Living History, Feeling History

Jeffrey here.  Joey cedes the floor when things get most serious.

It was quite a day.

Joey and I left Meridian, Mississippi, in a car chauffeured by David.


Mississippi and Alabama are the poorest states in our country.  I expected to see houses like these more often than we have.  I suspect the worst poverty is off the main roads, where travelers like us are rare.

Our first major stop was in Selma, Alabama.  We ate lunch at Charlie’s Place.


L to R:  Charlie, Jeffrey

Charlie told us some of Selma’s history.  Long ago, when it was a center for manufacturing and the cotton trade, it was the fourth richest city in the USA.  Charlie, a devout evangelical Christian, has some Jewish ancestry.  He said Jews were recruited to help develop the town after the Civil War, but they were not allowed to join local social clubs, so they formed their own associations and met in the building where Charlie operates his restaurant.  He spoke of the town’s remarkable eclectic architecture, its potential, its poverty.  Charlie says that asylum applicants deserve to be heard, and that he welcomes immigrants so long as they pull their own weight (as they will if we let them).  His delightful restaurant soon will close: not enough customers.  We wish him well on his next project.

After lunch, we went out to see a bit of Selma.  David videoed me biking over the notorious Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Alabama police attacked civil rights marchers in 1965.


Linda Calvert . . .


. . . spotted me, spotted the bike’s Ride for Human Rights sign, and told me that coming over the bridge on a nostalgic walk were Reverend Harold Middlebrook and Reverend Kenneth Calvert.


Rev. Middlebrook (in blue, facing us) and Rev. Calvert (in black, facing and videoing Rev. Middlebrook) as they approached me down the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Rev. Middlebrook was a young colleague of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He was the coordinator for Selma at the time of the 1965 police attack on the bridge, and the subsequent march from Selma to Montgomery.

Living history.


Rev. Harold Middlebrook, out of the sun a few minutes after we met near the bridge.

Rev. Middlebrook asked about the Ride.  I told him how asylum applicants are not provided with lawyers to help them present their cases.  I asked what he thinks about America’s current treatment of refugees and other immigrants.  Rev. Middlebrook responded with a story about Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s response to a woman who offered to help fund the transport of black Americans to Africa.  Rev. Abernathy replied that he would go to Africa (where he never had been) when America returned First Nations (American Indian) land to the First Nations, and if all other Americans returned to their ancestral places in Europe and elsewhere.

Rev. Middlebrook supports our cause with all his heart.  He shook my hand and thanked me for my work.  I told him I wished his knees were better so he could do the Ride and speak for our mutual cause, as he did, so much more eloquently than I can.

Rev. Calvert took my hand and called me his brother.  And so he is mine.  I was moved and happy to be so warmly and quickly accepted and included by these people I admire, despite that I’m a nobody with few accomplishments—this is not false modesty, I have done but little for a man so old—and a stranger in a strange land.


Rev. Kenneth Calvert, out of the sun with Dr. Middlebrook, David, and me.

I spoke with Betty Middlebrook, who talked of the couple’s 1960s civil rights work despite the dangers and their fears.


L to R:  Jeffrey, Betty Middlebrook


Ms. Middlebrook and Ms. Calvert led David and me to the Slavery and Civil War Museum, presided over by another legend, Annie Pearl Avery, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer since age 16.

6BCB3F43-D206-4A74-A96C-01D6C3FBD85FMs. Avery is a ferocious advocate for civil and human rights.  She told us her view of American history and observed that despite good laws (which are not a given), people with money and power will find ways to subvert them, whether to enslave or exploit African-Americans, or to oppress the foreign-born.  Protecting human rights is a constant battle.  Ms. Avery remains in the thick of it.


Ms. Avery and Rev. Middlebrook.  Their personalities filled the room.

David and I drove over the bridge and on to Montgomery, Alabama, to see the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.


Robert, a security guard, welcomed me and humored me by scanning my left leg.  My post-bicycle-crash titanium rod set off the metal detector.  Robert used to live in Mississippi.  After a pause, he said things are better in Montgomery.

I found the monument moving and disturbing.  It reminds visitors of the approximately 4,000 known, and vastly more unknown, victims of lynching.

Feeling history.


A few days ago, I pedaled through Chickasaw County, Mississippi, and the friendly town of Vardaman, the “Sweet Potato Capital of the World”.  Here is the Memorial’s list of known Chickasaw County lynching victims; perhaps Malcolm Wright was killed in 1949 by people still living in Vardaman.


These photos don’t convey the size or impact of the site.

One of the captions echoed an idea that has appeared in these pages on past Rides: that the abuse of America’s slaves and former slaves has parallels in today’s mistreatment of asylum applicants and other immigrants.


I underscore “traumatized refugees” in red.

I asked docent William Black whether he thought the jailing and abuse of asylum applicants, and their expulsion to countries where some have been murdered, is a form of lynching.


William, who has Moroccan ancestry and hails from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said yes.  If we return people to places of persecution, torture and death, we lynch them as surely as if we violently put our own hands on them.  William came to the Memorial hoping to awaken Americans to our history and our responsibility.  If he succeeds, maybe then we will have the just and generous country to which we aspire.

William said that a few days ago, there was a lynching in Oklahoma.  Americans are not yet who we ought to be.


This Toni Morrison poem is on one of the Memorial’s walls.

We drove north to Birmingham . . .


. . . to a downtown food court to dine on delicious vegetarian Ethiopian food prepared by Amene.  He was happy to hear about the Ride, happy that I’m friends with the Stevie Wonder of Ethiopia (Amene put on a music video in my honor), happy to talk about Ethiopia and human rights.  Amene invited me to return tomorrow for lunch as his guest, but my time in the South is ending and I have to move on.

Through brief torriential lightning storms, David drove us to Huntsville . . .


Huntsville is late former Nazi rocket scientist Verner von Braun country—and thus military and NASA country.

. . . where I wrote today’s post too rapidly to make it short, so I could rest a bit and process the day’s adventures before tomorrow’s early start.

4 thoughts on “Living History, Feeling History

  1. So much to ponder here as we consider our history. The EJI memorial is on my list of places to visit and ponder. Thank you for this enlightening blog.


  2. I am very moved by your adventure. Our local protest group (we mainly protest our lack of representation by our do-nothing congressman, Tom McClintock, but also other issues we believe should be addressed, such as DACA) has been demonstrating weekly since the inaugural in January of 2017. About two months ago, a group of white supremacists started showing up across the street. Then they moved over to our side of the street, and then they got even more bold and now openly harass us and have stated their intent to get rid of us. It’s not easy to have an angry man stand six inches behind you who verbally insults your appearance, your sex, your very existence but still keep quiet and not respond, but we do not respond. Our example is the people you are memorializing in your journey. Thank you for the daily reminder, and thank you for your dedication.


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