The highway to Helena . . .

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama . . . and the 1996 King Biscuit Blues Festival began for us some 1,000 miles to the southeast in central Florida. John and I embarked on our second annual Delta trip on Tuesday, October 8. The road took us to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, for what was to become a Civil Rights tour; into more remote and troubling parts of western Alabama; across the hills of northern Mississippi into Memphis; then finally down Highway 61 to the four-day festival in Helena, Arkansas.

This is Part 1 of 2. On these pages, I've got 57 jpeg images to share with you. They range in file size from about 14k to 40k. (Ain't is always true that the best ones are also the biggest.) I think most web browsers have a jpeg viewer built in, and this should work fine. If not, you'll need to configure a viewer to use with your browser. Try ACDSee for Windows 3.X and Windows 95. It's fast and versatile. Enjoy the pictures, but please do not distribute them without asking me first. You sure as hell cannot use them to make money. Thanks.

Revisiting Montgomery

So on Tuesday morning, we took the back roads up through western Florida to Tallahassee, then crossed into Alabama via US 231 near Marianna, traveling through Dothan, Ozark, and Troy before falling out for the night at the good enough Econo Lodge in Montgomery. We ordered out for some Chinese, surfed 74 channels of cable and, thumbing through the local visitors guide, noted some sites to search out in the morning.

Our first stop was the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, just a short walk from the state capitol. It was here from 1954 to 1960 that The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., served his first ministry, and on December 2, 1955 -- the day after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man -- where meetings took place to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It began three days later and lasted for 11 months, ending only when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling that the bus segregation ordinance was unconstitutional. At the height of the boycott, more than 40,000 of Montgomery's black citizenry were refusing to ride the city buses, making it the first major event of the Civil Rights Movement. The church was also the scene of a Klan bombing in January 1956. No one was injured. Here's the sanctuary, which was renovated in 1979.

Just a block south of the church at the Southern Poverty Law Center, we visited the stunning black granite Civil Rights Memorial. Designed by Maya Lin -- the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- the memorial was dedicated here in 1989. The round, granite table in the foreground is engraved with the names of 40 men, women, and children who were killed during the Civil Rights era, along with the dates and the shocking circumstances of their deaths. The engraved words . . . until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream come from Amos 5:24 as well as Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech at the March on Washington in August 1963. We were surprised and saddened to see an armed guard at the memorial, as well as signs of security precautions being taken at the law center, which takes on a variety of racially related matters. Donations for the maintenance and security of the memorial can be mailed to The Civil Rights Memorial, c/o The Southern Poverty Law Center, P.O. Box 548, Montgomery, AL 36101-0548.

We were also interested to learn that Montgomery's Oakwood Cemetery is the final resting place of country music legend Hank Williams, who brought us Your Cheatin' Heart; Cold, Cold Heart; Jambalaya; Hey, Good Lookin'; and Lovesick Blues among many others. So after driving past all the headstones with those fine Southern names like Beauregard, Cody, and Perdue, we came up on the majestic Hank Williams Memorial, which he shares with his wife. He was just 29 when he died of all sorts of excesses on New Year's Day 1953.

We headed west via US 80 toward Selma, a 50-mile drive, listening to the "Back In The Day Blues Brunch" on a Montgomery radio station. We figured on staying the course to the Mississippi state line, then heading north on US 45. We wanted to make Bill's house in Starkville by sunset. We didn't.

Considering Selma

We took our time driving through the rolling farmlands between Montgomery and Selma. We knew that some 30 years earlier, Martin Luther King had lead a march along this highway in the opposite direction, so we were vigilant for some sign of the event, which ultimately only our imaginations would provide.

Selma, Alabama is your classic sleepy Southern town. Driving over the Alabama River onto Broad Street is like driving into the 1940's. We parked right away, scratched our heads a little, then walked over to Washington Street for some burgers and fries at Johnnie's Cafe. After settling up, we walked Broad Street back toward the bridge until we came up on the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute on Water Avenue. Once inside, we were met by Sam Walker, the institute's likeable and enthusiastic coordinator, who told us more about the Selma-to-Montgomery march and the Civil Rights era in the next hour than I'd bothered to learn in a lifetime.

Though the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had given blacks the right to vote nearly 100 years earlier, in many Southern locales, voting officials simply barred blacks from doing so. Tensions began to build in Dallas County as early as January 1963, when the first of several voter registration drives were organized. Two years later, Dr. King came to Selma to lead marches to the county courthouse, where the county's voters were registered, but also where blacks were turned away.

On Friday, February 26, 1965, young Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed by state troopers at a voting rights demonstration in neighboring Marion, Alabama. So incensed was the community that plans were made to carry his casket all the way to Montgomery and lay it at the steps of the state capitol. Enter Dr. King, who encouraged a less inciteful and more purposeful response.

The first Selma-to-Montgomery march was attempted on Sunday morning, March 7 -- nine days after the killing. When they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the 600 marchers were dispersed by state troopers with tear gas and billy clubs. A second attempt, led by Dr. King, was made two days later. The marchers were confronted again, and they turned back without incident. Two days after that, Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston who had joined the marchers, was attacked and beaten to death by several white men as he walked down a side street. No one was ever convicted of the crime.

Finally, on Sunday, March 21, with a Federal court order in hand and their route lined with National Guard troops, Dr. King led 4,000 marchers across the bridge and on to US 80 and Montgomery. It took them four days to travel the 50 miles. With the exception of a select few who walked the entire route, the marchers were required to walk in shifts of small groups while the remaining protesters rode in buses.

Before it was over, the marchers' ranks would swell to 20,000. Among them was a housewife and mother from suburban Detroit -- Mrs. Viola Gregg Liuzzo -- who had driven down by herself after seeing reports of the march on television. As she drove back to Selma with a young black marcher on the night of March 25, a car pulled alongside hers, someone opened fire, and she was killed. Her car rolled over and her passenger was forced to play dead to avoid being killed himself. Again, no one was ever convicted of the murder.

On August 6, 1965, five months after the first attempted march, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, which eliminated local obstacles and provided for Federal supervision of voter registrations. By year's end, more than 250,000 new black voters were registered. Donations to the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute are gratefully received at 1012 Water Ave., P.O. Box 2516, Selma, AL 36702-2516.

Searching For Churches

It was getting late, but we had one more mission in mind. By the summer of 1996, it had become clear that black churches in the South were being set on fire. At least a half-dozen of these arsons occurred in western Alabama. Two of them -- Mount Zion and Little Zion in Greene County -- were burned to the ground in the early morning hours of January 11, 1996. Rebuilding was soon underway, however, thanks to the efforts of the Washington Quaker Workcamps organization, and we wanted to see the results.

Western Alabama between US 80 and I-20/59 is remote. We drove the bad back roads, searching in vain for the churches until we no longer could. It was getting dark, and we had another 100 miles to cover. So to our regret, and wishing the congregations our best, we turned north toward Starkville, Mississippi. Donations to Washington Quaker Workcamps can be sent to 1225 Geranium St., NW, Washington DC 20012.

For Part 2, click here.

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