We started our penultimate day with our Plucky Passenger Jessica in tow, her eager to show off her home town of Birmingham and us eager to see it since we had neglected the city yesterday in favor of sybaritic indulgence (okay, it wasn’t that hedonistic, but did we mention those views?).
We returned to the city this morning, starting with the 16th Street Baptist Church, site of the bombing that killed four little girl attendees in 1963. Fortunately, it’s in the process of getting a serious renovation; unfortunately, whomever oversees tours and tourists wasn’t around and we couldn’t get in.
However, we were across the street from the Kelly Ingram Park, scene of many significant Civil Rights protests, and now functioning more or less as a giant memorial to same. There are statues and other art works arranged throughout designed to help a casual visitor get a quick sense of those turbulent times. You walk through a space that makes you seem like you are in jail, or being attacked by police dogs, or hit with water cannons. You know a movement has won when the scene of conflict is now a memorial and an homage to their struggle.
Jessica, wanted to show off Birmingham’s most significant landmark and insisted we take a drive up to it, to wit, the giant statue of Vulcan who stands on a nearby hilltop in a freshly renovated Art Deco park. Vulcan’s most prominent feature is his unclad rear end, a fact everyone in the city will point out to you. Repeatedly.
Rick noted that he gets in trouble for showing off his rear end in public but apparently in Birmingham it’s okay. Good to know.
Early lunch was had at the Irondale Café, the inspiration for the Whistle Stop Café from “Fried Green Tomatoes” (a relative of Fannie Flag’s seems to have owned it at one time). Mary and Rick are big fans of both movie and book, and all three of us fans of southern cooking, though the many choices at the lunch time buffet paralyzed the out-of-towners even when the counter ladies helpfully explained everything on offer. Jessica went right ahead, boldly ordering her favorite sweet potatoes with marshmallows, among other things, and we simply handled the matter by ordering most of everything else. The photos will prove this. Fried chicken, ham, biscuits, the aforementioned sweet potatoes, and mac and cheese were the winners by acclimation.
When Mary went to the pay the bill, which was on three separate checks, the register woman held up one and said “You have two extra meat dishes on this.” What’s your point? Mary thought.
She also accosted a woman wearing a Piggly Wiggly t-shirt, demanding to know where she got it since we had been told at the store in Homer on Day 2 that they didn’t sell them. The woman replied, “At the Piggly Wiggly,” as if Mary were asking the most obvious question in the entire world.
We are now on a mission, and not just because that would be worth some serious Scavenger Hunt points.
The drive to Selma took us through a couple more cute towns in only semi-disarray. Mary forced Rick to demonstrate his “Dukes of Hazzard” skills by shouting “SUE’S CAKES!” Because it was cake, you see, and we were going by it.
Now, mind you, Plucky Passenger Jessica had been insisting, well, pretty since we got in the car, that we should be stopping for ice cream. Mary politely declined just as often, yet when she saw cake it was “break traffic laws to get there.” Just need you to understand the Plucky Hierarchy Order.
Mary was a little bit punished for her despotic behavior, however, when the cake slices were only fair. We were also dismayed when the counterwoman at Sue’s was clearly not charmed by us, plucky or otherwise.
By now, you may be wondering how today’s game of Cow went with three players. Why, by turning it into Cow Horse, of course! Jessica got the horses (there have been days when horses have outnumbered the cows, we want you to know) AND she got to count on both sides of the road. However, she also had to risk cemeteries on both sides of the road. She was game and, for awhile, in the lead. For awhile, that is. Everyone thinks Cow Horse is easy until that first graveyard. Final score: Mary 31, Rick 24, Jessica 6. Better luck next time, we have some lovely parting gifts for you on your way out.
On the way to Selma we had two interesting photo opportunities. One was when the Homeland Security goons got a little too close and we were able to snap a photo of them as they continued their surveillance of Plucky Survivors. Why are they watching us, you ask? Well, we wondered that as well but then we went back and read the first seven days of this trip and figured that it kind of made a little sense. We're a little worried about our behavior so it's not hard to see why people who don't know us might consider us a threat to national security.
We also saw a little diner with a great name that was perfect for our trip.
