Reflections by Johanna Foster
Independence Day, 2006
I woke up several times last night, perhaps anticipating the day, and the trip ahead of me, feeling the weight of what our journey might bring for us. I recalled nightmares. Tonight would be the eve of “Freedom Summer 2006,” the opening act of a close to three-week tour of some of the major civil rights history sites of the South that Jen and I, two white sociologists with a passion for social justice teaching and activism, had planned for ourselves and my two children, two multiracial black kids aged 7 and 4. The trip was going to take us to the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, to Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, and end on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
It was– not by accident– the Fourth of July, and the “introductory unit” was going to be an alternative rending of the collective story of the cultural importance of Independence Day. I wanted this kick-off discussion with the kids to be a touchstone exercise that would set the stage for the lessons on slavery and abolition, segregation and the Civil Rights Movement that we would engage in at greater length down the road–ones we imagined would be deeply informed by the public discourse made available to us at official African-American and Civil Rights Movement history sites along the way. Neither Jen nor I had ever embarked on such a trip despite our combined 20 years of teaching in race, class and gender studies. We have no idea what we will find on the tours, and we are bursting with anticipation. But first I have to get the kids to a parade.
It was early in the morning and the day was already brutally hot and humid, as is not surprising for July in the Northeast. Cranky as usual without coffee, I head to the local deli for bagels and caffeine, and then home to hustle the kids to the parade staging area where they had been invited to ride on a float for the day. As we wait, I hear marchers discussing the politics of the Independence Day celebration in our town, a politically progressive, affluent urban suburb of New York City with a significant black middle and upper-middle class and a national reputation as an enclave for multiracial families like my own. Apparently, in the context of the larger growing opposition to the U.S. war on Iraq, our town’s festivities are to be featured on a national television news magazine in juxtaposition to the Fourth of July events happening in a politically conservative suburb in a so-called “Red State” in the Midwest. I look around at the contingencies lining up to march, including the groups of war veterans, drum and bugle brigades, soccer clubs, and folks from an area car dealership, and also take note of the numerous peace organizations, reproductive rights groups, and vocal representation from a local advocacy group demanding reparations for slavery. I am suddenly appreciative of the complexity of our parade, grateful for at least some kind of stepping stone to the conversation with the kids that was brewing in my mind for that evening after they had taken in all they could of the spectacle.
“Was George Washington a freedom fighter?” asks Kellum, my 4 year-old son, as we sit down in a circle later that night to try and make sense of what all the day’s fuss was about and what it had to with us getting on the road the next morning. Although my kids, like many, are experts in such “circle time” activities by this age, I can see that they now felt a bit awkward about this one as their mother takes the lead. Perhaps it is the lit candle in the middle of our circle, or the sound of fireworks from the town’s pyrotechnic conclusion to the day’s events. In any event, he had shot me the question – the shot heard ‘round the world, as they say– and I know it was now or never to start the discussion with them that, once started in earnest, was one I knew we would be having for the rest of my life.
As the conversation trailed off of Independence Day and on to the pre-bedtime discussions of favorite stuffed animals and the unpopularity of the recent flavor of toothpaste I had purchased for them, I wonder if I can ever fully prepare them, or myself, for even the first stop on our tour: Tomorrow we would begin our long ride from the NYC metro area to South Carolina, to the now resort island of Hilton Head, where my father and his wife had recently bought retirement property in a residential community that retains the historically accurate name “plantation” in its title. As a part of the Sea Islands, the resort is located in a region home to communities descended from free African people, yet was, itself, an island eventually completely colonized and devoured by the plantation economy. It is also the location of one of the first post-emancipation Freedman Societies in the nation. But largely, we will begin the tour there because, while not planned to coincide with our trip, it has turned out to be the site of an annual family reunion on my side, and we are hoping to spend time with relatives.
As I replay the cupcake analogy in my mind and tuck them in, I remark to myself that it is, of course, no accident in the sociological sense that my white family reunion will be on this same land, and I struggle over how exactly, and when, I will help my children understand their personal ties to that side of my family, and their claims to that land- claims both similar to and distinct from my own. Thankfully, it does not have to be tonight. The first night of Freedom Summer 2006 is winding down, and I watch Sophie as she examines George Washington’s face on the one dollar bill. “Maybe we should write on it that Americans are celebrating the wrong freedom fighters,” she says. Not bad for seven, I think, and I decide that maybe this wasn’t a crazy idea after all.
