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December 15, 2022 / Jim Fenton

Civil Rights Journey Day 10: Montgomery to Home

Thursday, October 27, 2022

With the other members of our group having already departed, we joined our friends Liz and Peter to explore a few more places in Montgomery. We started our day at the Civil Rights Memorial Center, part of the Southern Poverty Law Center headquarters. The Memorial Center wasn’t large, but had some excellent multimedia presentations on the civil rights struggle, both historical and ongoing.

From there we walked over to the former Greyhound bus station associated with the Freedom Riders. The station is now a small museum, the Freedom Rides Museum, and has signs on the outside with a detailed history. While there, a Black woman drove up to take some video of the bus station and we had a somewhat surprising conversation with her. She was not entirely pleased with the placement of all of the civil rights museums and displays in Montgomery — she thought that the Black community needed to strengthen themselves and didn’t need to be constantly reminded of their struggles.

Freedom Rides Museum

From there we walked to the Rosa Parks Museum a few blocks away. The museum tour consisted of a couple of multimedia presentations describing the background and events of the day she refused to give up her seat on a city bus, which gave us a much more detailed understanding of the events of that day and the questionable legality of her arrest. This was followed by a short self-guided tour of artifacts relating to the tension between the Black community and the police.

It was then about time to make our way to the airport for our flights home. We returned to our hotel to retrieve our bags and got a Lyft ride to the airport. The Montgomery Regional Airport is a fairly small airport consisting of about five gates located only about 15 minutes from downtown. TSA inspection was quick and we had a small lunch in the airport’s one restaurant. Co-located with the airport is an Alabama Air National Guard base, which surprised us as several pairs of fighter planes — F-16s I think — took off with considerable noise and speed.

This article is the final installment in a series about our recent travels to the US South. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

December 14, 2022 / Jim Fenton

Civil Rights Journey Day 9: Montgomery

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Today was the last day of the official tour (we are staying a day longer) and a very powerful day. After breakfast at the hotel, we went to the Legacy Museum, a large and modern museum established by the Equal Justice Initiative to tell the story of Black experience from enslavement to mass incarceration (the current situation). The museum proceeded roughly chronologically from the slave trade, slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, and lynchings, to the current disproportionate sentencing and incarceration of Black people. The images and words used in the museum were very strong and intentionally uncomfortable for many. We were somewhat prepared by our recent experience, but the story was very uncomfortable nonetheless.

Following the museum, we traveled to another of Equal Justice Initiative’s projects, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The memorial, which is outdoors, includes hundreds of large corroded iron rectangular blocks that, by county, list the names and dates of lynching victims up to 1950. There was also a section to recognize counties and states that had put up markers recognizing the deaths of these victims. I was struck by the number of markers and names of people who had been lynched; this presentation of the names helps one appreciate the magnitude of the lynching problem.

We then traveled to the studio (for lack of a better name) of Michelle Browder, who led us on our tour yesterday, for lunch and discussion. After lunch, Michelle showed us her artwork, which included large sculptures and an old car that had been intricately decorated by use of a plasma cutter on its body. Her artwork and advocacy were recently highlighted in People Magazine.

We then sat down for a final debrief on our memories of the week before the first of our co-travelers had to leave for the airport.

Afterward, our friends Peter and Liz joined us in visiting the Museum of Alabama, located in the state archives building near the capitol. The museum was well presented, but we were now better equipped to read between the lines of many of the descriptions. For example, commerce often meant slave trade.

After returning to the hotel to clean up, we went to a nearby brewpub, the Tower Taproom. It had quite good pub food, and an interesting array of self-service taps that were enabled using a card they issued at the cash register. The taps measured beer (a good selection, plus a few wines and ciders) by the ounce, and you were charged for the amount you poured.

