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Book Showcases Little-Known US Civil Rights Landmarks - 2004-02-11

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The United States is dotted with memorials to wars fought on our soil, as well as landmarks from the Westward Migration, the Great Depression, and women's fight for voting rights. Much harder to find are remnants of the epic civil rights movement of the mid-20th Century. But Jim Carrier has uncovered a number of them. As the United States marks African-American History Month, VOA's Ted Landphair talked with this author of "A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement".

Journalist Jim Carrier went to work at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, after writing about hate crimes like the dragging death of a black man in Jasper, Texas in 1998. Montgomery, which during America's Civil War was the early capital of the slaveholding southern Confederacy, invented the civil rights movement.

Today, says Mr. Carrier, it seems to have disowned it. "Montgomery has the bookends of the movement. It had the 1955 bus boycott, and then 10 years later had what was really the climax of the civil rights movement in 1965, the voting rights march from Selma [Alabama] to Montgomery. I wandered around, looking for these sites, where Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Junior] preached, and Rosa Parks got on the bus. There weren't many signs. There was no museum, no brochure.

"The South is still dominated by the Confederate soldier. Fifty years after the Civil War, there were a thousand major memorials to the Civil War rebels and [what southerners call] the 'Lost Cause' erected throughout the Confederate states.

"By my count there are probably 100 rather modest memorials and signs to civil rights. These individual stories that I include in my book are as heroic as any in the American lexicon. And yet, you wouldn't know it if you were to drive through the South," he says.

The Southland, says Jim Carrier, doesn't quite know what to do with its memories of the civil rights struggle. "You have the white community that has, for a couple hundred years, supported a set of heroes who really end up on the wrong side of this. What do you do with that when the moral ground shifts? Fifty years may be almost too soon for them to embrace that. We find this right in Montgomery, where we're approaching the fiftieth anniversary of the bus boycott. You find members of the white community who say, 'Please don't use the word celebrate' because, to them, it involves some sort of joy or embrace of this history.

"I must say that shame isn't exclusive to the white community. There are people in the black community who don't want to talk about slavery, who purposely did not tell their children about the civil rights movement because they wanted to hand them more or less a blank slate of an integrated America. There's also, frankly, a bit of an internecine war going on over who owns this history. Some people are embittered and may die with the stories," he says.

In Washington, there's one place you can see a remnant of the civil rights movement, and that's at the Museum of American History, the Smithsonian museum, where there's the lunch counter from the [1960] sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina. "I actually think that Washington has done a poor job of talking about this history. A visitor can learn more about the Holocaust in Washington, DC, than he can the civil rights movement at the moment," says Mr. Carrier.

"You know, I take a very eclectic view of this, and a long view. For example, I would send visitors to the relatively new memorial to black Union soldiers because 200,000 black soldiers fought for the Union, and it's not a story that very many people would know. I would also send them to Antietam [battlefield in Maryland]. The victory at Antietam gave [President Abraham] Lincoln the backbone to issue the Emancipation Proclamation [declaring southern slaves free]."

When asked if he is creating demand for the sites with his book, Mr.; Carrier says "no, I met a demand that was there. You find in some of the most remote places - Money, Mississippi, where [a 14-year-old black boy,] Emmett Till was killed in 1955; and Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were killed in 1964, busloads find their way down these old roads to mark the spot. People are making pilgrimages to these spots from Africa. The [Martin Luther] King Center in Atlanta gets a million visitors a year."

Jim Carrier says the bus on which Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white man in 1955 rusted in a field outside Montgomery for 30 years. In 2001, the owner auctioned off the bus online. The Henry Ford Museum in Michigan bought it for $430,000, spent another $300,000 thousand fixing it up, and put it on display to large, appreciative crowds.

The mayor of Montgomery, realizing he had lost probably the most important icon of the movement, has now found two old, 1955 buses in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is converting them into a single bus so that tourists can get sort of a Rosa Parks moment.

Discussing his favorite sites, Mr. Carrier says, "there's an old tennis court. Grass is growing up in it, and a rusting old net, in Wilmington, North Carolina, where a private physician, an African-American, taught Wilma Rudolph to play tennis. And she broke the color line at the U.S. Open [tournament]."

I think the most haunted site is the old store where Emmett Till went in and said something to the white clerk in Money, Mississippi. These places really do have that sense of isolation and fear to this day.

Now I find it odd that we still isolate, somehow, black history from the rest of history. If you look at a number of states, say, South Carolina. South Carolina history would be a very thin volume if it weren't for the story of the African-Americans. I would like to see us integrate our history, because we are all in this together.

Jim Carrier is the author of A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement. It's published by Harcourt Books.

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