It has been five days since the Independence Day parade. By now, the kids have made it through an 11 hour driving day and several days of family visits interspersed between introductions to The Middle Passage, Gullah culture, plantation life, the difference between genocide and slavery, and abolition as the first civil rights movement for African-Americans. I had jumped head first into the stash of children’s books and films, although my saving grace was surely the compilation of songs especially produced for children. One particular CD called, Steal Away: Songs of the Underground Railroad took us thousands of miles on the power of just a handful of spirituals. It felt like we had been away for a month.
On the way down, we had stopped at the home of their paternal grandparents, Al Palmer and Joyce East-Palmer, in Maryland, partially as a weigh station, partially to pick up my sister who would join us for the first leg to Hilton Head for the reunion, and partially to give the kids a chance to talk directly to elders who had lived through and participated in the Civil Rights Movement. From rural North Carolina and Baltimore, respectively, my mother-in-law and father-in-law met and fell in love at Morgan State in the 1960s and traveled to D.C. with a faculty mentor in 1963 to hear King speak at the March on Washington. Their presence in the audience is memorialized in Eyes on the Prize in a scene just seconds before the famous “I have a dream” clip that has become so embedded in the American psyche. Back on that first night of Freedom Summer, before the candle and the musings over George Washington, we had viewed the episode with the kids, waiting patiently to see “Grandmother and Gramps” make it on to the screen. The kids brought hand-held tape recorders and self-designed questionnaires for their grandparents (with only a little help from me, I swear) that included questions like, “What was it like to live during segregation?” “What other freedom fighters did you know of other than Dr. King?” “Why did you go to the March on Washington?” and “Did you like to play when you were a kid?”
So, by the time we get to Hilton Head, I’m sure the kids feel like we have been on the road for a year. In between reunion activities and waiting for Jen to join us from the West Coast, we set out on a tour of Ft. Howell and the former freedman’s community of Mitchellville provided by the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head. The sites are walking distance from my family’s new property, and I remark on how I had been visiting that island for over 25 years and had never known about them. We learn about the major phases of colonialism, the movement toward industrial capitalism to the use of the island as a military outpost in WWI and then its development into a resort town in the 1950s, but not at all in these terms, even though the children’s books on Gullah culture we had packed for the ride would describe these later macro changes for young readers as “a kind of new slavery.” We would not get that kind of interpretation at this museum and I certainly was not surprised. My head begins to spin nonetheless. A kind of vertigo set in as I try to manage the total disconnect between the reality of contemporary life on Hilton Head and the historical narratives presented before us. I would come to understand this as one of the hallmark psychic experiences of our trip.
Later in the tour, we learn that there are slave quarters ruins just a mile or so away from the museum, but the tour does not take us there despite the fact that it is on public property. The kids and I venture on to find the ruins ourselves, and we locate them behind the dugout of what is now a baseball field. Fenced off, a marker memorializes the plantation owner as much as the fact that these were once the homes of people who lived as slaves. We leave the local museum to get some rest before our ride to pick up Jen in the morning, and I see a framed collage on the lobby wall that includes images of Dr. King and the cut out words, “They fear each other because they don’t know each other.” I sigh to myself. I hear this all the time from my students as they try to explain the persistence of racism- that is, if they acknowledge its persistence. They are, of course, correct on some level about the impact of segregation, but they come with such a small part of the story. Now we are leaving with it.
As we wait out the day until Jen arrives, I take a few minutes to talk to Kell about the difference between genocide and slavery as he pronounces again, as has become somewhat of a routine, that “white people killed all the black people.” I realize he is beginning to morph the particular manifestations of racism against Native Americans and African-Americans. I know he is wrestling with the core idea of genocide, and I am troubled to hear such things come out of his mouth. At the same time, I want him to know these things before their realities blindside him. Have I started too early? Does he even understand what he is saying?
