marchers with clubs, stanchions, and rubber hoses.

It took two weeks to get a federal court order and logistics organized for the march to occur unimpeded. In the interim, a minister who had participated in Dr. King’s Tuesday Ministers March and prayer vigil was beaten to death in Selma.

In Lowndes County, AL

The march left Selma on Sunday, March 21 and took 4 nights, walking down US 80 past rural cotton farms and pine woods before it arrived in Montgomery. The Klan killed a white woman who was transporting black marchers through Lowndes County during the march.

Over 25,000 people joined the marchers when they arrived at the steps of the old capitol in Montgomery, across the street from Dr. King’s church – Dexter Avenue Baptist. They stood in solidarity and heard Dr. King speak, “How Long, Not Long” as he talked about ending voting prohibitions targeted to black citizens.

Street Panel on Dexter Avenue at the Old State Capitol.
Montgomery, AL
In front of the Dexter Avenue Baptist church

It’s important to note that the 15th amendment to the US constitution, ratified in 1869, specifically states, “The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In addition, the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote, was enacted in 1920. There was no legal reason or right for any southern state or county in 1965 to deny black citizens the opportunity to register or to inhibit their voting.

People died. They were beaten, violently incarcerated, and put their bodies on the line by marching, dissenting, and calling out inequities in southern states where opposition to their rights was dramatic and sustained. Equality does not come easily and does not come automatically with Congressional action or legal court orders.

Equality and justice requires people to stand for their rights, by whatever means necessary, and with dedication to the larger principle of “all men are created equal.”

2019 view of the old state capitol from the slave auction site
Montgomery, AL

Freedom Rides Museum is located in the historic Greyhound Bus Station, Montgomery, AL Admission is $5

Old State Capitol building is open to visitors for free. Historic chamber where the Confederate Constitution is available for viewing as are other historic elements of Alabama state political history. Downtown Montgomery.

Confederate White House is located across the street from the Capitol building. Admission is free. This was the First CSA White House for a few months, after which the capitol of the Confederacy was moved to Richmond, VA.

Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Two interpretive sites are operated by the National Parks Service. Admission is free. One is in Selma on the western foot of the Pettus bridge and the other is in Lowndes county. The exhibits are similar but different and both are worth touring. Also on the trail are markers of each of the four overnight spots that marchers used.

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is in Jackson. This is a large, interactive museum of rich history from the earliest slave era through the Civil Rights era. Admission is $8.

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church is a working church, but gives tours during the week. It is located in downtown Montgomery across the street from the Old Capitol building.

For information on many civil rights sites in the south, visit the Civil Rights Trail , the Alabama Civil Rights Trail, a driving tour of Civil Rights sites, and the National Parks Service Civil Rights sites page . The NPS actually has the most informative and well researched brochures, but they are only available in person at the sites. They are worth the visit!

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