Alabama – Days 1-4: From Selma to Montgomery and Birmingham to Huntsville

Brittany Swanson   January 22, 2016   Comments Off on Alabama – Days 1-4: From Selma to Montgomery and Birmingham to Huntsville

My first full day in Alabama I went to Selma and Montgomery. Earlier when I was planning out my route and making Couchsurfing requests, I had somehow forgotten that both of these historic places were in Alabama. Yikes. Thankfully, I had scheduled two days in Mobile, and since I’ve been there before, I figured it’d be fine if it got the short end of the stick on this trip. Sorry Mobile…

The drive to Selma was the first time I noticed, and I mean REALLY noticed, litter on the sides of the road. There was so much of it. Everywhere. Alabama, like pretty much everywhere else I’ve been, had the signs, “Keep Alabama Beautiful, Don’t Litter,”  but for some reason there was still trash everywhere. Perhaps their citizens didn’t heed the warnings of $1,000 fines, or maybe they don’t have the adopt a highway program to clean the trash off the streets. Either way, there was trash everywhere and not just a little here and there, it covered ditches from end to end as if someone had ripped open a trash bag or four and spread the contents all across the sides of the road. It made me sad.

Selma was interesting. I felt like I’d stepped back in time and into a ghost town. Granted, there were a handful of people around, but on the whole the place felt deserted. The buildings seemed far too big for how few people were around, and I was even there at lunch time. Some of the buildings didn’t seem to be in use, though they weren’t quite derelict yet. Instead, they stood silently as a reminder of a time long gone. It was both eerie and beautiful.

I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of Bloody Sunday, where unarmed citizens were attacked by Alabama State Troopers and local police as they tried to march to Montgomery to demand blacks be allowed to register and vote back on March 7, 1965. Over the bridge was the National Voting Rights Museum. I probably spent an hour or so in the museum. It wasn’t terribly big, but there was still a significant amount of information. I learned a lot and took notes on things I wanted to research on my own later, including the names of many female leaders in the civil rights movement whose names sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember why.

Edmund Pettus Bridge looking back toward Selma, AL.

Edmund Pettus Bridge looking back toward Selma, AL.

After the museum I took a little walk in the Civil Rights Memorial Park across the street. However, once I got off the boardwalk it was quite muddy and the path I thought would lead to a good picture of the Edmund Pettus Bridge was blocked off so I turned around and headed back across the bridge. I wandered through Selma for a while and then drove a bit further through some neighborhoods before continuing on my way to Montgomery.

In Montgomery I started at the Rosa Parks Museum and learned more about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There are two parts to the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery. The first part is kid friendly and gives a quick history of blacks in America from slavery up until the civil rights movement. It’s cool because it’s almost interactive. You sit on a big bus and a video plays. The actors in the video interact with the robot bus driver in front of you and then the bus shakes as you “time travel” to learn about the past. It was totally corny, but I loved it! The second part of the museum was more typical of a museum. It started with a video presentation and then the wall opened up into the rest of the exhibits. There was also an art gallery in the Rosa Parks Museum which was really interesting; it had historic and contemporary pieces on social justice and civil rights and was really cool.

After the Rosa Parks Museum I made my way to the Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Memorial is a really neat fountain that has two parts. The first part is a vertical wall with water streaming down it over the Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “…Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a might stream.” The second part is kind of like a big circular table – its flat and round and around the flat surface are significant dates and deaths during the Civil Rights movement. This table-like part of the fountain also has water streaming over it, but the water clings close to the structure so it doesn’t flow off the sides like a waterfall. 

Civil Rights Memorial, Southern Poverty Law Center, Montgomery, AL.

Civil Rights Memorial, Southern Poverty Law Center, Montgomery, AL.

The following day I drove to Birmingham and spent most of the day making the next round of Couchsurfing requests and attempting to get caught up on the blog. A battle it seems I am constantly losing…

The day after that I went to Railroad Park in Birmingham where I decided to work out. It’d been a while since I worked out outside. I really enjoyed it. There was a nice breeze and the sun was shining down. I even kind of enjoyed the random looks from strangers – I found it weirdly encouraging. Yeah, you watch me do these push-ups!

After my work-out I ate some breakfast and headed to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. I think my favorite part was the parallel timelines that mapped out national events next to Alabama specific events. It was very informative; there was a TON of information. I learned lots of things I never knew, and probably never would have unless I had been from Alabama or visited this museum, so that was pretty neat.

The museum also held an art exhibit by photojournalist Wanda Benvenutti titled, Puerto Ricans: Living Beyond Race in the 21st Century. Benvenutti captured pictures of Puerto Ricans all across America from all different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. It was fascinating. I really like seeing glimpses of other peoples’ lives. That’s probably why I enjoy Couchsurfing so much…

After a few hours in the museum I was really hungry so I decided to have myself a little picnic in Kelly Ingram Park across the street. But, first I wanted to get a picture of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church before the sun went down. There was a man sitting on the steps of the church, but I didn’t mind.

The man saw me trying to take a picture and hastily got up from his spot and walked to get out of the frame, shouting to me across the street, “Sorry, I’ll move out of your picture!” “It’s no problem!” I responded, “Really, you don’t have to move!” but he was already well out of the way. He asked me where I was from. I said Minnesota. He asked if I’d like a more detailed history of the church. I said, sure.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and Andrew walking out of the frame, Birmingham, AL.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and Andrew walking out of the frame, Birmingham, AL.