The next day, on the way to pick up Jen, a dear Auntie and walking library of social movement theory and politics, we sing spirituals over and over again. We have been singing them from the day we left our house, and I can’t imagine how the trip would be unfolding now if we didn’t have this music with us each day. The kids are belting out “Wade in the Water,” and I think of the magical moment just days before when they were first really learning the song. Just as we were crossing the Delaware Memorial Bridge, singing “God’s gonna trouble the water,” the sun bursts out after two hours of blinding rain on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the voiceover on this kids’ version of the spiritual tells about one of Harriet Tubman’s dangerous crossings of the same river years ago.
Now, as we approach the airport with the volume high, I look in the rearview mirror and see that Kellum is visibly upset. He is not whining or having a tantrum, but crying silently, and I ask him what is wrong, at the same time remembering the advice of a close colleague’s mother who would warn her children to never ask a question to which they didn’t really want to hear the answer. “I’m sad because I am thinking about my ancestors,” he says. I freeze up and wonder again if I am blowing it completely. God’s gonna trouble the water. Sophie provides a quick tickle and I know, as parents do, that in moments like this it can go either way: back to the manageable surface or even deeper into despair. He cheers up and turns his attention toward the runways stretching out before us. Meanwhile, the debating voices of educational psychologists are raging in my mind, louder than the sound of the incoming planes.
Jen strides out of the gate to see the three of us in our red Freedom Summer T-shirts, hardly able to contain ourselves. We had brought a shirt for her, of course, and the kids nearly plow her over to give it to her along with big hugs and kisses. They desperately want to show her the inside of the decorated van, and so we head quickly to baggage claim as we also have a scheduled Black History Tour of Savannah waiting ahead that afternoon. The day is heady, but our energy is high.
Later that night, after scrapbooks and journal entries, Sophie asks, to my surprise, if we can play “Black History School,” and we have our first circle-time with Jen. I ask them to tell the “new student” what we have been learning about these past few days. Nobody says anything for a very, very long time. I think about the social science research that found that teachers allow students only three seconds, on average, to answer questions, and I try to resist the urge to prompt them. They look at me, shyly, and back at Jen. And then Kellum says, “Freedom.” I breathe out a sigh of relief. Okay, the basic idea is in there somewhere. And then his one word becomes the door to paragraphs from Sophie who informs her Auntie of the grueling labor of slavery, the origin of the Underground Railroad, and tales of amazing escapes.
Knowing we were leaving for a tour of the King Center in the morning, Jen and I try to segue to the concept of segregation and I try to help them get a better handle on the meaning of segregation by telling them to think first of separation. Kellum recognizes right away that this word is associated somehow with Dr. King, and Sophie, remembering the presentations on the Savannah lunch counter protests and wade-ins at a nearby Georgia beach, offers the reminder that separate was not equal. Kellum is taking it all in, adding his own details of what he found interesting. We end with a reminder of what slavery was again, and this time, as I brace myself for his 4-year old rendering, Kell gets it exactly right and tells Jen clearly that slavery was about forcing people to work against their will, and, by the way, did we know that the Underground Railroad wasn’t really underground? Bravo, I think. I’m flying high when Sophie says softly, “I wish slavery was a dream.”
Before we fall off to sleep, I try to talk about the failure of the state to fully help black people be free after slavery was abolished, but I can’t quite translate it well enough for them to grasp it. I leave if for the road to the King Center. The next morning we are buckled into our minivan seats on the way to Atlanta. We have three hours to move the kids from their understanding of slavery and abolition through Reconstruction to Jim Crow, and to begin the process of explaining how slavery and segregation were similar but different systems of inequality. But most centrally, we want them to hear that segregation generated a historic movement of resistance that inspired social change around the world. It occurs to me that this is probably more time than most undergraduates in the United States are given to make sense of these very same ideas, so I pop Our Friend Martin, an animated introduction to the life of Dr. King, into the portable DVD player and drive out of the driveway feeling mighty emboldened as we head for Georgia.
I think of how we both make it clear to our students that this question is fundamentally a moral one: White people could choose to affirm rather than deplete their own human dignity by refusing to participate in exploitative systems that get them rewards only on the backs of others. On a personal level, Jen tells her students how grateful she is at the amazing miracle, hard won, that she and her tremendously diverse group of students get to sit together in the same room and ask the big questions. We both try to convey to our students how enriched our lives have been from working and living and loving alongside people of color in community.
