View of the Edmund Pettus bridge, Selma, Alabama. [All photo: Elissa Lerner]
View of the Edmund Pettus bridge, Selma, Alabama. [All photo: Elissa Lerner]

Present History

A multiracial group of Duke students travel the civil rights trail to learn about a history that hasn't entirely vanished into the past.
August 8, 2012

We were still about forty miles away from Memphis when a window blew out on the bus. Ever since we’d crossed into Mississippi, headed northwest from Birmingham, Alabama, a quiet unease had settled over our Carolina Livery minibus. Our trip, the inaugural Roots to Rights alternative spring-break venture between Jewish Life at Duke and the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, was at one point scheduled to stop in Jackson for a night. But even just the simple fact of being in transit in Mississippi lent a sense of foreboding. “Bad things happen when I’m in Mississippi, I’m just saying,” mused Elisabeth Pitts, a junior from Oklahoma. Much to most everyone’s relief, there wasn’t enough time to include it as a destination.

It had gotten to be late afternoon as we cruised I-22. Some of the eleven students had fallen asleep, some were reading, some were staring out the window, perhaps thinking about the skeletons of the Freedom Riders’ bombed-out Greyhounds that we’d seen just hours earlier in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. While each state in the South bears its share of the ugly journey this country staggered through toward its ongoing struggle for racial equality, few conjure the horrors and stereotypes of hate and ignorance the way Mississippi does. Mississippi is too much to unpack in a six-day, four-state trip. Simply driving through would be a small mercy.

The class at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.

When it happened, it happened fast. A quiet pop, the tinkling of glass, and two students jumped out of their seats. Just like that, an entire window shattered. 

Our bus driver, the sixty-five year-old Vernon Bullock, deftly pulled onto the highway shoulder. Somehow we’d hit a bump in the road that caused the entire windowpane to splinter and burst. The students cleared out of the affected seats; fortunately, there were only a few light scratches. Chandra Guinn, director of the Mary Lou Williams Center, began cleaning up the shards of glass while Rebecca Simons, director of Jewish Life at Duke, began snapping photos and calling the bus company. There was a chance they’d be able to send a bus to meet us in Memphis, but until then, we were stuck.

"To build relationships, you need shared experiences."

The sun was setting over the highway. Students peeled off and on the bus, not sure what to do. The makeup of our deliberately mixed company—three Jews, six blacks (including one from the U.S. Virgin Islands), one Asian American, and one Chinese student from Beijing—was somewhat forgotten in the chaos. That a bus ride such as this one would have been a target for hate crime just fifty years ago—within the lifetime of the parents of nearly everyone on the trip—was too obvious to mention. Everyone braced for a slow creep to Memphis with a missing window. The evening forecast called for a rainstorm. Dark clouds began to stretch on the horizon.

And then an emergency tow truck pulled over.

Out of the cab stepped a skinny, scraggly white man with an even skinnier, scragglier goatee. His trucker hat and two-tooth smile completed the caricature. He immediately shook the darkbrown hand of our pinstripe-suited driver (who, we had recently learned, used to party with James Brown in the 1970s) in a moment that could have been prickly in the never-quite-as-distantas-we-hope past. The trucker brought over some rolls of duct tape, with which he and Bullock taped up a makeshift window using cut-up garbage bags. After about twenty minutes, we had enough coverage to get us to Memphis, and we parted ways.

On a trip packed with museums and meetings, sometimes what sticks with you are the things that happen off-hours. Sometimes the South gets painted monochromatically, but it is full of odd little contrasts that surprise you. And sometimes in the Technicolor South you don’t even notice the weight of racial history until in one moment it literally explodes. In any case, this wasn’t the biggest jolt of the trip. Not by a long shot.

A FEW DAYS EARLIER, we’d been in Atlanta, with the whole week stretching in front of us. The bus had started out fairly quiet; not many students arrived knowing each other. On a campus where the percentage of black students and Jewish students each hovers around 10 percent, cultivating one’s own cultural identity can often take precedence over seeking out other communities at Duke. After years of working side-by-side in Student Affairs at Duke, Guinn and Simons were struck by the similarities in size and perspective of their student constituencies. The two began hatching a plan to bring their students together using a collaborative moment in history as the fulcrum: the civil rights movement.

It was a natural choice. A road trip through the Southeast, as the program shaped up to be, necessarily placed Duke in its geo-historical context—something that can be overlooked easily as Duke expands its national and international ambitions. While the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the first black students at Duke created a meaningful prologue to the trip, lesser-known struggles, such as overcoming Duke’s purported unofficial quota for Jews, came to light for some for the first time. (“I did not think of Jewish people any differently than white people. I had no idea about the Jewish struggles for civil rights whatsoever. None, zero, zilch,” said Pitts during the course of the week.)

