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Traveling Down Freedom Road – part one

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by Max Courtney

Someone (or several someones) suggested that I write a blog detailing the St. Stephen Freedom Road field trip. Yes, I thought; that needs to be done so that others might share this adventure.

I was privileged to lead a class at St. Stephen during January and February entitled “Freedom Road: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Black America in the 1950s and 1960s.” After teaching many years in diverse venues (university, police academy, church) I can say without equivocation that this was the most fulfilling class I ever taught. Much of the credit for that goes to the participants whose enthusiasm for the subject was an arterial elixir for me. Much of it also goes to having taken the capstone field trip—Beth Fultz’s suggestion.

Our trip plan was to hit the high points in the civil rights movement, sorted not chronologically but by the lie of the map. Our itinerary: Little Rock, Memphis, Oxford, Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, McComb (MS), Philadelphia (MS), and the Mississippi Delta. It’s not the whole story, but a good synopsis in a reasonable layout.

Isn’t it just like a bunch (committee?) of Presbyterians to plan for all the bad things that might happen, but to totally neglect the possibility that really good things might occur? Serendipity ruled on this trip! In fact I said several times, It’s as though we were riding on the velvet-gloved hand of God.

We departed immediately after Thursday morning prayers—a good start. We were six in number—myself and five honor graduates from the Wednesday night class sessions (the classes with the free movies following the teaching). The others were Wendy Larmour, Laurie Sandefur, and Bill Warren from the church, my co-worker Vincent Hunter, and Jim Young, a gentleman who had found the class via our church web site.

The first destination was Central High School in Little Rock and the adjacent National Historic Site. The school is the only one ever designated “America’s Most Beautiful High School” by the National Association of Architects. It had not been so beautiful in 1957 when nine African American students attempted to enroll for classes. This followed the landmark Supreme Court decisions in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education Topeka Kansas—known informally as Brown I (1954) and Brown II (1955), which required the integration of American public schools “with all deliberate speed.” In a near replay of the smaller-scale desegregation crisis at Mansfield, TX, a year earlier, Governor Orval Faubus stood firmly against the admittance of the Little Rock Nine. Fortunately, President Dwight Eisenhower did not back away from the fight (as he had in Mansfield). Rather, he ultimately enforced the desegregation order with troops of the 101st Airborne Division. Serendipity 1: meeting the daughter of Minniejean Brown (one of the nine). Serendipity 2: not being involved in the serious crash of a lumber truck and a Suburban on a rain-slick highway.

Our next stop was Memphis, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in 1968 while there to support sanitation workers out on strike. Memphis is also the home of the National Civil Rights Museum.

We had planned the first stage of our trip around a subplot of having barbecue ribs for dinner at the famous Rendezvous restaurant. Of course, that would be followed by breakfast at Memphis’s oldest restaurant, the Arcade—either the Red Neck breakfast or sweet potato pancakes (or, I confess, both!). At the Arcade we were amazed anew that Bill knows something about everything, even tiny villages in Greece. The museum is built around the Lorraine Motel, Dr. King’s usual Memphis stopover but also the site of his murder. The museum has numerous exhibits detailing the civil rights movement and the King assassination. I can’t fail to mention the parking lot encounter, wherein Laurie gave up her treasured Arcade leftovers to a homeless man. Bring the blessing!

On to Mississippi’s red clay hills and Oxford—where in 1962 James Meredith’s admittance to Ole Miss begat a Klan-inspired riot wherein two innocent persons were killed. Aside from the historicity of the town, there is a beautiful courthouse and square. Another moment of serendipity came when Wendy found (and we all enjoyed) a museum that was displaying a temporary exhibit of highly regarded Gee’s Bend quilts.

Birmingham was once known as the most segregated city in America. Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor’s dealings with the African American population were harsh until his counter-protest responses in 1963 became truly brutal. This culminated in September with the Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four beautiful young girls-becoming-women who were celebrating Youth Sunday.  The church today is a gem—beautiful even by St. Stephen standards. Serendipity ruled again when Jonathan—the sexton—gave us a thorough guided tour of the church. The nearby Kelly Ingram Park has a walk that features items reminiscent of the 1963 demonstrations, including snarling police dogs, a fire department water cannon, and jailhouse bars.

Montgomery is the site of one of the first significant acts of resistance in the civil rights movement—the bus boycott. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white rider, the African Americans of Montgomery rose up in defiance and refused to ride the buses. The strike continued for a year before the transit company lost a court decision. The genie was now out of the bottle: black people had learned that they could stand up and say, “Let my people go!” We had a fabulous evening meal at Mr. G’s, a Greek-Italian restaurant. On Sunday morning we worshiped at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (Dr. King’s first pastorate), where both Jim and Vince looked dapper. There we had a double shot of serendipity: first, singing We Shall Overcome in that setting; then, hearing a sermon by Lutheran minister Robert Graetz, who had been on the Board of Directors of the Montgomery Improvement Association at the outset of the bus boycott.

Click to read Part Two