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Marching Selma Edmund Pettus Bridge

Marching Selma


I chose the photo to represent this day because I wanted to remember how I felt going over that bridge.
 
Selma, Alabama was so quiet on a Thursday afternoon it was unnerving. We spent some time at a voting rights museum at the foot of the Pettus Bridge. It seems like such an unassuming place and I wondered that if I didn’t know the history of what happened there, if I would have been feeling the vibe that I was.
 
During the Civil War, Selma was a foundry town, manufacturing war ships and weapons. And in March of 1865 there was the Battle of Selma. 
 
A hundred years later in March of 1965, in an event that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, 600-ish civil rights marchers left Selma on highway 80, made it about six blocks, and were met on the downside of the Edmund Pettus bridge by Alabama State Troopers and local sheriff’s deputies with tear gas and billy clubs, who beat the marchers up, loaded them into paddy wagons, and drove them back to the other side of the bridge.
 
Arsenault led our class to the starting point of the march, and we followed him over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He also made us be quiet and reverent, which for once no one seemed to mind. I wanted to hustle ahead of the class and get a shot of everyone that honored a shot I had seen of the Bloody Sunday March.
 
But when we got on the bridge, I knew it would be unwise to do so.
 
Some drivers didn’t pull over. But others sped up and swiped close, one carload even said something smart.
 
Here, I vowed, whenever I see something where a group is gathered…
 
Whether or not I am late for work.
 
Or on my way to somewhere important.
 
Or distracted and irritated if they are in my way.
 
I can at the very least.
 
Slow down.
 
And give them a little honor, no matter what they are doing.
 
I tried like I did in Birmingham, another place that provided some of the most haunting imagery in this country’s history, to take some shots that capture both the reverence of the day and the moments of stillness.

Kwame Lillard

Posted: August 8, 2010 in All Posts, Kwame Lillard, People
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Kwame Lillard personifies the irrepressible spirit that defined the Nashville Movement, and is a life long advocate and activist for civil rights and the advancement of the Movement’s legacy. A devoted disciple of Jim Lawson and Kelly Miller Smith, he was significantly involved in the management of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Nashville Movement offices, the Nashville sit-ins, and in the coordinating of the freedom rides and training of freedom riders. Kwame Lillard has challenged both Tennessee State University and the City of Nashville to remember their roots in the Movement, the recognition of the students of SNCC, and the City’s responsibility to advance the gains made possible by the Movement. His knowledge of the history of Tennessee State University, and the Nashville Movement remains an emotional recollection, and at the same time, his advocacy has taken on a currency that shows his equally genuine passion for the legacy of the Nashville Movement and his vision for the City of Nashville.

Bombingham - Bethel Baptist through a broken window


Bombingham

This photo was taken from a porch of an empty house across the street from Bethel Baptist Church. It was our first full day in Birmingham – or “Bombingham” as it has come to be known. We started at Bethel Baptist, which is under construction. Bethel Baptist was Fred Shuttlesworth’s church – and if you follow the life of Shuttlesworth, you understand why Birmingham is referred to as “Bombingham.” And a neighborhood near his church, a middle class mixed race neighborhood, came to be known as “Dynamite Hill.”

Shuttlesworth co-founded the SCLC with MLK. When the Freedom Riders were bludgeoned in and outside of Anniston, it was Shuttlesworth who drove to pick them up, brought them to his home, gave them his bed, kept them going, eventually went with them. There were tons of attempts on his life. He was attacked by the Klan in 1957 when he tried to enroll his kids in an all white school. His church was bombed. His parsonage was bombed – he narrowly escaped. During Project C – the big fracas in Birmingham of the dogs and firehoses fame, Shuttlesworth was pinned up against the wall of the 16th Street Baptist Church by a firehose blasting water at full strength, and had to be taken to the hospital. Ironically the Birmingham Airport is now the Shuttlesworth-Birmingham airport – an airport now named for someone who’s always been on the other side of the bomb.

Pivotal to our whole trip, the next stop was the 16th Street Baptist Church. I knew that four cute little girls had been killed in a Sunday morning bombing, while they got dressed for church. I took pictures while the class listened, and found myself drawn to a hallway. On the pages that follow you’ll see a soft shot of window and stairs – at the time I didn’t know why I was shooting it, I just was. Later I learned that hallway was where the bomb went through the building and in the area below it, now a kitchen, was the dressing room area where the little girls were killed. I let that church tell me what to take pictures of.

If you go to 16th Street – take some quiet time and let the church tell you its story. It will.

Standing on the steps, I took some shots of the intersection and street outside the church, into Kelly Ingram Park. It was amazing to me just how calm it was, is. I wanted to feel calm in the spot that produced maybe the most harrowing images from the Civil Rights Movement – teenagers getting attacked by police dogs, sprayed with the same firehoses that were ripping the bark off of trees.