In Atlanta's Sweet Auburn district, students saw history in a memorial to civil rights leader John Wesley Dobbs, the so-called "mayor of Auburn Avenue."

 Perhaps bound by a shared history of barriers to enrollment at Duke and elsewhere, blacks and Jews forged a curious alliance in Durham. N.C. Central University, for example, opened its doors to Jewish professors who were World War II refugees and barred from teaching at the Ivies. In another quirk of Durham history, Emmanuel Evans, the city’s first Jewish mayor, raised the seats from his store’s lunch counters to standing height to skirt state statutes that mandated separate seating for blacks and whites. Other Durham civil rights trivia surfaced along the trip, such as the true site of the first sit-in in North Carolina at Royal Ice Cream on Roxboro Road in 1957, a source of both embarrassment and pride for the Bull City.

 

But history didn’t come alive with direct, tangible application until we sat down with Sherry Zimmerman Frank, cofounder of the Atlanta Black Jewish Coalition. Until then, the subject matter of our trip had been relegated to documentaries and museums. But Frank, a woman somewhere between the generations of the students’ parents and grandparents, had been at the proverbial There, doing the proverbial It. Frank reminisced equally about time spent working with John Lewis on his first congressional campaign and casual trips to the movies in mixed groups. She was adamant: “To build relationships you need shared experiences,” she said. “If black- Jewish relations are to last, we have to get into each other’s skin.”

BUT GETTING INTO EACH OTHER’S SKIN might require broaching some difficult questions. One night, for example, during a debriefing in Simons’ and Guinn’s Embassy Suites living room, freshman Ashton Pemberton wanted to know if his fellow travelers felt “a trickle” offended when they see a Confederate flag. (Though we hadn’t been keeping track of any sightings on the trip, the similarities of the Alabama state flag and the old Georgia state flag to the Confederate flag were enough to make some people uncomfortable.) But Kaitlin Fang, a sophomore from Beijing, was confused. Why would a flag make people upset? 

Sometimes the South gets painted monochromatically, but it is full of odd little contrasts that surprise you.

Sophomore Matthew Schorr and Elisabeth Pitts gamely offered a colorful, if abbreviated narrative. “That flag was supposed to represent unity among the Southern states,” said Pitts. “But the key is the Southern states were fighting for slavery,” said Schorr. While she listened, the rest of the students compared notes about their multifaceted feelings toward the flag, which enjoyed a stint hanging outside of Randolph dorm on East Campus in the past year. 

The conversation meandered. Days of stored feelings, observations, and questions began flowing, mostly without much direction or resolution. Some were offshoots of half-forgotten conversations that had been left behind like sweatshirts on the bus. And some, like an impromptu monologue from sophomore Elizabeth Tobierre, had clearly been germinating during time spent staring out the window and scribbling in journals.

“Being from the U.S. Virgin Islands, I often find myself having this dual identity as a West Indian woman and an African- American woman,” she began, launching into a thoughtful speech about the respective weights of her American and Caribbean heritages. Though the trajectory of slavery and civil rights looked different in the U.S. Caribbean, it stemmed from the same place. “I keep thinking, this is what my ancestors went through, and that goes three or four generations back.” 

After a few more shifts in gears, Fang jumped in again: “I’ve been thinking about the alternatives of the outcomes of this movement—say, if Martin Luther King wasn’t religious. Or, if this wasn’t in America. Would the movement still succeed?” Not an easy thought experiment. When you change the variables, you change the equation. 

How would you try to explain the civil rights movement to someone unfamiliar with American history? How much of such a person’s culture will remain similarly, eternally, unknowable to you?

And yet, we cling to the belief that the lessons of the civil rights movement are universal. “When you listen to a song or a civil rights speech, those passages and understandings come from a place that is so fundamental that they are not limited to people of Christian denominations or even people of Jewish faith or Islamic faith or no faith at all,” Julius Jones, the lone senior on the trip, explained. “It’s about having a sense of right and wrong and telling that story in a compelling manner.”

But Fang wasn’t so sure. “I’m not religious. I feel like the role of religion in this whole movement makes everything easier. It integrates the whole value system. Without religion, it’s not that we don’t have values—we still have philosophy, and we know what’s moral or not moral. But it’s difficult without this shared commonality.” 

A FEW DAYS LATER, we sat down with Carolyn McKinstry, a survivor of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four girls died. McKinstry was in the office staircase of her church when a bomb hit the downstairs bathroom, killing her four friends and fellow youth volunteers. She was fourteen years old. 

She commented how our group was only a little bit younger than her own children. Rarely does this generation realize how close her chapter of history actually is—how, for the students’ grandparents, or even parents, segregation may yet have been reality. Then again, it’s not like it’s something pleasant to talk about. McKinstry knew this firsthand. “Ten days, ten years passed, andno one talked about [the bombings],” she recalled.

