I met Pulitzer prize-winning Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. last week.
The occasion was the 2011 Student Freedom Riders stop in Birmingham. The big draw was my good friend’s son, who was one of 40 college students chosen for a ten-day commemorative journey. A few journalists and a handful of original freedom riders joined the trip, planned to promote a new PBS documentary, Freedom Riders.
The original Freedom Riders were white and African American activists who traveled together by bus to multiple Southern destinations to test a 1960 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld and expanded a 1946 ruling banning segregation in interstate travel. The later ruling extended the ban on segregation to waiting rooms, lunch counters and restrooms.
On the anniversary of a May 13, 1961 bus stop in Birmingham, the present day Freedom Riders arrived at the Civil Rights Museum, where they viewed the exhibits, toured the adjacent Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and enjoyed a dinner catered by Dreamland Barbeque. Afterward, the public was invited to a performance of Sounds of the Movement by the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir at the church.
Fifty years before, police had allowed Ku Klux Klan members a fifteen-minute grace period to beat freedom riders arriving at the Birmingham terminal before they stepped in to halt the violence. Forty-eight years before, the church was bombed by KKK members, killing four little girls.
The reason I feel compelled to explain this bit of history is because my knowledge was so vague. The individual stories related by the Unity Choir members stunned me. I identified most with the woman who told about skipping high school to join the protesters who marched, two by two, along the streets of the city. In the block that is now Kelly Ingram Park, firemen turned high-pressure fire hoses on the demonstrators. Police let loose their attack dogs.
“We did just what Dr. King told us to do,” she said. “When we got knocked down, we got up again.”
She helped make history, and for her part in the struggle, she and a thousand other children spent time in a makeshift jail—the first time these African-Americans had been allowed access to the city’s whites-only fairgrounds.
At the conclusion of the evening’s program, when I, the tongue-tied fangirl met the award-winning journalist, I gushed about his moving blog posts about previous stops on the ride.
Pitts asked the key question that laid bare my ignorance.
“Have you been here before?”
It must have been obvious, from the remarks I made about the beautiful sanctuary, that I hadn’t. Even though I was aware that this important historic site exists less than four miles from my home.
The reasons I hadn’t explored this part of the city are many. I already have a church. My daughter visited the Civil Rights Museum on a field trip, but I was working.
What I discovered was that when I ran out excuses, the unspeakable idea that remained was the truth.
I hadn’t made a Civil Rights pilgrimage because I didn’t think it was my history.
Even though I’ve always agreed with George Santayana’s warning, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” I thought that because I’m neither African-American nor a segregationist, the civil rights movement was a lesson I could skip.
Now that I have heard the stories, I know that I was wrong. The Civil Rights Movement is my history. It is all America’s history. It is human history. And I have a stake in the continuing human struggle for freedom and justice.