This article is part of a series about our recent travels to the US South. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

December 13, 2022 / Jim Fenton

Civil Rights Journey Day 8: Selma to Montgomery

Alabama Capitol Building

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

After getting up and packing for today’s trip to Montgomery, we loaded up the bus and made the very short trip to the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth, and Reconciliation (SCNTR). We had breakfast at the Center, followed by training, focusing on the meaning and application of nonviolence, from the Center’s director, Ainka Jackson. One of the major themes was the difference between nonviolence, which is an active role, from the passive role of non-violence (or avoidance of violence).

Lunch was also at SCNTR and featured a powerful presentation from Callie Greer on nonviolence and forgiveness. Many years ago, her son was shot and killed in an argument with one of his peers. When the perpetrator was put on trial, she asked in her victim statement that he not be sentenced to death or to life in prison, but rather be given a minimum sentence. The judge, stunned, complied. She met the perpetrator after he had served his prison time and asked for his mother to contact her. Callie and the perpetrator’s mother continue talking to this day.

Another situation that Callie related was that her daughter found a breast lump. Due to the lack of appropriate healthcare, her cancer was not diagnosed until it had progressed too far and the daughter died. She is finding it difficult to forgive the healthcare system (specifically, the lack of Medicaid in Alabama) for this.

After the lunch discussion, we rode the bus across the Pettus bridge and on to Montgomery, Alabama. Downtown Montgomery is a considerably more attractive capital than downtown Jackson, probably due to their focus on attracting conventions and other travelers. When we arrived, we met Michelle Browder, who in addition to being our tour guide is an entrepreneur. She is focused on telling a more complete story about the role of Black women as test subjects in the development of gynecological treatment, and how they were victimized in undergoing this experimentation.

Michelle led us on a tour that began at the waterfront of the Alabama River, and gave us a lesson on reading between the lines of the historical markers in town. She pointed out in particular three markers that highlighted the slave trade and Montgomery’s role in it. There were to be more of these markers, but of course the city stopped the project.

After the tour, we returned to check into the hotel (the Renaissance, probably the nicest hotel in town), and gathered at Central, a nearby restaurant that is also among the best. This was the final group dinner of the trip, because most of the group will be leaving tomorrow afternoon.

This article is part of a series about our recent travels to the US South. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

December 12, 2022 / Jim Fenton

Civil Rights Journey Day 7: Jackson to Selma

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama

Monday, October 24, 2022

After a buffet breakfast at our hotel, we had an hour or so with Mike Espy, former Secretary of Agriculture, Congressman, and Senate candidate. Secretary Espy discussed the political climate in Mississippi in quite some detail, and made it yet more clear that Mississippi politics are more complicated than one might think, and civil rights is not a lost cause.

We then boarded our bus for the three-hour bus ride to Selma, Alabama. Selma today is a somewhat depressed town of about 18,000 having one of the highest murder rates in the state. In the 1960s, Selma was an important site for the civil rights movement. In 1965, attempts were made to march from here to the state capitol in Montgomery to demand voting rights. Initially this Freedom March was blocked by police and resulted in considerable injury to the protesters. Eventually a successful march was held following issuance of a court order.

Upon arrival, we visited the By the River Center for Humanity, a mixed-use community facility. They served us a delicious lunch which was followed by a talk by JoAnne Bland, one of the participants in the Freedom March. She shared with us some of her vision for Selma, and led us in a bit of singing and dancing as well.

We then walked across the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge, and visited the National Voting Rights Museum just across the river from Selma. The museum had artifacts and pictures from the Freedom March, as well as considerable material on subsequent visits to Selma by presidents, particularly Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

After a short break at our hotel (the St. James hotel, recently renovated by Hilton), we took a short walk to The Revolt Selma, a new restaurant opened by a Black entrepreneur, for a buffet-style steak dinner.

