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Posts Tagged ‘deep south’

Six years ago, when I first started work on the essays that would become Confederate Streets, I spent a lot of time in the Civil Rights Room in the downtown branch of  the Nashville Public Library. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, only that I had finished an analytical essay on busing for racial balance and that I wanted to, perhaps, write some narrative essays on the same topic. I was also interested in the outdoors and the Cumberland Plateau (subject matter I am pursuing now), and the room next to the Civil Rights Room was full of books on that topic, so I filled a few blistering summer days by wandering back and forth between those cool and pleasant rooms, reading about the sit-ins in one and Beersheba Springs in the other.

The Civil Rights Room is decorated with iconic photos from the movement in Nashville. I spent some time examining each one, but one photo in particular captivated me. You can see it at this link – it is the one at the top of the page. See the woman standing between the children and the crowd as she walks them to their first day of first grade? The girls holding hands? The white children lining the streets, barefoot, perhaps because they were being held out of school that day? I studied each face, each posture, wondered what everyone in that photograph must have been thinking at that moment – a late summer morning, September 9, 1957, the first day that blacks attended Nashville schools which were previously closed to them. However, the reason this picture really, really resonated with me is that exclamation point floating above the crowd – the sign which reads “GOD is the author of segregation.” I was born in the late 1970s and always thought of God as the author of the civil rights movement, of peace, of loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. The idea that someone would invoke the name of God as they harassed a couple of six-year-olds on their first day was school was both repulsive and darkly fascinating. Who was that person?

In another photograph, this sign shows up again and the woman holding it is visible, though the children are not. Her face is contorted. She is waving the sign and shouting.

One evening in the summer of 2005, I told one of my friends in Nashville about the picture and she said, “It makes me wonder what that woman must think now when she sees herself in that picture.” I’d been obsessing over every detail the photograph, but I had been thinking of it as something buried in the past, something encapsulated in the 1950s. Leila’s observation changed my perspective. I started wondering, “Where are we now because of where we were then?”

When I returned to Morgantown for the school year and started writing, I remembered those photographs as one in the same. As I wrote what would become the title essay of my collection, I pictured that woman shouting, the children mustering up an awful lot of resolve for six-year-olds, that sign invoking God and waving above it all. I devote about a page in the book to wondering where the woman with that awful sign might be today. I imagine that the sign is long gone, burned. Or, perhaps, it’s waiting in a closet, waiting to be used again. I imagine that the woman who held the sign is either completely mortified or silent and angry whenever she sees children of all races going to school together.

One thing I never did was actually try to find that woman, or the girls being walked to school, or anyone else in the photograph. I merely wondered where their lives had taken them since the morning of September 9, 1957.

Apparently, author David Margolick wondered the same thing when he saw this iconic photo of the day nine African-American teenagers began classes at Little Rock Central High School. Like my friend, Leila, he recognized that the lives of each of the women in that picture would have continued off the frame and forward through the ensuing decades. But, rather than hypothesize, he actually did extensive research, conducted interviews, and wrote a book – Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, which was just published by Yale University Press.

I have not yet read the book, but I did read the review in the New York Times on Sunday. It sounds like a book I should read, as should you, dear reader, if you are a fan of Confederate Streets. In the photo, the white woman, Hazel Bryan is apparently shouting, “Go home, nigger!” Her face, like the faces of so many white people in so many shots similar to this one, is contorted. Her ugliness in the shot is a manifestation of the ugliness of the time.  The black teenager, Elizabeth Eckford, has always seemed like the picture of grace to me. She’s smart and brave, with things to learn and no time for the likes of ignorant bigots like Hazel.

According to Margolick, however, Elizabeth was “terrified behind her dark glasses.” Although she did, ultimately, go to school at Central, she did not make it into the building that day. The governor blocked the door, the black teenagers were surrounded by a mob calling for a lynching. The National Guard had to be brought in to get those children into their classrooms. Once they were in, Hazel transferred out, but the Little Rock Nine bore constant abuse for the entire school year.

I’ll spare you all of the “where are they now?” details, but the essence of what I read in the NYT is this: By the time Kennedy was President, Hazel already regretted her actions. She apologized to Elizabeth, who accepted it, and went on to live her life. According to an interview I read in the Christian Science Monitor, Hazel has, for the most part, led a life of moral conviction for over 50 years. The depiction of the self in the photograph is, thankfully, not the self Hazel grew up to be.

