The Challenge of Change

16 Jan

I lingered on a sidewalk that cut diagonally across Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, looking back at where we’d come from. I regarded the back of a statue of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., himself looking back at 16th Street Baptist Church, the plain, red brick church where, on Sunday, September 15th, 1963, a white supremacist bomb had killed four African-American girls. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley had died not for being part of a protest, but simply for being among the children filing into the basement to prepare for the sermon, titled “The Love That Forgives.”

How could anyone forgive that? Let alone the scenes depicted by the other statues at the park, from a policeman commanding a dog to lunge into the face of a protestor to a canyon of other-worldly canine jaws, designed to threaten pedestrians into at least an echo of the fear protestors felt. The sidewalks also led us to pass between a fire hose and protestors leaning against a wall, bracing against an imagined impact – and between two children and the bars of their jail cell. Beneath the standing figures reads the inscription: “I Ain’t Afraid of Your Jail.”

But what exactly were our students feeling?

Assumption’s SEND volunteers were mostly quiet as they wandered in clumps. We’d been riding four days of good feelings, born of spirited work building the Habitat for Humanity house in Tuscaloosa, and this was our off day, a time to cut loose. But there were no goofy poses here, not in this spot, especially after touring the building across the street – the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

The museum opened in 1992. Birmingham had changed dramatically since 1963 – the city’s first black mayor, Richard Arrington had been mayor for 13 years; he would serve for seven more before stepping down. Still, the Civil Rights Institute faced opposition from those who, remembering the horrors of the past, thought it better not to bring up the past.

But if some Birmingham residents resisted the Civil Rights Institute because of profoundly painful feelings, this day I was more worried about the opposite problem. How would our Assumption College students – all white, all from the Northeast, all born within a year or two of the institute itself, respond? How deeply would it register, even among students so idealistic, they’d decided to spend their winter break serving others? How would I feel if I weren’t from here?

The Institute certainly does everything it can to reach across the gap of half a century. It shares an intersection with 16th Street Baptist and Kelly Ingram Park, but it’s so smartly designed, it would pack a punch anywhere it was placed. we were greeted at the base of the steps; we ascended only after a guide asked to respect the reverence of the exhibits by not taking photos or using cell phones. While the tour was self-guided, the space imposed the same sense of progression on all of us: A short documentary lay the groundwork the city’s post-Civil War history, industrial and racial, that led to segregation; the theater screen then rose, revealing the first of several rooms which contrasted “white only” and “black only” facilities. We’d wound past photos and videos, statues and artifacts; we’d heard the impassioned voices of both Wallace and King ringing with seemingly equal passion, and lingered long in front of the exhibit dedicated to the four girls who died in that horrific blast just across the street. We’d walked across to the church itself – the group reflexively, but wanly, smiled for a group photo – then, of course, the park itself, where many confrontations went down. One seasoned war correspondent covering the protests said he’d never seen anything as disturbing, and the statues did their best to remind us.

Still, time passes – and I don’t just mean the almost half-century since the bombings. There’s also the mere half hour after the exhibit. Our paying of respects to the past gave way to a request for designer coffee and fru-fru yogurt, and from there, a drive up the mountain to the statue of Vulcan, symbol of Birmingham’s steel mill legacy. We went  up into the top of the statue – some giggling over their fear of heights, multiplied by the see-through metal grate floor. The ride back to Tuscaloosa evolved into spirited singing of country music standards and smart-phone updates of how Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos were doing against the Pittsburgh Steelers.  We watched the first half of the game at Dreamland Barbecue, a world famous black-owned ribs joint which made its reputation serving simply ribs, sauce, and a loaf of sandwich bread; white customers would flock to the gravel rural roads of Jerusalem Heights, then, and probably still, a mostly black neighborhood on the edge of town.

I was glad to have these positive examples of race relations, like our experience on the work site, to prop against the images of hatred. But as we headed home for the nightly reflection required for Assumption SEND trips, it all had me wondering what students absorbed from the day.

Once we settled down to talk, though, I was relieved to see that these issues registered far more than they let on. I had scribbled questions to pose, but they beat me to almost every one of them – including the troubling one of how they would’ve responded had they been born into the same culture in the same moment of history. Would they have been among those with the critical detachment to see the bigger picture – and the mind-blowing courage to act on it? No one seemed to imagine they would be a pathologically violent fomenters of hatred – one of the small minority who committed acts of violence – but some did have that uneasy feeling that they might’ve been on the wrong side of the issue … or, being on the right side, failed to act with the appropriate sense of outrage. Without being asked, they volunteered analogous issues facing us today, ones that went far beyond race itself.

When I asked them how their experience would influence their perception of Martin Luther King Day – at our college, a time of hustle and bustle, when students settle into their dorms before the first day of classes – a couple said they would think of the courage King and thousands of others showed in transforming a world deeply set in its racist ways. They also agreed the work was far from done.

After more than an hour of social critique and self-questioning reflection, it was time to wind them down  – they had a 7 a.m. shift on the work site Monday, followed by an evening of rooting for the mostly African-American stars of the University of Alabama football team. Searching for an upbeat benediction, I asked them what, if anything, was redemptive about this day of exploring the legacy of King, as well as the brave thousands who followed him.

“That,” one student said, her eyes moist, “people can … change!

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