This article is part of a series about our recent travels to the US South. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

December 11, 2022 / Jim Fenton

Civil Rights Journey Day 6: Jackson, Mississippi

View of a church service on a large stage, with youth about to sing

Sunday, October 23, 2022

We started earlier than usual today in order to catch the 8 am service at New Horizons Church, a majority-Black church in a former strip mall in southern Jackson. The facility was beautifully adapted to its use as a church, and we were warmly welcomed. Most of the music was presented by a children’s group, which was very talented.

After the service, we met with the Senior Pastor, Bishop Ronnie Crudup. He described the formation of the church and also went into considerable detail about the political climate in Jackson and more generally in Mississippi. One story that struck me was that the Governor, rather than distribute federal aid from the American Recovery Act, sent at least some of the money back to the federal government saying that it was not needed. This struck me as simply cruel. In any case it is organizations like New Horizons that are developing the community for future leadership.

We then went to a local restaurant for brunch with some local women leaders (and teenage leaders) who are working in the area of voting rights and getting the Black community, and Black women in particular, to participate in the political process and specifically to vote.

After brunch we took our bus to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in downtown Jackson. The museum is, perhaps surprisingly, funded by the State of Mississippi. We started out with a short talk by Hezekiah Watkins, one of the original Freedom Riders. We then had some time — although not enough — to explore the museum, which took us from the days of slavery to the present, with an emphasis on the mid-20th century civil rights movement.

We then took the bus to the Medgar Evers home. Evers, the field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP, was shot and killed there in 1963. The house has recently been designated as a national monument, but unfortunately wasn’t open for tours when we were there.

This article is part of a series about our recent travels to the US South. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

December 9, 2022 / Jim Fenton

Civil Rights Journey Day 5: Incarceration Justice

Welcome to Mississippi sign

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Today we are off to Jackson, Mississippi. We are also changing focus from history (enslavement) to contemporary civil rights issues. After breakfast we had a visit from three community members involved in trying to improve the criminal justice system in Louisiana. First we heard from Will Snowden of the Vera Institute. He spoke about their initiative to reduce the population in Orleans Parish jails following Hurricane Katrina from about 7200 to 1000, largely by observing the distinction between jails (typically short-term detainees awaiting trial) and prisons (long-term convicted detainees). This distinction gives long-term detainees the potential to have access to education and training programs to help them develop. Vera Institute is working more broadly to improve equity in the criminal legal system in Louisiana as well.

We then heard from Everett “Buck” Ofray and Louis Gibson, both former long-term detainees who had been convicted of second-degree murder. They described their journey from arrival at Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison, forced to labor initially without pay and later for only 20 cents an hour. Held without parole, they had to challenge the system to obtain access to education and vocational opportunities. Eventually they worked their way into more and more responsible jobs like maintaining aircraft for the State Police. Changes in law allowed them to eventually be paroled. They described their process of re-integration into society; both are now working to assist other recent detainees. Louis is also working as a paralegal. This was truly an inspirational talk.

We then loaded into our bus for the three hour drive to Jackson, Mississippi for the next phase of our journey. We stopped along the way for a picnic lunch and to discuss what we have learned so far.

This is also homecoming weekend, a big deal in Jackson, so we expect everything to be crowded. We had dinner this evening at the Char Restaurant, again a very enjoyable meal. Tomorrow will be an early and full day, so we are turning in early.

This article is part of a series about our recent travels to the US South. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

December 9, 2022 / Jim Fenton

Civil Rights Journey Day 4: Bayou

Friday, October 21, 2022

After breakfast at our hotel, we got on the bus and went east to visit one of the bayous. Along the way, we stopped and were introduced to a native American couple who explained the many ways that the oil industry in the area had impacted their lives. In addition to needing to relocate, they were severely affected by the Gulf of Mexico oil well disaster, and continue to endure health threats from toxic emissions from the refineries, many of which have been made legal through lobbying efforts on behalf of the oil companies.