Elizabeth, who clearly developed a sense of moral conviction before Hazel, has had a difficult life. She suffered from an undiagnosed case of PTSD. She’s had a hard time sustaining relationships in her life, even with her own children. In the 90s, after getting the PTSD diagnosis, things started improving for her, but there’s no denying that Elizabeth has struggled since walking through the doors of Central over half a century ago.

It hardly seems fair. I look at the pictures of Little Rock and Nashville and I want the bigots to be the ones suffering today. I’d like to think that the woman defiling a just and loving God with her sign in Nashville has been paralyzed by guilt, while those two black six-year-olds have gone on to lead pleasant and fulfilling lives. Then I think, “What good does it do me, or anyone, if that’s actually the case?” I should want what Martin Luther King wanted – “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars,” he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” So, I feel guilty myself for wishing bad things on the woman with the sign.

The best thing, I suppose, would be that everyone in that photograph hanging in the Civil Rights Room in the Nashville Public Library has found some sort of peace. True peace, however, won’t come without reconciliation, and reconciliation won’t come without people acknowledging the truth of what happened that day, as well as either the ugliness or bravery they were demonstrating when the photographer captured a moment in time. From the NYT article, I get the impression that Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryant have made such an acknowledgement. They’ve even become friends. Their lives are far from perfect and they currently are not speaking to each other but at least they did reconcile to a degree.

Margolick’s work with Elizabeth and Hazel has me wondering more about the people in the photograph I wrote about for my book. Does anyone know the people in the photo at the top of this page? I don’t know much more than the caption tells us – the shot was taken by John Malone for the Nashville Banner.  I believe the girls are being walked to Buena Vista Elementary, though I could be wrong. I’d like to find them and learn whatever they have to teach.

It’s easy to look at black-and-white photographs and think, “That’s over. That happened a long, long time ago.” What we can learn from books like Elizabeth and Hazel is that nothing is so tidy as to ever really be over. Good photographs capture the truth, but they can only capture a moment. Life, with all its chaos and sadness and redemption, spills over the frame.

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Last night, I spent about an hour Skyping with a good friend in California (grad student, genius, and fellow writer C.E. Tucker – keep an eye out for his work) on my fantastically fast and clear MacBook Pro. When I got off Skype and left Christopher to his scriptwriting, it was a little before 8 p.m. I decided to open my net browser and check email before heading off to read a book, and I saw the announcement on Apple.com – Steve Jobs, 1955-2011.

Stories about Steve Jobs abound across the various media outlets this morning. Two separate articles – one about his death and one about his vision – are the most popular on NPR.com.  The front pages of washingtonpost.com, nytimes.com, and cnn.com each boast about five separate articles about Steve Jobs’ life, inventions, health, and impact. Every media source is announcing his passing in an overly-large font.  The New York Times is inviting readers to submit photos of themselves using Apple products over the years.

Other front-page articles of the day? The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. Sara Palin won’t run for President. Occupy Wall Street continues. Cnn.com, which always strives to keep it classy, prominently features articles about Anthony Weiner Halloween costumes and Amanda Knox’s potential book deals.

If I hadn’t stumbled into my kitchen a little later than usual this morning (I’m on Fall Break), if I hadn’t had time to read the Editorial page of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, I would not have heard NPR’s end-of-the-hour broadcast or seen the tribute buried in the Local section of my newspaper – the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, tireless and vital leader of the Civil Rights Movement, passed away yesterday at the age of 89. Like Jobs, Shuttlesworth had been ill for some time, unlike Jobs, online memorials will not be pouring forth for the man who is credited with bringing the Civil Rights Movement to its largest and most influential battleground – Birmingham, Alabama.

Shuttlesworth was one of the “Big Three” in the movement, co-founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph D. Abernathy. I first heard of Martin Luther King sometime around 1984 when my first grade class read about him in a Weekly Reader. I did not learn about Abernathy or Shuttlesworth until the summer before I began graduate school, when I read Carry Me Home, Diane McWhorter’s excellent write-up of Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement.