Also, as sociologists, we have chosen whenever possible to see clearly the human suffering around us and our involvement in it. We believe the Reverend Doctor Rebecca Parker, a white Unitarian-Universalist minister, when she writes that white people are educated into denial, into not seeing the racial reality obvious all around them. We choose to abandon this blindness for our own moral wellbeing. In her words, “What I know is that I do not benefit from this loss of my senses, this denial of what I have seen and felt, this cultural erasure of my actual neighbors, this loss of my country.” We want our white students to choose to keep their eyes open, to find a way out of their racial squeamishness and white guilt through deliberate anti-racism. We want them to understand that whites can revalue what is truly meaningful to them, and shift our goals from the acquisition of wealth, status, and power to a focus on right relationships and the commitment to serve. Our students may ask why whites would give up advantages to work against racism as a rhetorical question born of historical ignorance or despair, but there are real and inspiring answers to that question. We are traveling the civil rights movement, in part, in search of those answers and, in part, to do right by Sophie and Kellum.
The kids are snuggled up next to me now, the story finished, and I try to get them to realize more fully their personal connections to the mission of our trip. “How is it that Ruby Bridges made it possible for your Dad and me to be together? And how did her courage, and the courage of her parents, make your own lives possible?” Sophie, who knows that her father and I were high school sweethearts, answers right away that school desegregation allowed us to meet. But I can see that it is much more difficult for her to absorb the awesome reality that she, herself, would not actually exist if it weren’t for the sacrifices of Ruby Bridges, and thousands of other ordinary people just like her. I ask them to think through what might have happened if public schools were not integrated. I tell them how unlikely it would have been, even in the 1980s, for their father and I to meet and fall in love with each other had it not been for the fact that we were classmates in the same school. I know that someday they will understand so much better why their Auntie and I ventured out on this trip, and I hope when that day comes, they will know it was just as much for them as it was for us.
We leave Atlanta feeling absolutely shattered. Unbelievably, it is even hotter today than yesterday. Driving out of the city on the way to Birmingham, I am thinking of the National Park Ranger at King’s childhood home who, after learning where we are headed next, shakes his head and says, “Alabama. That’s where the rubber meets the road.” Earlier, I had woken up after dreaming I was in the bowels of a dog. Sophie, who had been sleeping with Kell and me since we left home, had a fitful sleep as well, and I lay there next to her wondering what she had been working out, or if it is just my own nightmares getting in her way.
Before we get on the road, I try to help the kids better understand why we have shuttled them around the King Center for these past few days, particularly in such grueling heat, and I decide to read them the children’s story of Ruby Bridges before we head out of town. Sophie can connect immediately with the story as she is in the same grade as Ruby was when the intensity of white racism in New Orleans left Ruby as the only student in the class for almost the entire first year after her school’s move to desegregate. She learns about the death threats against Ruby and her family, and is distressed by the retelling of the little black dolls in coffins that are utilized by segregationists in protest of school integration. We read on and learn that that the protests and threats made it hard for Ruby to eat and sleep for much of the school year. I think of Sophie’s restlessness and try to get my mind around the magnitude of the terror and conflict that Ruby’s parents must have felt as they looked down at their own restlessly sleeping daughter and tried to decide whether or not to continue to send her to school each day in the face of mob violence.
With the focus on Kelly Ingram Park and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the movement history sites in Birmingham would be, rightfully so, all about brutality and violence. And from my children’s perspective, this carnage was impossible for them to comprehend. I wonder how many adults that are not already schooled in the issues would be able to explain the events of this place—and so many others- by visiting the memorial sites alone. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute includes a tremendous documentation of the events of the civil rights movement, and particularly those in Birmingham. The visual representations of the atrocities of white supremacy, including an installation of the actual freedom rider bus that was torched, are enormously powerful—so much so that I watch Kell become tightly wound up, and Sophie become completely deflated, as we move from one display of inhumanity to another. They are only revived at the end of the tour when they move to one of the final installations- a screening of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—and see the faces of their grandparents flash bigger than life. From there, we view exhibits of global movements that have been inspired by the civil rights struggle. None of these installations, at least at the time of our visit, address the persistence of and resistance to white supremacy in the contemporary period. I can’t help but think of the King Center where we are left with the same implicit message: Racism in the United States is a thing of the past. The fight is over.
