Yesterday was an incredible day. What is interesting about these Civil War Adventure trips is that each day takes on a life of its own and our visit to Selma was proof of this. We began the day after breakfast in our Dorm Communal area at Auburn University at Montgomery where Ms. McLaughlin and Ms. Blaze spoke about their experiences marching in Milwaukee Civil Rights Marches alongside Father Groppi in the 1960s. This set the stage for our march through Civil Rights History in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama by acknowledging the problems the North has had with race and Segregation.
Our first (and longest) stop was in Selma and I think this is a place that will impact many of us for a long time. Once across the iconic Pettus bridge you notice how old the town of Selma is with wide streets and weathered store fronts. Truly the bridge transports you back into time in many ways. Mr. Parsons gathered the group and explained the history behind the Bridge and the three Civil Rights Marches that attempted to cross it on their way to the state capital in Montgomery to ensure voting rights for African Americans. Martine Luther King was here for one of those attempts. Another became known as “Bloody Sunday” when local whites used violence against the marchers on the bridge’s far side.
We then walked across the bridge and you notice the large curve of the bridge so you cannot see the other side until you are at its apex. What did those marchers feel when they reached the crest of the bridge and saw a line of police and “deputies” waiting for them? At the other side of the bridge are several memorials to those marchers which appear to be faded and victims of neglect. We were surprised at the condition after seeing so many pristine parks around the South.
After more discussion, we drove 3 minutes to Selma’s Live Oak Cemetery which contains hundreds of Confederate graves and a very controversial monument to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (you can Google up “Selma Forrest Statue Controversy” for details). Eight days ago we walked a torchlight tour of Union graves in Chattanooga and a student asked, “where are the Confederates buried?” In places like Live Oak. One thing that stood out was a large construction project around Confederate Circle with concrete walkways, large pedestals for monuments and other construction forms. Unlike the Pettus Bridge Memorial, this site is getting a large makeover and the construction crew was eager to talk about the improvements.
As luck would have it, the President of the local Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy was stopping by and the workers said she would love to talk to a group of Yankees. So we went in town and ate lunch at an old diner, The Downtowner, on their suggestion. Mrs. Pat Godwin was at the cemetery when we returned and enthusiastically said yes to my request at a cemetery tour. I do not think it is common to have access to a UDC President and this experience is one our group will carry with us for a long time.
As Mrs. Godwin walked, she talked and as she told us, “I am not a soundbite type woman” her history of the war began to startle, confuse and surprise our group. We had discussed a Southern perspective on the war, but here they received it for nearly 2 hours. To say the UDC’s view of Civil War history is different from how I teach it is an understatement. But there were moments of agreement. For example, our group began the morning with talks from two teachers who marched against segregation in Milwaukee and Mrs. Godwin made a point to say racial discrimination is not just a Southern problem. But there were many points in her tour that shocked our students and faculty but I am proud of how well behaved and respectful they were to Godwin. The best lesson here was to take this opportunity to simply listen to her story.
I asked questions of her throughout to clarify and gently challenge her opinions. I also explained the focus of our trip which included sleeping in slave cabins and diving into these tough questions of race and Civil War memory, which interested her but this was about her getting her view of history out to a group of Yankee students. And she is “a talker” with a pleasant Alabama drawl with lots of dates and facts to back up her theories so there is little one could do but listen. As you can imagine there are dozens of interesting stories of men and women buried in this cemetery. One that stood out, given our experiences with Joe McGill was the UDC’s celebration of a local African American, Benjamin S. Turner which includes two Confederate flags that flank his grave. Southern Heritage groups like the UDC have historically embraced stories of African Americans who either assisted in the Confederate army or defied Northern forces in some way during the war. We heard stories of “slave loyalty” throughout the trip but the question arises, is it truly loyalty if that person is a slave? Mr. Turner was a freed slave (who later was elected to Congress during Reconstruction) who defended his property from Union soldiers, was beaten by those Northern soldiers and is celebrated by the UDC and given as evidence of Northern brutality during the war. A reader to this blog can see how awesome this experience with Mrs. Godwin was in terms of opening discussions and debate on historical perspectives.
A group photograph completed our tour with Mrs. Godwin; one of my African American students politely and quietly walked away from that opportunity. She is going to send me “reading materials” and I hope future Southern Adventures will include tours of Live Oak with Mrs. Godwin. We then travelled along the Civil Right Selma to Montgomery march to Dexter Avenue Church which was the rallying point for the Bus Boycott and a whole list of other significant Civil Rights events. Mr. Parsons shared more excellent Civil Rights history in the shadow of that church. Ah yes, the Dexter Avenue church also stands blocks away from where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the Confederacy’s president. We concluded the evening back at UAM campus with a Skype call with historian, Kevin Levin. He is an expert on Civil War Memory and provided the group an awesome means to make sense of what we experienced in Selma and the trip as a whole.
One last note. We discovered late in the day why many of the museums in Selma and Montgomery were closed. It was Jefferson Davis’s birthday which is a state holiday – and Mrs. Godwin invited us to celebrate it with her today with cake. It was an offer I reluctantly declined. This morning we begin our travels back North with lots on our minds and many hours to discuss.