McWhorter’s tome is over 600 pages long and filled with narratives about every major figure on both sides of the movement in Birmingham. It weaves the fabric of history and narrative seamlessly, but the sheer number of people involved, combined with their varying motives and degrees of involvement, can make the book feel overwhelming in places. Through all these fighters, all these characters, the one that rises above the fray, the one most memorable to me, is Shuttlesworth.  I devoured any portion of Carry Me Home in which he was a major figure, and that is a good percentage of the book. At times, he seems almost like a superhero – dashing in and creating good when all hope seems lost.  He was also completely fearless. Throughout the book, he calls out to those who would stop his movement or physically harm him. He loved reminding segregationists that they were going to lose. He openly challenged Bull Connor, often calling up the brutal segregationist to let him know where they would be demonstrating, inviting the public safety commissioner to come and “be a part of history.” He called the movement what it was: a war.  In an interview years later, Shuttlesworth said the goal of his work in Birmingham was “to have a war against injustice. Not against people – against injustice. A war against any system that sets up a thing where a man cannot be, cannot become.”

It was Fred Shuttlesworth who confronted the racist institutions in Birmingham long before the national spotlight turned there. Shuttlesworth convinced Martin Luther King to bring the crux of the movement to Birmingham. Shuttlesworth organized the Children’s Crusade that so galvanized the movement and horrified the nation. Shuttlesworth sheltered the Freedom Riders in his church after they had taken brutal beatings and it seemed they could not go on. It is widely acknowledged that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not have been passed were it not for the tireless work of Shuttlesworth and the activists in Birmingham.

Shuttlesworth himself suffered tremendously. His own decision to become an activist in the movement had been brought about by the elimination of  segregated schools through Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. His most severe beating came three years later, when white men attacked him, his wife, and his two daughters as he attempted to enroll his children in an all-white high school.  Shuttlesworth was beaten with chains and brass knuckles. His wife was stabbed in the hip.  Over the years, he suffered other beatings, was injured by fire hoses, and was arrested more than three dozen times. He was twice targeted in bombings.

Through all the physical and emotional persecution, Shuttlesworth never cowered. In fact, I think one of the reasons I’ve been so drawn to him would have to be his fiery, indomitable spirit. He could preach love, yet wield words as weapons. After emerging, miraculously unscathed, from his dynamited home on Christmas night in 1956, a police detective told him, “If I were you I’d get out of town as quick as I could.” Shuttlesworth replied with, “Officer, you are not me. You go back and tell your Klan brethren that if God could save me through this, I’m here for the duration and the war is on.”

We don’t often encounter Shuttlesworth in watered-down stories of the movement. Even McWhorter writes that “his personality did not invite the term ‘beloved’.” And, because Shuttlesworth forced us, all of us, to confront the uglier side of our own humanity rather than creating shiny toys, remembrances of him will be buried under the tide of memorials for Steve Jobs.

Now, don’t get me wrong – Steve Jobs brought some very cool things to life as we-in-a-certain-demographic know it. As I type this on my sleek MacBook Pro, I’m listening to classical music on West Virginia Public Radio (which I much prefer to Chattanooga’s station) through an app on my iPod touch.  It’s a lovely fall day and, at some point, I plan to sit on my porch and figure out what the latest version of iPhoto can really do. Next week, when I travel to Nashville for the Southern Festival of Books, I will be able to carry my iPod touch in lieu of my laptop. With it, I will check the weather, send emails, and do a little conference networking, all from a device smaller than the palm of my hand.

One quote that has been floating around about Jobs today is that “he knew what we needed before we knew we needed it.”

Apple products are great, ingenious even, but I could have written this on a typewriter and sent it to newspapers in the hopes that someone would print it. I’d be fine listening to NPR through the radio. I could organize hard copies of my photos, get the weather through the newspaper, and network via business cards, address books, and ink pens.

If anyone gave us what we needed before we knew, it was Fred Shuttlesworth. His life’s work was not limited to people who could afford to buy gadgets. It has benefitted us all.  Shuttlesworth’s colleague, Martin Luther King, once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  In this country, at the very time that Steve Jobs was born, America was not a just place. Everyone – white and black – was aware of it. And whether they were willing to admit it or not, I believe most people knew that this unbalanced world, this institutional and vastly unfair way of being, was rending the fabric of American society.  Years before the movement really took off, Fred Shuttlesworth was challenging the horrible, horrible injustice of segregation – the injustice that was constricting everyone and preventing this entire country from becoming. He and the other members of the SCLC chipped away at it until Jim Crow was brought down and we could all be freed from its tyranny.