“You will not be able to move forward if you do not know where we come from.”—Anthony Owens
We arrive in Montgomery and are relieved that the initial scene, largely because of its function as the state capital, we think, is less soul-crushing than our initial arrival into Birmingham. The kids find it easy to understand and identify with Rosa Parks’ act of defiance. The genius, sheer organizational feat, the profound will of the participants, and also the iconic nature itself of the Montgomery Bus Boycott carries us all (in different ways) through our several days there with an energy we could not muster in Birmingham or Atlanta. I wonder how much of this is because it is simply easier for us at this stage in our trip to lean on the American story of triumph of the good, rather than face the lessons we regularly teach for a living and can’t bear.
We take the kids to the Rosa Parks Children’s Museum, where they can take a ride through time on a magic bus. They are smitten with the bus ride, as are we, although they are a little bit freaked out about the robot driver. I remark to Jen that we could do wonders if we transferred all the Disney and other theme park technologies into something actually educational. The adult portion of the Parks museum is also quite technologically savvy, equipping visitors with the means to search a series of databases, watch video clips of oral histories of activists in the movement, and engage in other interactive activities during their stay. The museum is located on the block where Rosa Parks was arrested, and as we leave, someone offers to take a picture of the four of us at the historic site.
As we walk back to the van, we notice that it is being ticketed. I tell Jen that I can now say, with pride, that I violated a Montgomery ordinance. We note wryly to the kids that our parking ticket is only four dollars—much, much lower than the fine Rosa Parks was ordered to pay for her act of civil disobedience. Sophie, however, sees the parking police and is understandably worried that we are all in serious trouble, and it takes some time to reassure her that everything is okay. I think of our upcoming trip to Selma and how I will handle the details of Bloody Sunday. We get to the state house and take some time to visit the sites that are just a stone’s throw from this former capital of the confederacy, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is directed by long-time white civil rights activist, Morris Dees. Unlike all of the other sites we have toured, the memorial is guarded by security, and the Center is the only place where we are asked to walk through a metal detector or have our bags checked. Given that Maya Lin’s memorial is to people who were killed because of their civil rights activism, I suppose we should not have been surprised by the high security. Nonetheless, we are shocked by its contrast with the unguarded storefront entrance to the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma. From there, we pay our respects to the Dexter Church and the King Parsonage and make our way for Greensboro to pay homage to the sit-ins. The kids recognize the local pool hall from Our Friend Martin, but the bomb crater on the King Parsonage porch stays in their minds long after the details of the video have faded.
We get to Greensboro, NC, hoping to visit a museum dedicated to the college students who desegregated lunch counters in the sit-ins of 1960, and find the Woolworths empty with signs indicating that a museum would be established in the future. We later read that the voters had rejected the public bond measures that would have funded the museum and so money had had to be raised privately. The Kress & Company building which had also been the site of sit-ins now has a restaurant in it and no acknowledgment of its significance during 1960. We only find out about the building thanks to a window-washer wrapping up for the day who noticed the four of us reading the historical marker in front of the Woolworths and taking pictures while standing in the footprints of the four students who had begun the sit-ins in Greensboro. When the citizens of a town that witnessed the birth of one of the major tactical innovations of contemporary social movements fail to see the need for a museum documenting its history, it seems evidence of the distance many people now feel from civil rights activism, as well as the continued effects of racism.
Hungry after our long drive, we are pleased to learn that the Kress & Company has a restaurant open for business. We feel a kind of glee at the thought that the four of us, two white women and two black kids, could share a meal in a building where college students had staged sit-ins to protest racially segregated lunch-counters. As one of our final stops, it seems a good way to wrap up our trip on a high note. Alas, we do not get our moment of poetic closure there as the restaurant turns out to be a tiki-bar with fake palm trees and lousy food. And thanks to our mid-afternoon arrival, we have the (mis)fortune to witness the Hawaiian print-wearing lounge singer forcing the young female waitstaff, consisting of one African-American woman and seven white women, through a rehearsal of several dance numbers they do during happy hour to encourage customers to drink more. The music is deafening and Sophie and Kell have to put their fingers over their ears just to tolerate the blasting.
