Posts Tagged ‘rayarsenault’

KKK in the shadows at the SPLC

KKK in the shadows at the SPLC

I chose this picture to represent the second day in Montgomery because of the way it affected me.

I took it in the Southern Poverty Law Center. I was just kind of randomly shooting – shooting in museums is kind of hit or miss really but this one had such good interactivity. I was impressed and inspired by the information architecture and the relationship that designers chose between pictures and words that made for such a powerful display and a good learning experience that I was actually using my camera to take notes.

This shot was actually taken in a lecture room, and though I normally shoot back to front, the backdrop was so nondescript that my naked eye didn’t really notice it. I had been shooting this trip in vivid, high contrast settings trying to honor the style of the civil rights photographers – darkly joking that their style helped the movement by making blacks look blacker and whites look whiter. The first shot with this backdrop was actually a group shot, and my classmates and teacher were actually smiling, laughing. As I saw the shot take place in my view-panel on the camera, both the sight of it and the metaphor made my knees buckle and took the wind out of me. So of course I kept shooting.

The metaphor is this – Professor Arsenault is brave, sticking his neck out by essentially unearthing a lot of the details of the Civil Rights Movement in the deepest of the deep south and traveling to the sites, students in tow, to pay honor to places that the region would likely rather forget (more on that when we get to Anniston). Essentially behind the veneer of the soft-spoken articulate intellectual is a tough guy standing strong and recognizing heroes that could have disappeared in history. And Dee sitting next to him teaches teenagers about the holocaust, I can’t begin to think about what her day is like and the questions she has to answer, attitudes she has to help kids confront. Both of them, people I like very much, potential targets.

The second layer of this metaphor for me, once the photo revealed the backdrop it was hard to see anything else, and yet the group was oblivious to the giant image of the hooded man behind them. This was how the KKK operated, at night, in the shadows until it was time to strike. Prototypical boogiemen. I didn’t like this looming behind the people I had grown to know and in some instances love during this week. The knee-buckling came from this visual which made me feel the same way I feel during this reoccurring nightmare that I have had regularly since I was a kid. The gist of it is, I see something awful in the distance and I am with people I love. I am always calm, and the only one who sees it, and I am the only one who escapes. I try really hard to warn and rescue folks to no avail.

My nightmare, it turns out, was surely a reality for people who lived in this period and had to deal with the KKK. I am reminded of a quote I heard from Rosa Parks the day before this was taken,“It was just a matter of survival, of existing from one day to the next. I remember going to sleep as a girl and hearing the Ku Klux Klan ride at night and hearing a lynching and being afraid the house would burn down.” How are could someone be anything but powerless when they are captured at night? The reality of lynching is hard for me to take, yet through the study of civil rights I feel like I now have the strength to look it in the eye, and to make sure I am never ever in a circumstance where I am sticking my head in the sand.

This picture will remind me to always look in the shadows and be watching the backs of the people I believe in.

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Freedom Rider Rip Patton at the Freedom Riders Marker in Bynam

Freedom Rider Rip Patton checks the monument at the site where the bus burned in Bynam, Alabama for bullet holes

Anniston made me edgy. Don’t get me wrong, the spirit of the day was pleasant, upbeat, ambitious, something just felt funny.

And when all of the town folks showed up to greet the bus, I have to say I was a little nervous. Out of all of the places on the Freedom Riders 1961 trip, I think the Anniston story scares me the most. Looking at them from the bus window, all I could think about was the passage in Freedom Riders that described how, when they pulled into town on May 14, 1961, Mother’s Day, that ‘Anniston’s sidewalks were lined with people, an unusual sight on a Sunday afternoon in a Deep South town. Rider Genevieve Hughes said “It seemed that everyone in the town was out to greet us.” Ironic, the same thing happened to us, the street was lined with the local whos-who, but thankfully they weren’t waiting to beat the crap out of us. No one said ‘Well boys, here they are.” They wanted to have us over for lunch.

Dr. Arsenault said that when he first brought students to Anniston in 2005, the police met them and wanted to know what they were up to. I laugh when I think about that, but I also recognize the amount of bravado that took. These folks just hope that the whole thing will just go away, and here’s a bus load of grad students and lawyers from out of town, looking for a place that the local folks would rather forget about. He told us that the police had to call someone to help them remember where the bus burned in Bynam, and they were escorted to what may have been the site. I’ll bet that was an uneasy moment for the local law dogs, to say the least. Soon I will write more about that whole day.

There was a reference at lunch to “burning questions,” which was unintentional and ironic.

I collapsed in the alley where the same woman pointed to what was likely the “colored entrance” to the old bus station, which is now ironically a sign shop – I thought back to the sign shop that Doug Jones talked about that fronted the Alabama Klan that bombed the 16th Street church.

My knee gave out right at the exact moment in the alley at the bus station where the Freedom Riders first got their beating when Dr. A mentioned the arrival of the Klan. I was ok, but I think I need to be holding a railing or something when people talk about the KKK, as it was the same thing I felt shooting photos in the Southern Poverty Law Center, only there I didn’t go down, I held the back of a chair, and shot pictures with both hands.

Later, a preacher blessed my knee, which was interesting. That’s never happened before.

