King of the road: on the Civil Rights Trail through America’s south

Next year marks 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and also the launch of a new Civil Rights Trail through the USA‘s south. On a road trip from King’s birthplace in Atlanta to the site of his assassination in Memphis, Ella Buchan discovers how his legacy applies today.

Wanda Battle wastes no time on formalities. She squeezes my hand, closes her eyes and tilts her face upwards, haloed by the dim yellow lights. Then she erupts into song, her rendition of This Little Light of Mine swelling and expanding, threatening to shatter the walls.

Now, with an increasingly vocal far right, many fear progress is unravelling

We’re in the basement of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where Wanda is tour director. Martin Luther King Jr was pastor here until the bus boycott thrust him to Civil Rights leadership. Later, he led protestors to the town on the 54-mile march from Selma.

It’s my second stop on a road trip through America’s south, visiting people and places associated with King and the movement. My journey comes just before the launch of the US Civil Rights Trail (by Travel South USA) in January 2018.

Starting in Atlanta, where the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site includes his childhood home and burial place, my route traces a period where hope clashed with hatred and determination met with fear (and vice-versa).

Now, with an increasingly vocal far right, many fear progress is unravelling.

“[Racism] never died,” Dan Moore, founder of Atlanta’s APEX (African-American Panoramic Experience) Museum, had told me earlier. “Now it feels like it has been brought out into the open again.”

Today we need another Dr King – go back and listen to his sermons and speeches and every word will be relevant right now

In Montgomery, Wanda pours out one last, syrupy note before blinking back into the room. Aged 11 when King was shot, she feels his messages are more pertinent now than ever.

“Every one of us should be letting our light shine,” she tells me, tightening her grip.

“Today we need another Dr King. Go back and listen to his sermons and speeches and every word will be relevant right now.”

The weather is balmy but there’s a scent of autumn in the air. Trees are edged in pink and gold as I drive on to Birmingham, around 100 miles north.

At popular locals’ restaurant Niki’s West, Emma Bonner picks at a plate piled with collard greens and cornbread. She is recalling inky, fear-ridden nights spent lying on soiled hay, which scratched her cheeks and assaulted her nostrils.

The barn was an overflow for jails already filled with schoolchildren like Emma, arrested for participating in the Children’s Crusade of May 1963.

I know what hatred looks like. But I won’t hate

More than 1000 students had marched against segregation laws, armed only with placards and quiet determination. They were met by attack dogs and fire hoses with enough force to strip bark from tree trunks and rip hair from heads.

“I know what hatred looks like. But I won’t hate,” says Emma.

As she speaks, her right hand instinctively flies to the back of her neck. The hoses caused arthritis – a throbbing echo of the spitting, snarling hatred she experienced.

“I never want to see my kids or grandkids go through what I went through,” she adds. “But prejudice is still out there. I don’t know what generation it will be when that ends.”

This is not a story about black versus white... This is a story about man’s capacity for cruelty towards other men

“If we live long enough, we see it’s true that history repeats itself,” tour guide Barry McNealy, Emma’s nephew, tells me later.

We’re standing in a tiny kitchen in the 16th Street Baptist Church. With beige walls, formica worktops and a lone kettle, it’s an unremarkable room.

Until Barry tells the story of September 15, 1963, when four children – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair – were killed on this spot as they changed into choir robes.

The explosives, planted by white supremacists, tore their limbs apart and fused their bodies together.

The clock stopped. It still hangs on the wall, frozen at 10.22.

“This is not a story about black versus white,” says Barry, as we head across the street to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. “This is a story about man’s capacity for cruelty towards other men.”

There’s no flinching from uncomfortable moments. And there are many

I leave Alabama for the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, passing soupy swampland, cotton fields and trees soaring from glassy lakes.

Housed in the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the museum sweeps from slavery and the Jim Crow segregation laws to the Civil Rights Movement and its legacy. The subject matter is never straightforward, never simple, and never comfortable. Nor should it be.

Edging past a window onto room 306 – where King stayed – everyone is silent, solemn. Behind me, a woman muffles a sob.

My final stop is the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, around 200 miles south.

Due to open in December 2017, it’s the first state-owned museum dedicated to civil rights and it very deliberately shares its entrance with the Museum of Mississippi History.

“We all walk in together, and we all see our history together,” explains marketing director Stephenie Morrissey on a tour of the museums.

The music swells and the sculpture brightens as more people gather in the space

There’s no flinching from uncomfortable moments. And there are many, from the wall of Freedom Riders’ mugshots to the singed station wagon door belonging to Vernon Dahmer, a Civil Rights leader murdered by the Klan.

Towering monoliths, listing the names and “crimes” of lynching victims, are positioned to obstruct visitors’ paths. Skipping over or around them is not an option.

From a central circular gallery called This Little Light of Mine, a light sculpture sends ribbon-like tendrils into eight surrounding rooms and projects inspirational quotes on the walls.

The music swells and the sculpture brightens as more people gather in the space. Standing here, I realise what Wanda meant.

Perhaps the only way to tackle bigotry and hatred is to shine our own little lights in the hope that, together, they might just be bright enough.

All images: Ella Buchan.

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