We continued east through St. Bernard Parish, and as we did, we saw many skeletons of dead oak trees. These have apparently died due to increased salination of the underground aquafer. Many homes were seen that were propped up on platforms typically 20 feet above ground. Many of these homes were owned not by locals but by sport fishermen as second homes or as rentals. As we looked out into the waterway, it was fairly obvious which boars belonged the visiting sport fishermen and which were owned by locals. As our hosts explained, the waterway is always in a state of transition. There have been efforts to open new channels from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, and other projects that would change the salinity of that portion of the delta. Nobody seems to be sure how long this will last.

Returning to New Orleans, we had lunch at a very pleasant restaurant, Carmo. Our next stop was at a youth development organization called Son of a Saint. Housed in a newly renovated former ice house, Son of a Saint provides mentorship services to boys who have lost their fathers. Engagement with them begins in middle school and extends through their educational career and beyond. They have a very impressive track record with the boys they have mentored.

We then traveled to StudioBE, a warehouse art gallery space featuring the art of “BMike”, a local urban artist. As you might expect, BMike’s preferred medium is spray paint, but the amount of expression and detail he is able to impart is truly impressive. But spray paint is not his only medium: there were exhibits in many forms, even simulated video games. Along with the art were words that were in many cases quite profound. This visit definitely broadened my art tastes.

After a short break at the hotel, the group went to dinner at the Windsor Court Hotel, where we had stayed on our visit to New Orleans about 10 years ago. It was a wonderful dinner, definitely too much food but all of it delicious.

This article is part of a series about our recent travels to the US South. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

December 8, 2022 / Jim Fenton

Civil Rights Journey Day 3: Whitney Plantation

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Our day began with a briefing in a conference room in our hotel. Our leaders spoke for almost two hours on the history of slavery in the US and specifically in New Orleans as background for our visit to Whitney Plantation, about an hour’s bus ride from town. We made it to the plantation about noon, and had a picnic lunch there.

Whitney Plantation is different from most historical sites because it is presented from the viewpoint of the enslaved people, not the plantation owners. We were very fortunate that Yvonne, one of our tour leaders, had worked for Whitney Plantation until very recently and was able to tailor our tour to the theme of our journey. The tour included not only the Big House of the plantation, but also the areas where many of the enslaved people worked, such as the cooking areas, and their living quarters. We also were introduced to the evolution of the plantation, from early days farming indigo to sugar cane farming. There were memorial walls commemorating the many enslaved people who worked at the plantation, giving us an idea of the scale of the slavery at this one plantation.

While at the Whitney, Konda Mason, an entrepreneur who leads an organization called Jubilee Justice, spoke to us about the work they are doing. Jubilee Justice is working to improve the business climate for Black rice farmers in Louisiana and Arkansas. One of their main initiatives is to establish a cooperative rice mill in order to give the local farmers a more equitable and cost effective way to get their rice to market.

After returning from the Whitney, we took a short break and then had dinner at 9 Roses with several leaders from the local Vietnamese community. New Orleans has a significant Vietnamese community, dating from the 1975 evacuation during the Communist takeover of South Vietnam. Some are engaged in fishing and shrimping, which had been their occupations in Vietnam. Our dinner table included a leader from the real estate industry who was part of that 1975 migration and a Catholic priest who had relatively recently moved to the United States. It was informative to see the similarities and differences between these generations of immigrants. The food was excellent!

This article is part of a series about our recent travels to the US South. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

December 7, 2022 / Jim Fenton

Civil Rights Journey Day 2: Exploring the French Quarter

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

With the official part of our tour beginning at 3 pm, we had much of the day to explore the French Quarter of New Orleans on our own. We met up with our friends Liz and Peter and started at Café du Monde for their traditional breakfast of beignets and coffee. Beignets are fried choux pastries with piles, and I mean piles, of powdered sugar on top. While we were eating, a brass band assembled on the sidewalk next to the Café and started playing. They were very good, a classic New Orleans moment.

