Saturday, December 19, 2020

Birmingham, AL: "... Such Beautiful Scenery. We Didn't Have a Sense of Fear."

USPS stamp, Alabama.
USPS stamp, Alabama.

Before I moved to Alabama, if I were on a shrink's couch and she ran me through an associations exercise, and she said, "black," I'd say "white," and if she said "Alabama," I'd say "racism."

One day, I went to the post office in Tucson to buy stamps. They didn't have many artistic choices that day, but they did have one - just one - of the state stamps from its series of state stamps. It was Alabama. My hand practically recoiled from the proffered page of stamps. An Alabama stamp?! On my mail?! Never!

The only positive whisper I had about Alabama was the comment of a friend who'd gone to Birmingham on a business trip some years ago. I asked him what he thought of Birmingham. He replied: "It's pretty and the people are friendly."

I share all of this backstory to build up to this point: When I drove into Alabama in July, I thought: Wow! It is so pretty here!

On a subsequent weekend trip to Oxford and Anniston, I thought: Wow! It is so pretty here!

Every time I move through Birmingham's forested neighborhoods, up hills, across ridges, over the mountain, I think: Gosh almighty, it's so pretty here. 

And then I think: If it weren't for Alabama's racism brand, the state could be a paradise!

Which leads me to the documentary I just watched,  PBS American Experience: Freedom Riders [the link takes you to the entire documentary].

Here is the trailer to the documentary:



Before the virgin voyage of the Freedom Rider campaign, Dr. Martin Luther King counseled the students: "... and if I were you, I probably wouldn't go into Alabama."

But this is the quote that grabs me, from one of the first wave of Freedom Riders, Mae F. Moultrie Howard: 

"It was such a beautiful day. It was such a quiet feeling that day ... it was bright and sunny. The sky was blue. And it was such beautiful scenery. We didn't have a sense of fear."

How can such horrible acts occur in such a beautiful land?

Julian Bond: "The people on the Trailways bus going to Birmingham don't know that the Greyhound bus in Anniston has been burned, ..... now the [people on the Trailways bus are] going to a city which is the worst city for race in the whole United States. It literally is a police state, ruled by one of the worst figures in American history, Bull Connor, who must have been some kind of psychopath, just rabid on the subject of race."

Unknown: "I think when they learn that when they go somewhere to create a riot, that there's not going to be somebody there to stand between them and the other crowd, they'll stay home."

John Siegenthaler, recounting the phone conversation he had with Freedom Rider leader, student Diane Nash: "'I understand there are more Freedom Riders coming down from Nashville. You must stop them if you can. Do you understand you're going to get somebody killed?' Her response was: 'They're not going to turn back. They're on their way to Birmingham.' .... soon I was shouting, 'Young woman, do you understand what you're doing? ... Do you understand you're going to get somebody killed!?' And there's a pause and she said, 'Sir, you should know, we all signed our last wills and testaments last night before they left. We know someone will be killed. But we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence.'"

Governor Patterson: "... these [freedom riders] are rabble rousers and we can't protect them."

Governor Patterson: "We don't need the federal marshals here in [Montgomery]. The situation here is well in hand, and if the outside agitators who came here and deliberately stirred up this controversy, would go home, and the marshals go home, it'd be best for everybody and the situation would return to normal very quickly."

Right after I finished watching Freedom Riders, I watched a short documentary that centered on James Armstrong, The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement.

Perhaps the most moving quote in this documentary came from Faya Rose TourĂ©, a civil rights activist and litigation attorney: 

"The only way to freedom land, is on the backs of unknown people whose bodies are stacked so high that you eventually can walk to freedom land. And it's those foot soldiers who really make change. We always remember the Dr. Kings and the Rosa Parks, but we have to remember our foot soldiers."

On the foot soldiers, Ms. Touré added later: "The foot soldiers are some of the most important people in the Civil Rights Movement. These are people who will never be known by name. 'Cause they're people, who left their jobs, who risked their lives, may have been fired from their jobs. Who went out to march, not just one day, but every day. They weren't there just on Bloody Sunday, but they were there on Bloody Monday, fire me Tuesday, can't find a job Wednesday."

".... Such beautiful scenery. We didn't have a sense of fear."


I've been other places where the placid beauty of a surface hides the monsters - some still alive, some not - beneath. 

Example 1: The Trinity Site in New Mexico, the site of atomic bomb testing before Hiroshima and Nagasaki

I wrote then: 

... I do experience some cognitive dissonance in the low levels of radiation that exist there today (apparently) versus what we've had pounded into our psyches about how many eons it takes for radiation from an atomic bomb to go to "safe" levels. Does this mean I take away a sense that atomic weapons are "not that bad"? No. The take-away is my inability to reconcile two alleged realities.

Example 2: Bayou Corne the Sinkhole, Part 2

I wrote then: 

Once the immediate shock of the Bayou Corne's suck was over, could I believe what my eyes told me about the apparent return to [a] heretofore idyllic paradise, with the fish still biting, the birds still swooping gracefully, the water still rippling peacefully, the sky still blue, the trees still shading and sheltering?

I couldn't see what was - and wasn't - below my feet. Couldn't feel what was - or wasn't - there. Who could I trust to tell me the truth?


 ... such beautiful scenery.

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