And when we got to the Freedom Riders Monument, at the same place in Bynam that the local cops weren’t sure about five years ago, Rip Patton’s action confirmed my intuition about Anniston.

The first thing he did was check the marker for bullet holes.

That’s what you see in the picture.

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.

Born in Selma, Catherine Burks was a 21 year-old senior at Tennessee State University when she joined the freedom rides, and her refusal to be intimidated by “Bull” Connor’s personal threats as he drove her and six companions to the Tennessee border is captured with unique accuracy in Chapter 5 of Professor Arsenault’s book. She was on the bus with Bill Harbour, John Lewis, Jim Zwerg, Susan Wilber, Susan Herman, Bernard Lafayette, William Barbee, and others in Montgomery, and during the brutal mob attack – perhaps the worst since the Anniston firebombing – she rescued some of the female riders from the mob by driving them to First Baptist Church in a taxicab which she drove herself notwithstanding the protest of the black driver. She continued her commitment to the movement by traveling with Bill Harbour, John Lewis, Jim Zwerg, and others to Chicago to raise funds for CORE, and sees the Movement, and Dr. King’s personal efforts as including empowerment by grass roots organization – directed at social and economic progress, in the footsteps of the organizational techniques of union movements

Professor Ray Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. From 1980 to 1987, he was the co-director of the Fulbright Commission’s Summer Institute on American Studies at the University of Minnesota; he has served as a consultant for numerous museums and public institutions, including the National Civil Rights Museum, The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Rosa Parks Museum. Professor Arsenault received his B.A. Degree from Princeton University in 1969 and his Ph.D. Degree from Brandeis University in 1981. He is the author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Oxford University Press, 2006), for which he received The Owsley Prize, and other books on Civil Rights Movement History, including “The Changing South of Gene Patterson: Journalism and Civil Rights from 1960-1968,” and his latest book, “The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America” (Bloomsbury Press, 2009). A member of the Florida affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, he served two terms as state president. He received the Nelson Poynter Civil Liberties Award in 2003.

Like angels over his shoulders

Beale Street - they found Ray Arsenault and Rip

Oh man, the movie. But wait – let me tell you how we got there.  And I’m wiped out.

We all arrived in Nashville this afternoon. At 5:30 we met in a conference room and began orientation.

After some introduction we watched the Freedom Riders movie based on Dr. Arsenault’s book. Saying it is incredibly powerful is an understatement. I’m at a rare loss for words really. You have to see it.  Let’s just say I can’t believe this happened here in the United States such a short time ago. Throngs of people in the street attacking college students who were testing a law. Diane Nash’s gorgeous young face and her intensity both in the imagery from 1961 and her interviews today.  Bull Conner and just how unbelievable it was that he was the reality of Alabama law enforcement, and not a charicture. The governor of Alabama admitting he lied to the Kennedys, his whole interview. John Seigenthaler and now I really can’t wait to meet him, he’s so candid in this film you feel like he is in the room. The imagery from this film will stay with me forever, especially a brief shot of the bus in flames in Birmingham, the images of the beaten Freedom Riders on the ground, and faces. So many faces. So much to process. Reading about it has been one thing, the film takes you right inside the buses, churches, deep south, prison…

And then there’s Rip. Tonight we met Rip Patton – a Freedom Rider who is doing the entire journey. There’s something very cool about him, I am looking forward to talking with him and listening to him. Rip will be on the bus with us for the whole trip – and they leave the seat next to him empty so that we can take turns sitting with him and talking with him, asking questions, whatever we like. Here’s his biography.

Ernest “Rip” Patton (Group discussion facilitator and mentor):
Rip Patton was a 21-year-old music major at Tennessee State University when he joined SNCC and the Nashville Movement in 1960, participating in the Lawson Workshops, the Nashville sit-ins and other protests of segregation.  He joined the Freedom Rides in 1961 and was in the first group to make it to Jackson, Mississippi, where he was arrested for entering a “white only” Greyhound Bus Station waiting room.  His group also included John Lewis, Hank Thomas, and Jim Farmer. The group was ultimately sent to Parchman Penitentiary.  Mr. Patton was an active member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, working closely with Diane Nash and John Lewis.  He knew Dr. King, Fred Shuttlesworth and C.T. Vivian and recalls the full range of stories that defined the Civil Rights Movement. He will accompany us throughout the travel course to interact with students individually and collectively.

Freedom Rider Rip Patton

Nashville Freedom Riders Rip Patton (left) and Bernard LaFayette (aisle) with Jim Lawson seated behind them on the bus headed into Jackson MS with National Guard troops standing guard.

Today, I leave for Nashville.

I’ve signed up to go with Ray Arsenault and some other folks in my graduate program to recreate part of the Freedom Ride trip.

We’ve spent the last three nights pouring over the history of civil rights, already it’s intense. Ray assigned us a small library of books to read prior to the trip that we’re working through:

C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow
Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality
Howell Raines, My Soul Is Rested
James Patterson, Brown v. Board of Education
Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders

Since I’ve always thought that I am pretty astute when it comes to civil rights, I realize that I’m probably not and have a lot to learn.

Already I am amazed at what I didn’t know, and I’ve only been reading.