Goin' Places That I've Never Been
When I taught AP English Language, it was my job to teach students how to not only craft an elegant and successful argument, but to also understand how others do it, too. One of my favorite texts to analyze and discuss was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's "Letter from Birmingham Jail". It is one of the finest, most well-crafted pieces of modern literature. It is both inspiring and condemning. It is rooted in utter realism without losing any of its eternal hopefulness. It moves me every single time I read it. I will never not love it. It's that letter, and the current news, and a lot of other factors that inspired me to spend some of my time in Alabama visiting sites that were and are pivotal to the Civil Rights Movement.
In Birmingham, I visited the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. I also made sure to drive by the building that was once the Birmingham City Jail where MLK wrote his famous letter. In Montgomery, I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Anything I have to say about any of these sites would be trite. I was moved by everything I saw and learned. I think that if you have the opportunity to visit either place (and perhaps especially the Memorial for Peace and Justice), you should do it as soon as possible.
On the walkway up to the Peace and Justice Memorial, information placards explain the history of lynching and how it became not only prevalent but a tacitly acceptable form of "justice" for black people in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One placard listed the states where the practice was most often used. It was a list of maybe six or seven states. I wish I could remember them all. I only remember one state listed there: West Virginia. As a native West Virginian, I studied WV history quite a bit. The narrative we've adopted in recent years is that when the South seceded from the Union, WV chose to break with Virginia because it was not onboard with slavery. This rather lofty moral attitude doesn't really play out when you're listed among a select few states where lynching was particularly popular. It broke my heart in a new way. A way I hadn't expected.
I've cried several times while here in Alabama. A big part of this road trip, for me, is about growing. I want very badly to crack open my heart, my head, my body and begin to understand myself better. I'm lucky. I feel my luck. And I hope that what comes next is both as painful and as powerful as what I've already seen.
I also learned that Birmingham is a post-Civil War city, built on mining and steel mills. I saw Hank Williams's gravesite and the car in which he died (in WV!) at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery. I ate some delicious barbecue at Dreamland Barbecue. I've heard some lovely, genteel southern accents. I've stayed in a variety of Marriott properties including a Spring Hill Suites that opened the day before I checked in (campgrounds are a little sparse in this part of the country). I've watched White Christmas in some of those hotel rooms because I can't stop and won't stop watching that movie until Christmas is over!