Jen and I look at each other, incredulous, when the musicians launch into the theme from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again.” Horror, indeed. Time warp? There we are, “desegregating” the tiki-bar, with no signs whatsoever of the struggle and pain and eventual triumph of the sit-ins. Instead, the kids learn how to do the hand-jive by watching its demonstration by the visibly embarrassed and less-than-enthused waitresses. We learn nothing about the sit-ins. We choose to laugh at the surrealism of it all. There had been grief aplenty already on the trip.
There’ll Be Glory Over Me
We had countless moments of terrible beauty on our journey. In Savannah, we learned about the fifteen month long boycott of major department stores and how people would get together to share things they needed. We learned about the swim-ins, where activists tried to desegregate local beaches. Having gone on several beach trips together in the course of our friendship, we all realized that we would not have been allowed to swim together at the same beach and gave a prayer of thanks.
We sat with the kids in the pews of the Ebenezer Baptist Church listening to recordings of several of Martin Luther King’s most famous speeches. For a few minutes, we were alone in the sanctuary listening. If we closed our eyes, we could almost imagine what it must have been like to hear him when he was alive. In the King Center, Sophie and Kellum walked among the statues of the marchers and could try on the courage and excitement of standing up for justice. They stood in the traced footprints of Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy and Rosa Parks and wrote painstaking love notes to Dr. King to leave in the testimony box.
In Birmingham, the sculptures in Kelly Ingram Park invoked the ghostly images of the footage from Eyes on the Prize Jen shows her students of Project C—the police dogs terrorizing teenagers, protesters dancing defiantly amid the fire hoses, and the singing as people poured down the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church into the park. Now, when Jen shows that footage, she can talk with her students about what it was like to visit in person. Over and over again, we were surprised by how moved we were to stand in certain places and feel the lingering presence of those who resisted racism.
In Montgomery, we stood at the historical marker where Rosa Parks got on the bus that fateful day and learned in the museum about the 50,000 people who walked and carpooled for an entire year during the bus boycott. We learned for the first time about the white housewives who helped to drive against the orders of their husbands. In the Southern Poverty Law Center’s exhibit hall, Sophie and Kellum got to type in their names and gasped when they saw them added in huge letters to the giant list of names on the Wall of Tolerance. At the King Parsonage, we trembled in awe three feet from the typewriter where King wrote his own dissertation amidst organizing the bus boycott and becoming a new father.
We loved the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma. This was clearly a labor of love for those who kept it running. How could we not be moved by it? We could see the Edmund Pettus Bridge from the back windows of the museum and feel humbled by the images of the original marchers, on Bloody Sunday, who got to their knees and prayed as police officers brutalized them.
There were few white people at any of the civil rights museums we visited, but we saw huge extended African-American families all wearing their family reunion t-shirts at the King Center and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Many people were generous with their stories throughout the trip. The window-washer in Greensboro who helped us find the Kress & Company building shared tales of being forced to sit in the balcony of segregated movie theaters. He remarked, smiling, that it worked out okay because they would just throw popcorn down on the white moviegoers sitting in the more preferable rows on the floor. This same story—throwing popcorn on white moviegoers, this time in Pilot Mountain, North Carolina–was echoed by Joyce over the dinner table in Maryland. And finally, all along the journey, the four of us–the racially mixed group of us–moved freely through the South.
 Johanna Foster would like to dedicate her vignettes to the late Ms. Thea Jackson, freedom fighter who steadfastly encouraged young people to seek out and share their elders’ stories of struggle, resistance, and transformation, and urged the adults to keep talking.
 From Parker’s 2003 essay, “A Struggle to Inhabit My Country,” pp. 171-185 in Soul Work: Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialogue, Boston: Skinner House Books.
 For a detailed analysis of the racial politics of Morris Dees’ uses of and demand for security, see Tim Wise’s July 23, 2004 essay, “No Such Place as Safe,”ZNET Daily Commentaries, http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2004-07/23wise.cfm.