Alexia Kemerling, Hiram College Garfield Presidency Scholar, recaps her experiences on the group’s spring study tour to Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. The trip was led by Douglas Brattebo, Ph.D., associate professor of political science and director of the James A. Garfield Center for the Study of the American Presidency. Jeanne Dutton, assistant professor of English, and Vivien Sandlund, Ph.D., professor of history, also accompanied the group.
After a year of studying the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, we took the spring semester to focus on the two most important pieces of legislation in his career—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Studying the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, and the thousands of ordinary people who dedicated their lives to securing their rights is both gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring. Yet to someone who has grown up in the 21st century, the 1960s seems like a distant epoch. However, this past week we closed that distance, leaving behind the snowy Ohio landscape and traveling south to Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
Over the course of four days, we got to visit the homes and churches where the movement began, cross the bridges and streets where nonviolent protestors once marched fearlessly for their rights, and meet some of the bravest, most powerful, and loving people in our nation’s history. Standing in the humid Mississippi air and looking at the fresh purple flowers on the grave of James Chaney, a Civil Rights worker brutally murdered by the KKK during the 1964 Freedom Summer, it began to hit me and my fellow Presidency Scholars just how recent this part of American history actually is.
Our conversation with Mrs. Jewel McDonald at the Mt. Zion Methodist Church just minutes ago in Philadelphia, Mississippi, still echoed in my head. She recounted the night when her mother and brother returned home from a church meeting covered in bruises and blood, having just suffered a beating by Klansmen. She remembered that when the federal government finally stepped in to help search for three missing Civil Rights workers, the recovery effort unintentionally discovered hundreds of black bodies in the waterways and backwoods of Mississippi – hundreds more lives senselessly taken. Yet Mrs. McDonald’s voice did not shake with fear when she told us her story. Despite her trials, she smiled warmly – as if she had known us all of our lives – and she shook our hands and thanked each of us for coming. The thanks we gave her in return seemed inadequate in comparison.
Later that afternoon, we drove on to Alabama to meet another powerful female hero of the Civil Rights Movement—Mrs. Joanne Bland. Just 11 years old when she joined the marches for voting rights in the spring of 1965, Mrs. Bland’s passion and determination were contagious. As I stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Mrs. Bland and others once marched into harm’s way, and looked out across the Alabama River, I was struck by how beautiful Selma was but also how ordinary this city looked. The national historical marker was the main reminder of its extraordinariness.
Our bus route then took us to the state’s capital city, Montgomery. As we stood on the steps of the capitol building, our gaze was not focused on the impressive white building behind us but rather at the red-brick steeple of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church across the street. It was here that Martin Luther King Jr. preached for six years (1954-1960) and found the courage to lead the movement with equal parts unconditional love and steely determination.
Before going in to the church itself, we toured the modest white Dexter Parsonage house just around the corner, where the King family lived during Dr. King’s pastorship. Our tour guide, Dr. Shirley Cherry, was a small woman, but when she spoke, you listened.
She tapped the prefix “Dr.” on her name tag and said, “I was the little black girl who grew up in a house with no electricity. I wasn’t supposed to get an education.” For a moment I felt her gaze on me and felt myself sit up straighter. She moved her gaze around the room full of exhausted college students and said, “Be aggressive in your education.”
Inside the King house, the pastel colors and floral decorations took us right back to the 50s. Dr. Cherry led us from room to room and spoke about the most important things Dr. King had to teach us – love, respect, and character. In the words of Dr. King himself (1968), “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
In the kitchen she showed us the table where Martin Luther King Jr. sat and prayed for the courage to stand up for justice years ago, even as his family received anonymous death threats dozens of times each day. “[Dr. King] left me with just two fears,” she said, looking each of us in the eye. “The fear of God and the fear of ignorance. Everything else I can face.”
I felt my eyes well up with tears, and as I looked around the room at the faces of my peers and professors, I found that I was not alone. It is one thing to read about the cruel injustices that African Americans have faced in our nation’s history and the undeniable courage it took to incite change but another thing entirely to witness those feelings firsthand. It is one thing to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches about nonviolence and the need to respond to hate with love, but it is another thing entirely to witness this power in person.
That evening in Birmingham, we got to hear yet another chapter that remains untold in many history books – the story of Bill Baxley. One evening in 1963, the senior law student was watching the news as he ate his dinner, when story of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing broke. Sick to his stomach, the budding lawyer made a promise to himself that he would do something to bring justice to the four young girls murdered that day – Cynthia Wesler, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and the youngest, 11-year-old Denise McNair. And 14 years later, when Baxley was serving as Alabama’s attorney general, he did. He succeeded in convicting one of the Klansmen responsible for the murders of the young girls. Years later, current U.S. Senator Doug Jones, a law student in the gallery during the trial of the first Klansmen, convicted the other two during his tenure as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.
Although this trip was focused more on the grassroots movement than the governmental one, I found myself reflecting on how many of the marches and much of the turmoil that took place in these small Southern states traveled all the way to the White House. The impact on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s political strategies was clear. Mr. Baxley even mentioned that he felt as if LBJ was the only person of the time period capable of passing watershed civil rights legislation.
“I shudder to think what might’ve happened if those two bills weren’t passed,” he said.
Those two bills were indeed monumental. However, as the people we spoke to and the places we visited continued to remind us, the Civil Rights bills did not solve everything. Americans have come a great distance, but we still have a long way to go until every American is treated equally. The March Is Not Over.