One of my earliest memories of using Apple products is of sitting in the computer lab at my elementary school, confronting a game called “Math Blaster” on an Apple IIE. As I recall, the game involved solving math problems quickly enough to allow a stick figure to be shot from a cannon at the circus. The problems came faster and faster until, eventually, everyone’s stick figure perished. My character died frequently, and we all thought this was hilarious. I remember sitting in that room full of white, black, and Asian first-graders, all of us laughing and laughing. Steve Jobs brought us the computer, but Fred Shuttlesworth brought us each other.

Much work remains, but the foundation has been laid.

We still live in a society that perpetuates a “system where (people) cannot become.” Perhaps the next great innovator will combine Jobs’s technology with Shuttlesworth’s vision.

But, rather than waiting for that singular person, let’s pull out our idevices and learn about the men and women of the civil rights movement who knew what we needed before we did. In his memory, let’s continue the war against injustice which the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth fought so boldly across seven decades. The work remains and innovations in all facets of American life must continue.

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I get many ideas for my writing while I’m riding my bike – a steel-framed Jamis Satellite which I bought during the first summer I lived in Chattanooga. Biking is a lot like writing – I feel like I’m gliding through the world, observing and taking it all in, but keeping a bit of distance between myself and the goings-on of daily life. When I’m riding (or writing, for that matter), I see things I normally wouldn’t and I interact with the people around me in a more intimate way than I would if I was in a car or just not paying attention, but then I move on.

These are some shots from the ride I take most often here in the ‘Noog – a 20+ miler down Main Street, through St. Elmo, and out to Flintstone, Georgia. These photos are from late July. I’ve been busy with school lately and not riding as much as I would like, but this is a quick, easy ride, and I do always come up with new ideas or solve problems while I’m out there, cranking my way to North Georgia and back.

Starting the ride:

On Main Street

Across the street:

Houses on Main Street, Chattanooga

Near the turnaround point:

Sunset over Lookout Mountain

Flintstone United Methodist Church

Nearly home again as darkness falls:

Pardon me, is that...??

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I’ve yet to meet a Southerner who doesn’t welcome autumn. Summers in the South, with their ever-present humidity, bugs, and heat, are oppressive. This week in Chattanooga, we’ve finally started getting fog in the morning, and stepping onto my front porch in 55-degree chill, smelling the mist rolling off the ridge, is positively thrilling.

But here’s the thing: Summer is also glorious. Where would hardy Midwesterners be without their winters? Where would the South be without this spate of 100 or so days that force us to find solace on porches with sweating glasses in our hands, the season that drives us inside with our books during the day and outside to play or socialize in evenings? Where would we be without the collective suffering of sweat trickling down our spines as we go about our summer business?

As you can probably tell from the precipitous drop-off in blogging, I had a fantastic summer. Along with my much-publicized (on this blog at least) book tour, I worked with a writer’s group of fellow teachers and managed to write two new essays. I also conducted much research on my new topic – the American phenomenon of the drive-by wilderness. This research consisted mostly of reading John Muir, learning to kayak, hiking in the Smokies, and spending a week at Sewanee.

Fall has rolled in, and I sure hope it’s not going anywhere, but this first post after a long blog hiatus will devote some pictures to the summer that was.

June:

Solstice sunset from the cross at Sewanee.

July:

Malaprop's promoting my reading in Asheville, North Carolina!

A hiking friend and I strike our best Lewis and Clark in the Great Smoky Mountains.

August:

My friends' "garden" on fire escape in Madison, Wisconsin.

Corn on the cob - Madison, Wisconsin.

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It’s been three weeks now since what’s been termed the 2011 Super Outbreak of tornadoes.  In this part of the country, one doesn’t have to look very hard to tell that some serious stuff went down that day. Lots of blue roofs and fallen trees. Many, many people are still struggling to piece their lives back together.

But, most of the power has been restored and the rural roads are now clear enough to bike on, so I’ve been back at it. I took a short ride the Saturday after the tornadoes (April 30) and a longer ride the following Saturday, which actually crossed through the track of an EF4. Wow. Photos cannot do that justice, I promise you.

