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April 26, 2014

Civil Rights 50th Year Anniversary - A Trip to Remember

Apologies to readers of my blog who care only about my writings on technology and entrepreneurship, but I was compelled to write a more personal post in honor of the 50th anniversary of LBJ's signing of the historic Civil Rights Act (a law some argue was "the single most important US law in the 20th century").

In celebration of the anniversary, we took the opportunity this week to take a family trip to Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee to expose our kids to this poignant history.  The things we saw, the people we met, the conversations we had as a family inspired me tremendously.  I am sharing a few highlights in the event that anyone else is interested in exploring this part of the country and this influential chapter in American history.  By the way, if you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend All the Way, the powerful play starring Bryan Cranston about LBJ's first year in office and his amazing efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act.

After flying into New Orleans (and, yes, having some fun there), we started our trip at Beauvoir in Biloxi, Mississippi - the retirement home of Jefferson Davis after the end of the Civil War.  It was a fitting place to start:  the Union won the war and the slaves were declared free, but the impact from centuries of discrimination and segregation remained.  Below is one of the t-shirts they sell at the gift shop there, which spurred a vigorous discussion with my kids about why the Confederate flag is indeed so offensive and why there is such powerful controversy surrounding it.

We then drove to Montgomery, Alabama where MLK did so much of his good work.  Montgomery is a pretty barren city, but the sites are amazing and many are quite new.  The Rosa Parks Museum, located precisely at the bus stop where she got on and sat in the middle "white section", is an absolute gem.  The kids were mesmerized by the exhibits that provided a visual reinactment of her quiet courage in standing up to years of injustice.  It was particularly powerful to stand in front of the state house where Governor George Wallace was sworn in (102 years after Jefferson Davis was sworn in as President of the Confederate States at the very same spot) and declared in 1963 "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever".  Right across the street is the Dexter Avenue Baptist church where MLK pastored for seven years.  Around the corner is the Southern Povery Law Center, which had a beautiful exhibit about fighting for social justice, culminating in one of my favorite Eli Wiesel quotes, which my son captured below.  In reward for its good work, the SPLC staff shared with us that they have received 30 bomb threats in the last 20 years.

SPLC pic

From Birmingham, we drove to Selma to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where MLK and other leaders crossed to kick off a 5-day, 54 mile march from Selma to Montgomery.  The march occurred in March 1965 - nearly a year after the passing of the Civil Rights Act but at a time when voting discrimination remained rampant.  The march resulted in LBJ submitting (and eventually passing through Congress) the Voting Right Act only a few days later.  Here is a moving excerpt from his speech to a joint Congress:

Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

After Selma, we drove to Brimingham, Alabama and had the privilege of attending the Sunday Easter service at the famous 16th Street Baptist Church.  Over 200 parishoners were there to celebrate the holiday and we enjoyed meeting many of them and participating in the service.  One 81 year old man shared with us his personal connection the four young girls who were killed in the 1963 bombing at the Church.  This bombing contributed to the national outrage that led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act.

Easter in Birmingham

We then drove to Oxford, Mississippi to visit Ole Miss.  Ole Miss was finally integrated in 1962, thanks to the courage of James Meredith and with the support of 500 US Marshalls that JFK had to send to force the issue with the intransigent Mississippi governor.  There is a statue of Meredith on the campus and a beautiful tribute to him.  Shockingly, his statue was found just a few months ago with a noose around it and wrapped in a Conferederate battle flag.

Finally, we drove to Memphis and visited the Lorraine Hotel where MLK was tragically assassinated.  The hotel has been converted into a comprehensive, newly renovated National Civil Rights Museum, with exhibits that track the history of slavery through emancipation through the 1960s all the way up to today's civil rights issues.  I was particularly pleased to see the focus on some of the modern civil rights causes, such as immigration reform.  I was also touched by a video about a non-profit called Black Girls Code, which I'm looking forward to learning more about.

The trip was overwhelming and moving.  It prompted conversations with our kids about the modern issues of income inequality.  For example, my 17 year old daughter asked me at one point:  "Why do certain jobs pay more than others?" which led to a rich discussion about income, justice and the free market.  It raised conversations about bigotry in our community in our time, not just historical acts of bigotry, and it expanded their horizons in a way I had not anticipated.

If anyone wants to get advice about taking a trip like this, let me know.  One of our favorite non-profits, Facing History and Ourselves, was a great resource for us as they led a similar trip for their board in 2001.  We loved being exposed to Southern Hospitality (everyone we met was very kind and welcoming), learning about our history, celebrating how far we have come in 50 short years and recognizing that we have more work to do in the years ahead.

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