Our object in Selma was the National Voting Rights Museum, which was closed with no hours posted. We tried to ask at the coffeehouse next door and walked straight into a scene from every horror movie ever made. You know the ones we’re talking about, where the lost travelers step into the café or the gas station, which looks perfectly normal and should have people in it, but instead is totally empty? And you, the smart audience member is saying “Get out of there, because you are going to DIE!!” but the actors keep going? That was us, down to Jessica saying “A cobweb just hit my face.”
At some point, way, way, way too far into the place, we acknowledged it, too, was somewhat on the closed side and perhaps had been as long as Dinosaur World. We decided to retreat before we stumbled onto the goat sacrifice.
Refusing to give up, we asked at the local newspaper—an important paper back in the day, but you can guess the size of it when the young receptionist was clearly the editor or publisher’s daughter—and confirmed that the Voting Rights Museum sort of opens when someone’s there, and doesn’t when they’re not. Like now. But then Pat Knight stepped in.
Who, you ask? Mr. Knight is a genteel, patrician old man with a classic southern Alabama regional dialect, which Jessica pointed out is the kind that says “uh” instead of “er” on the ends of words: “Theuh,” “Dolluh,” and so forth. “A product of British colonialization and isolationism,” Jessica smartly pointed out, in between asking for ice cream and being ignored.
Mr. Knight worked on the basketball rules commission during the 60’s and 70’s—sat right next to John Wooden, he was proud to say—and was the man who helped take the dunk out of basketball by voting against it on several occasions. He explained that Lew Alcindor (“Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” he helpfully told us) later said that it was the best thing that ever happened to his game because it forced him to learn how to develop his skyhook instead.
He also told us about how he helped integrate the Selma YMCA back in the day and then gave us a number of tips about what to see in Selma, some of which we were too stupid to follow up on. He even kindly offered to give us a private tour of significant sites in town but we declined, feeling we had a tight squeeze to make the Rosa Parks Library before it closed at 5pm. Instead of taking offense, he said to call him any time for said tour and extended the invitation to anyone who was interested. So call him: Pat Knight—334-875-7094. We’re not kidding and neither was he.
One of the places we didn’t go see was the Brown Chapel down the street a decision we would regret a little later, and instead turned onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge that led to the highway to Montgomery.
“This is the start of the March,” Jessica said, again smartly, but we thought she was asking for ice cream again so we didn’t pay any great attention, which was our second mistake.
However, we avoided making the third, and what would have been the worst, mistake by actually taking the advice of both Pat and another woman on the Selma streets and turned off the highway in to the brand new—as in, opened two weeks ago—Lowndes County Interpretive Center. This amazing facility is dedicated to the march from Selma to Montgomery in general, but specifically focusing on the tent city that rose on this very ground after the Voting Rights Act was passed. Many black people were evicted by their plantation bosses and had to live in tents for months because they dared to register to vote, so a local organization bought up a few acres along US 80 and erected tents to allow them to stay in the county and remain together as families and a community.
Still feeling the time crunch, we tried to sneak past the vigilant greeter (a local chamber of commerce member who was a driving force behind getting the center open) and not watch the introductory movie but she shamed us into it, thus preventing us from making yet another mistake.
This film, which explained the history and reasoning behind the march, moved all of us to tears. From the first, aborted attempt to march to the state capital and demand equal rights, which ended in the violent clash known as Bloody Sunday, to the much larger, and nearly totally peaceful march that rose in its place, and lead directly to that Voting Rights Act, this powerful short movie should be required viewing in all high schools. Heck, it should be required viewing for every citizen of this country.
We were reminded again of what a great and powerful thing one vote, one voice is, and how it can not be taken for granted.
The rest of the museum was as sterling; clever interactive displays come to life as you approach them, with audio, video, and hands-on features showing everything from what it was like to live in a tent, to why it was so important to keep the vote from the blacks (95% of the land was owned by 85 people, all white, and much of the labor was done by poor black people; to let them be enfranchised meant to lose money), to a small door with a photo of a happy, healthy Emmitt Till which opened to a photo of his mangled corpse.
Outside is a large park with a pathway where you can learn more about the tent city and even sit at one of the picnic tables to enjoy the quiet countryside (which it is, despite the highway nearby).