The Times Free Press recently ran an article about how relief agencies have all the used clothing and toys they can handle.  However, there are STILL ways to help. One thing I’ve heard is that lots of people need food that doesn’t require cooking or refrigeration (Beenie Weenies and the like).  There are collection centers in town. Calvary Chapel looks to have  pretty well organized effort on that front.   And the best collection of lists in town is still at the WRCB website. They’ve divided needs into SE Tenn., N. Georgia, and NE Alabama.

Anyway, with all the websites and twittering out there, one might think the humble church sign is a thing of the past, but I’ve found some pertinent information and ways to help on those signs as I bicycle through North Georgia. Here are three:

Flintstone, Georgia

Elizabeth Lee UMC; Chickamauga, Georgia

Wallaceville, Georgia

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Among other nice things in a recent review of my book, Ralph Bowden wrote that I “grew up with engaged, responsible parents.” This is true. One of my favorite examples of Mom and Dad’s engaged responsibility, however, did not make it into the book….

In the winter of 1987, when I was eight years old, my parents informed me that the three of us would be watching every episode of the PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965 together. It was, I remember, broadcast once a week for six successive weeks, with each episode covering a specific aspect of the movement.  It also came on precisely at my bedtime. In my house, bedtime was iron-clad, so the fact that Mom and Dad let me stay up late made me happy and conveyed the deep importance of what I was watching. Some of the footage, I remember, was scary – buses on fire, men being beaten, faces contorted with hate, but I was allowed to ask questions about what I was seeing.  It was while watching those episodes that I learned about my parents’ memories of those days.

I looked forward to the every episode of Eyes on the Prize. Sometimes, I would fall asleep on the couch, but Mom and Dad woke me up if there was something they thought I needed to see – I still remember being shaken awake to witness the Freedom Rides.

Because of what my parents did, I felt a responsibility to what I’d learned. I wasn’t sure what exactly to do with my newfound knowledge,  but I knew, somehow, that I needed to be mindful of that history in my daily interactions. I knew those stories were important. I also became completely fascinated with the movement – a fascination that rekindled itself as I sat in the Downtown Nashville Public Library in the summer of 2005 and began what would become my book.

Tonight, PBS is airing another immensely important Civil Rights documentary – Freedom Riders – in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides, when black and white Americans violated Jim Crow laws to ride buses together across the South. Advance criticism is overwhelmingly positive. From what I can tell, one thread of the story involves students retracing the rides today.

We Americans can talk and talk about what happened here in the 1950s and 60s, but few genres capture the high stakes, terror, and courage of the Civil Rights Movement like documentary film.  Tune in tonight – PBS 9/8 C. And if you have school-age kids, keep ’em up – I speak from experience when I say this is one history lesson that’s worth sacrificing some sleep for.

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It’s a cool, sunny, beautiful day here in Chattanooga. I find it difficult to believe that this time a week ago, I cast a worried look at a roiling green horizon, grabbed my dog and a woolen blanket, and rode out a storm in my pantry. Ultimately, that storm didn’t do much; however, it was one of four that shot up through Alabama and rumbled over the ridge where I live.

We didn’t get much but fallen trees in the city (and those did wreak some havoc for people I care about), but I’ll be thinking through the events of April 27 for a long while simply because of the bizarre sensation of living on the perimeter of a catastrophe. So, I have three pictures for you today. None of them are big damage shots. I’ll leave those to the pros. I’ve not gone into those parts of the county/region anyway because I have no reason to – volunteer needs are mostly for people with chainsaws and ATVs, and gawkers only cause problems.

BUT these three shots do convey a few things – the day of the storms itself, with its multiple trips to interior rooms/basements, the community response, and the little pieces of lives which I have found scattered all around the campus where I live.

faculty children exercise caution as they wait out storm #3 in a basement

What else could we do?

found while walking the dog on the morning of May 4 - a piece of tin roofing, a bank statement, a page from the Old Testament

Remember, there are still ways you can help the storm victims if you are so inclined. Do consider texting Redcross to 90999 if you can! Also, my school is collecting non-perishable goods which require little-to-no cooking (think beenie weenies and breakfast cereal), so get in touch with me if you want to do that, and I’ll get those beenie weenies into the right hands.

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