The four of us headed over to the nearby Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve Visitor Center. We got there in time for their 10 am talk. It began with an interesting discussion of the Acadian expulsion from the Canadian Maritimes, and subsequent arrival of many of them in the New Orleans area. This was followed by a talk we were less interested in, discussing medicinal properties of native plants. Afterwards we enjoyed a number of interesting exhibits in the visitor center.

While we were listening to the talks, Liz and Peter went through the Louisiana state museum in The Cabildo, a notable building next to the iconic St. Louis Cathedral. This is the location where the Louisiana Purchase was signed. We understand admission was $10, and not necessarily worth the cost.

We met up with Liz and Peter again for lunch. We had planned to get muffuletta sandwiches, but weren’t sure where to get them since the traditional place, Central Grocery and Deli, was closed due to damage from Hurricane Ida. We found a place in the French Market, Alberto’s, that had good muffulettas but perhaps not quite as rich in olives as those at Central Grocery.

After lunch, we all went to the Historic New Orleans Collection museum on Royal Street near our hotel. Admission was free, and there was plenty to see. Visiting this museum helped us better follow the series of events as control of New Orleans passed from France to Spain, back to France, and finally to the United States. Definitely worth the visit.

At 3 pm our tour officially started. We gathered in a conference room of the hotel for introductions and a brief orientation. We then walked north to Congo Square, just outside the French Quarter. Congo Square was the location where slaves who might be given a Sunday off (due to the strong Roman Catholic influence in the area) would gather, dance and sing, and trade wares. We met up with Luther Gray and Jamilah Peters-Muhammad of the Congo Square Preservation Society who told us of the considerable history of the Square. They taught us drumming and dancing in the traditional style, or at least as close as we could come to that.

We were then met by Erin, an official New Orleans tour guide, who led us on a whirlwind walking tour of some of the French Quarter. Erin had a lot of information, and talked fast to get as much of it to us as possible.

After a few minutes to get cleaned up, the group walked to Galatoire’s, a well known (and fancy) restaurant in the French Quarter. Our group had a private room and a selection of menu items to choose from. I had to try the turtle soup, which resembled a thin chili and was very tasty. My fish entrée and Kenna’s crab hollandaise were both quite good.

This article is part of a series about our recent travels to the US South. To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

December 6, 2022 / Jim Fenton

Civil Rights Journey Day 1: To New Orleans

Continuing with our tradition of publishing a journal of significant travels, this begins a journal of our recent trip to the US South, focused on Race, Equity, and American Identity. Posts will be added approximately daily, and are delayed 7 weeks from the actual events.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Kenna and I left today on what will be our first fully-guided land trip. This is a thematic trip entitled Race, Equity, & American Identity that was organized by SV2, a local philanthropic organization that Kenna and I are partners in. The trip was planned and will be led by Telos, an organization that is best described by their mission statement:

We form communities of American peacemakers across lines of difference, and equip them to help reconcile seemingly intractable conflicts at home and abroad.

Telos mission statement

We have had a couple of pre-trip meetings with our group. The group consists of about 16 people, which includes our friends Liz and Peter who expressed interest when Kenna told them about the trip. We decided to leave a day early to get acclimated to the time change, to have some time to re-explore New Orleans on our own, and to avoid missing any of the program on the actual first day.

Our travel today was wonderfully drama-free. The ride to the airport was right on time, we met up with Peter and Liz at SFO airport, and our flight was on-time and comfortable. We got to our hotel, the Omni Royal, in the late afternoon with enough time to walk around and explore. We walked around the French Quarter quite a bit, through Jackson Square, and down to the Mississippi River waterfront. The river seemed to be a little low but not as much as we expected.

While walking around, we read various menus to get ideas for dinner. We were in a touristy part of the French Quarter, so many places seemed the wrong style, too expensive or both. Consulting online resources, we decided on a high-rated barbecue place named Pig Out. It was very small and informal, and the food was excellent.

Having had just a few hours of sleep last night, we decided to turn in early, even considering the two hour time change.