Again, if you go there, stand on the steps for a minute and listen to the street.

Janice Kelsey, a Birmingham school administrator and teacher met us at the Civil Rights Institute. She told us the story of being a teen-ager and having to sneak off to the sit-ins. She rallied as she was called with the other teens by King, Shuttlesworth, Abernathy and Bevel. And she was arrested too. What moved me so about her story – she drove it home that they were teens, kids really. Rallied by the local DJ’s. The last thing they were expecting was to be met by attack dogs and firehoses as they held hands in the park. Janice gave us each a photo of her group as they waited in jail. Yep – they were kids, teen girls.

I didn’t have any tissues left by the time I got to the Rosa Parks section of the museum, and that’s when I needed them the most. You read about it, and she looks so strong and determined in the pictures but in the museum there was an exhibit that was true to size. Rosa was a tiny thing. And she was dressed for work, coming home from work after what was likely an already long day. Something about her size, and her coat and hat, and the fact that it was the end of her day yet her actions would lead to the beginning of a movement took hold of my soul. I wept a little – but had to disappear for a few to let out a good cry here. Not really sure how anyone could holler at a woman like that, call her names, and try to make her move. I cry as I write this.

Freedom Rider Catherine Burks Brooks walked with us through the Civil Rights museum and spent some time with us afterwards. I loved her. She’s cool, gorgeous, and eclectic. She’s the one who kinda ‘hijacked’ a taxi in Montgomery to get herself and some of her fellow riders out of the mob violence safely. I didn’t know what to say to her, I think she recognized that so she just squeezed my hand and we laughed, I forget what we said. Gorgeous spirited woman and fun to photograph – I had trouble imagining her taking it during the Freedom Rides but she did. I wanted to ask her how she did it but I just couldn’t get the words out. It was an emotional day.

Later we were welcomed by the law firm Haskell-Slaughter so we could listen to attorney Doug Jones. Jones was a US Attorney who served as a special prosecutor in the State of Alabama vs. Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr, and State of Alabama vs. Bobby Frank Cherry, where defendants were convicted of murdering four young black girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Jones made the trial about the church as a victim, and the four girls as a victim and told us about the witnesses who eventually came forward to testify against Blanton and Cherry.

Clearly, justice isn’t easy. But worth it.

Standing on his shoulders: Rip Patton on Jubilee Hall steps

Standing on his shoulders

The photo to above is Rip Patton on the steps of Jubilee Hall at Fisk, on June 7.

You could feel the spirit at Fisk. We stood on the lawn in front of a statue of W.E.B. Du Bois as Dr. Arsenault explained that Fisk was opened in Nashville in 1866 to offer education to newly freed slaves. All of but two of the original Jubilee Singers were former slaves. When the school needed to raise money, they created a choir that toured, hoping to raise money, and they did so well that funds were eventually used to build Jubilee Hall.

Our day was especially moving when Rip and classmate Cynthia Mott performed two freedom songs at the Fisk Chapel, “Buses are Coming,” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Time had the opposite effect it did during the sit-in exercise, it went by too quickly and I didn’t want the songs to end. I had gone upstairs to shoot crowd shots of the class in the chapel, and was in the perfect place to record their songs. Cynthia and I got to know each other on this trip, this was a true moment for her.

I thought about the role of music in their lives, in my life. Later, Rip Patton explained to me that the ‘turn me around’ song was one that they really depended on to keep them going. I feel like that song, that day was a gift, and I sing it now to myself all the time.

Next, we went to listen to John Seigenthaler talk at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt. At 83, Seigenthaler remembered the incidents of the Freedom Rides as though they happened last week. He told us the story of the call he got from RFK when the Attorney General asked, “Who in the hell is Diane Nash?” He recounted what it was like to get hit in the head with a pipe at the Montgomery bus station, and how he laid under a car for something like 20 minutes, bleeding, until he was rescued.

The best thing about Seigenthaler though may have been his candor as he relayed the metamorphosis the Kennedys went through. So early in their administration, they were faced with racial issues at a time when they were focused on the Soviets, Cuba, and foreign affairs. He talked about how RFK really truly changed when he came into contact with the events in the south. And how he, as a Federal Agent who was powerless against the hatred for blacks in Montgomery, changed as well.

Later, we made it to Birmingham and were welcomed by the law firm Haskell-Slaughter so we could listen to attorney Doug Jones. Jones was a US Attorney who served as a special prosecutor in the State of Alabama vs. Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr, and State of Alabama vs. Bobby Frank Cherry, where defendants were convicted of murdering four young black girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Jones made the trial about the church as a victim, and the four girls as a victim and told us about the witnesses who eventually came forward to testify against Blanton and Cherry.