This should be an absolutely required pit stop; we were all three ashamed in varying degrees about how little we really knew about this moment in US history, a moment where peace and justice triumphed over evil. We were so moved that we wanted to drive back to Selma, to Brown Chapel from where the march commenced, and to the bridge where the first marchers were attacked, to take the time to really consider what had happened, and to honor those people. The photo of the first marchers, standing straight and strong as the troops come at them is one of saints whose march could not go on at that moment, but they were saints and martyrs, make no mistake.
And then there was this quote in that tremendous video from Martin Luther King Jr. himself: “If you can't fly, run. If you can't run, walk. If you can't walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving.” That’s the lesson we are trying to take from all of this; sometimes, it’s all so huge, what needs to be done, but you do what you can…just keep moving.
There will eventually be two more of these facilities, one in Selma and one in Montgomery, each covering a specific aspect of the march. Rick and Mary can’t wait to come back to see them both.
“What’s your favorite state NOW, baby?!” gleefully shouted Jessica, before wondering why we still hadn’t stopped for ice cream. In her defense, it was about 4pm, and we did eat lunch rather early and had only stopped for some kind of okay cake and so we really weren’t living up to our Plucky Food potential.
Humbled again by the Interpretive Center, we drove to Montgomery and arrived just in time to visit the Rosa Parks Library and Museum before it closed and to feel again, some more, like we’ve done nothing of significance in our lives.
The museum portion of the facility (which also includes the Troy-Montgomery Campus Library and a new Children’s Wing with interactive displays designed to teach them how they can affect the world around them) is another well-designed experience. It includes a multi-media reenactment of Mrs. Parks’ legendary protest act, which took place on this very spot and details the ensuing bus boycott.
Again, proving that we know a little about a lot but not a lot about anything, we didn’t know the bus boycott lasted fifteen months and weren’t aware of the toll it took on those participating and how the community rallied around its own to help keep it going. Again, when you think about how much work this was, to overturn one law, in one town, and the amount that still needed to be done, it’s utterly overwhelming, and that’s part of why these people deserve all the honor and all the exceptional museums they can have.
Our hotel is in Prattville, to the north of Montgomery, another swell resort (right on a golf course—most rooms have balconies overlooking same, friendly, more comfy beds), but this time we resisted its siren call of comfort, and quickly went to find our way to another local “landmark,” the House of Crosses.
We kind of knew where it was but “kind of” has gotten us into trouble more than once on this trip so we asked the very friendly and helpful woman at the front desk of the hotel for directions. It went something like this: “Okay, go out to the highway and turn left and then you’ll see a light and another light and a bridge and a light and a Chevron station and a dead armadillo and a golf course and a man named Cletus sitting out on his porch who will wave at you and then you’ll turn left.”
Turns out that the desk agent gives better directions than Microsoft Streets & Maps because it was exactly how she described and we drove right to it. We need to find a way to make a new program that features those kind of directions instead of stupid things like street and highway names.
Anyway, the House of Crosses is a local folk art religious oddity, built by an older man with a fixation on hellfire and damnation. He had covered two sides of the narrow road with many, many primitive crosses, signs, paintings on discarded fridges and the like, with messages warning of doom, and fear of the Lord. Mary was intrigued in the way she usually is by kooks, but both Rick and Jessica were so disturbed by what they were seeing as the work of a seriously and sadly demented mind that we didn’t stay very long.
Again, the contrast between this and the Ave Maria grotto couldn’t have been greater; one was a place of peace and love, and powerful because of that; the other is nothing but anger, and it repulses, in the sense of the opposite of luring.
Dinner turned into way more of an ordeal than it should have been and all we can say is that apparently the people of Montgomery never eat out, because we drove around the main district for quite some time without spotting so much as a closed diner. We mean, nothing. Not even a Denny’s.
Mary called one location mentioned in their “101 Things to Eat in Alabama Before You Die” pamphlet, but got a series of directions like “And then turn left, then right, then left, then left, then right, then left,” with street names and other unhelpful things and we were longing for our Marriott desk agent to be in the back seat with us to tell us to hang a right at the giant plastic sheep and then a left when you see a purple Cadillac up on blocks. We dutifully tried to record the meaningless directions only to be told “Oh, and we close in fifteen minutes,” so we said to heck with it.