I waited for the light to change and crossed the street to meet him. He introduced himself as Andrew; I said my name was Brittany. We shook hands and he took me around to the side of the building. I noticed he smelled strongly of cigarettes and his graying hair had me peg him at maybe his mid-fifties? Andrew explained where the bomb went off and how much of the church was damaged. He showed me which windows blew out and which ones survived. He also explained that years later, in order to be designated a historical landmark, the church had to use the same building materials as the original but that one of the materials could only be found in South Dakota. Who knew?!

Andrew then led me around to the other side of the church (the one I had taken a picture of earlier). Here he explained that four years after the bombing there was a call for children to draw what they thought of Birmingham at the time of the bombing. He went on to explain that of the entires the best were chosen and compiled into a mural which was cast in metal and placed outside the church. He then showed it to me, pointing out the different elements including the police siccing dogs on marchers, the marchers themselves, the four girls who died at the church, and the Klan.

Art inspired by kids reflecting on Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing four years later, Birmingham, AL.

Art inspired by kids reflecting on Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing four years later, Birmingham, AL.

I thanked Andrew for my mini tour and again we shook hands. He said I was welcome and then completely caught me off guard by saying that he was homeless. He asked if I could do anything to help him out – that he was just trying to secure shelter for the night. Of course I couldn’t leave my pal Andrew hanging out in the cold. Without hesitating I pulled out my wallet and handed him ten dollars. Then I asked how much a place to stay for the night would cost. He said $22. So, I went back to my wallet, found seven more dollars and a handful of change and gave all of it to him. I then asked him if I could have a hug. He seemed a little shocked, but agreed. We hugged and then I went on my way, following the markers of the Civil Rights Heritage Trail and learning more about the history of Birmingham as I ate a snack.

As I walked and continued to learn about the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham I suddenly wondered why Andrew was homeless. Then I kicked myself a little because the more I thought about it the more I really wanted to know WHY Andrew was homeless.  I also wanted to know why my immediate response to “I’m homeless” hadn’t been “why?”. Andrew was so nice and friendly. Why was he homeless? Was he being discriminated against because he was black? Or because he was getting old? Or maybe he had a drug problem? (It didn’t seem like it.) Or maybe he got laid off and his wife left him and he couldn’t get back up again? Why was this man, my newfound friend, homeless? Why? And why didn’t I ask him why?

I think I was scared. Scared of his answer. Scared that it’d make me uncomfortable. What if he was homeless because he was black and being discriminated against? How would knowing that make me feel? What would I be able to do about it?

It also didn’t help that when Andrew said he was homeless I, idiotically, replied that I was homeless too. I said this as I dug into my wallet to give him money. It’s not untrue. I am, technically, homeless. But my homelessness and Andrew’s homelessness are very different. Mainly because I chose to be homeless, and to go on this road trip. Though, to be fair, I didn’t ask, so I’m not sure why Andrew is homeless, perhaps he also chose to be. Somehow, I don’t think so. I can stop being homeless if I want to and I’m not sure Andrew can and that totally sucks.

The problem with homelessness is that the people are faceless and their stories are unheard. WE walk by them on the street trying not to make eye contact because a dollar here and a dollar everywhere will add up, but will it change anything? No. So we avert our eyes and continue on with our day ignoring the people around us, but who are these homeless people? What are their stories? How did they become homeless to begin with? What are they doing to get away from being homeless? Are they trying to get away from being homeless? Why should we care?

We should care because everyone is someone’s brother or sister, son or daughter, friend or loved one. Yet, generally, as Americans, we are blind to anyone and everyone outside our own bubble. We hear of natural disasters and mass destruction and we feel bad but it doesn’t really do anything for us, because those aren’t our people, so we can’t care. We see homeless people on the street, but they aren’t our family members or friends, so what does it matter to us?

I saw an article the other day about a photo of a man from Syria who was selling pens to try to get enough money to support his family. A journalist, posted the pictures online and in really no time at all hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised to help this man and his family. Why? Because the photo gave the man a face. The picture told his story. So despite the fact that he’s Syrian and people all over the world are racing to shut their borders to Syrian refugees just like him, there are all these people willing to help him, because with a face and a story he doesn’t seem like a stranger. Or a threat. He has since used the money to stabilize his family and give back to others. Read more here

So, this is my public service announcement about not judging a book by its cover and not generalizing and discriminating against an entire group of people. Try to find the humanity in everyone, especially those outside your bubble. At the end of the day we all want the same thing: to be happy. I’m sure if we all take a minute to appreciate how amazing humans are and can be, maybe we’ll smile instead of frown at the next stranger we see and maybe, just maybe we will be filled with love and kindness instead of fear and hate. Maybe. I sure hope so.

My final day in Alabama I met up with a friend from Camp Ramapo who showed me around Huntsville, AL. We went to an awesome pizza called Pieology, which is like Chipotle for pizzas. After lunch we took a driving tour of the town and did some yoga at a park and wandered a bit and then he showed me around his college. It was a super chill, super fun day.

This was the park where Will and I did yoga in Huntsville, AL.

This was the park where Will and I did yoga in Huntsville, AL.