I chose this photo to represent Fisk, Vanderbilt, and our first night in Birmingham. I heard the quote, “Standing on the shoulders of those who helped bring about change,” at some point on this trip, and although it stuck with me, I’m not sure who to attribute it too. But I can tell you all of us stood on Rip’s shoulders all week. The day I took this, we stood on John Seigenthaler’s shoulders and Doug Jones’ shoulders as well.

Beale Street, Memphis

Memphis has two Kings

The photo to the right was taken on Beale Street shortly after we arrived in Memphis on Sunday June 6.
I was really looking forward to Memphis. Every time I thought about that part of the trip, lyrics of a Tommy Womack song “Up Memphis Blues” played in my head, fragments like “I’m goin’ up Memphis, and honey I’m gonna see the King.” I laughed and thought of Elvis as a real king, the king of Memphis, so this town ought to be good.

On Beale Street, there was this kid doing acrobatics. Flips and cartwheels and handsprings you name it in the streets, so I stopped and snapped, thinking about what a good backdrop Beale Street would be for just about anything. And how amazingly flexible and precise this kid was. Beale Street might have been one of those places where racial lines were invisible through music and saloon culture, regardless of whatever turmoil made the headlines during the day.

The site of the Lorraine Motel was startling. The day was gorgeous the sky was bright blue even just after high noon and there was one of those warm “it’s almost summer’ breezes blowing that you only find in the South. The Lorraine stood like it was trapped in time in front of the backdrop of the weather. I didn’t expect to see the wreath on the balcony of room 306, the spot where King stood as he was shot, or the same cars from the photos. The sight and feel of brilliant restoration facilitated a visceral transcendence back to 1968, and as we entered the museum I could feel the past, feel the motel and the time and souls over my shoulder.

Walking through this museum with Dr. Arsenault satisfied a lifelong wish, if that makes sense. He answered every single question I had, with precise info. He seemed to be gauging as to whether or not I understood, got it. No angst at my asking of so many questions, even taking them a step further and pointing out ironies and idiosyncrasies in the exhibits. It’s hard to explain but if you know me, you know how I feel and that I have moments in my life when I realize a certain person who I loved more than life itself, the last person who truly answered my questions, and who hasn’t been alive since 2005, sends me these moments and these people and I realized that this trip and Dr. Arsenault and the whole USF experience may have been architected if she’s truly watching over me like I believe, and she sent this whole thing and I was free to be into it and ask away, learn. Here, this day, a thirst for knowledge about Civil Rights took root in me. I realized I knew nothing about this movement until now.

By the time we reached Room 306, the room where Ralph Abernathy held his best friend in his arms as he died, I was glad to have my classmates and professor around me. I needed to ask questions. I still do. I can’t for the life of me figure out why that had to happen the way it did. The ashtrays in the room were full of cigarette butts. Of course they smoked, and I wondered if they kept smoking as King’s life escaped him. I would have.

After Memphis, we went to Ole Miss visited the sites where the ridiculousness of the rioting took place when James Meredith registered for school. US Marshalls, armed only with tear gas, faced an angry mob of southerners and students who just left a football game in Jackson. Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett was the host of the game, and rallied the crowd with, “I love Misssissippi. I love her people. I love our customs!!” Charles Moore, who photographed the riot at Ole Miss, says that more people cheered “Roll with Ross” than for the football team. We saw the Lyceum, where guards were shot at, fought with and taunted. We saw the memorial to James Meredith.

We listened to Historian Charles Eagles after our walking tour. Eagles pointed out that one of the motivations of keeping the races separate was the thought that athletic black men “will want to dance with our girls.” He explained that fears of interracial sex and what he called the “marbleization” of the races was at the root of the racial hate and animosity at Ole Miss. Eagles said that separating the races was the path they chose because they couldn’t think of trying to teach their girls how to behave. In his work, Eagles painted a picture of Meredith that showed him as an outsider, a conservative (he was in the Air Force and the son of a well-to-do sharecropper) and also talked about the flaws and oversights made on the monument to Meredith. Eagles, as a contrarian and a critical thinker, expanded my view on race and taught me to look at intention, to be ready to challenge intention when it comes to things like monuments.

I chose the photo above to represent this part of the trip. The child is a metaphor to the spirit of blacks in the movement, flexible, disciplined, exceeding any expectations against a backdrop of a culture that they inspired. It’s also a metaphor for the my transition, realizing that I needed to perform some mental gymnastics and reconsider Civil Rights as something I know nothing about until now.

On that day – I took that photo a few hours before I realized, looking in to room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, that Memphis has two Kings.

Cynthia and Rip

Cynthia and Rip

Jubilee Hall Fisk

Jubilee Hall Fisk

Charles Eagles Ole Miss

Charles Eagles Ole Miss

Jubilee Hall Fisk

Jubilee Hall Fisk

John Seigenthaler