"Never again--it sounds so good, so dramatic. Do good things. I'll be watching."

In a small circle of folding chairs in an unremarkable office room, McKinstry described the whip-like sensation of water hoses spraying her against a wall and watching Army tanks crawl up the streets of her childhood. The 16th Street Church bombing was just one in a slew of violent events that caused the city to be  dubbed “Bombingham.” “We got immune to things; bombing had just become a way of life,” McKinstry said. “Terrorism did not start with 9/11.”

Carolyn McKinstry, a survivor of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, tells students to remember and teach the lessons of the civil rights movement.

 Silent, rapt, we listened as McKinstry discussed life after the headlines. “I was depressed for twenty years,” McKinstry recalled, “only, we didn’t have a name for it then. People just said, ‘Oh, she’s strange.’ ” The lack of communication troubled her then, and inspires her desire to talk to groups now. But above all, love keeps her going.

 

“We did not teach the lessons learned. Take your Bible and read Joshua 4,” she said. “We are admonished to love, admonished to forgive, but admonished to remember and to teach.” It forces you to focus on the humanity of those who committed crimes, she explained.

Before we wrapped up, she added one last thought: her admiration for the Jewish community’s ability to instill the lessons of the Holocaust in younger generations. “ ‘Never again’—it sounds so good, so dramatic,” she said. “Do good things. I’ll be watching.”

AND THEN THERE WAS THE LYNCHING.

On the way to Selma, Alabama, we crossed paths with the Reverend Al Sharpton and Congressman John Lewis. As we were driving from Montgomery to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, their group was completing the fifty-four mile hike in the other direction, the one which, in March of 1965, sparked Bloody Sunday and ultimately prompted the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Every year, groups march from Selma to Montgomery to commemorate the event and to protest current issues in civil rights. Sharpton and his crew spent the week exploring immigration and voter identification laws. 

But we were on a different mission. Our tour guide, Sam Walker, met us at the National Voting Rights Museum, an expanded garage of sorts with the pungent smell of plumbing gone awry. Walker spoke with a nearly indecipherable Southern accent and at a clip that hardly allowed for questions. He rattled through the chain of events that led to Bloody Sunday, pausing only to polish his head with a white towel. He mentioned that as a child, he picketed after school and that “the marches were fun, you sang all these fun songs, there was a spirit.” For the briefest moment, you could envision Walker and his childhood friends, participating in something bigger than they knew simply because it was the thing to do.

But we were short on time, and Walker had a lot to pack in. From the National Voting Rights Museum, we drove over the Edmund Pettus Bridge into town, where we stopped at the Slavery and Civil Rights Museum. Walker barked at us to line up against the outside wall with our mouths open, “bucks” to the left and “wenches” to the right. He inspected our teeth. Then he herded us into a small, dark room where we were told to imagine the smells of several months’ worth of feces, vomit, and other bodily waste accumulated on the transatlantic voyage of Africans into slavery in the Americas. We couldn’t see a thing. 

Moments later, Walker brought us into a dim room, where we were told to stand on a white line on the floor. He pulled four of us, Guinn, Tobierre, Pemberton, and sophomore Savion Johnson, off the line and ordered the selected to choose another four. Upon their selection, Walker took the initial group into another room, declaring that since these “niggers” betrayed their own kind so easily, he couldn’t trust them either. The rest of us stayed frozen on the line while we heard a scream from the otherroom, presumably part of the act. But then after a brief silence there was another scream, a real one, followed by a thump. 

We finally regrouped in a brightly lit room, covered in memorabilia of notable African and African-American independence movements. Tobierre and Johnson emerged, visibly shaken, and told us the story. Apparently Walker continued the reenactment in the other room, where the next event was a lynching. Walker had asked the two of them to lie on the ground, and asked Pemberton to step up on a wooden platform, slipping a loose noose around his head. But the sensory overload was too much, and Pemberton blacked out. Guinn took him outside to recover.

Later, Tobierre admitted just how much watching it had affected her. “I pictured myself being a mother, or a sister, or a wife, standing there and having someone put a noose around my man, whatever I am to him. Just standing there, as a woman, and as a black woman, and not having any power to do anything,” she said. “And I wanted to cry when I thought about that because often we reflect on history but we don’t put ourselves in people’s shoes.”

At least, it couldn’t have happened to a better-spirited student. Pemberton, who has a killer Obama impersonation, was all smiles a few minutes later. “It got real. It got real for a second,” he said afterward.

Matt Schorr and Elizabeth Tobierre trace their fingers over the names of the civil rights martyrs etched in the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

THE WHOLE TRIP WAS A LOT TO ABSORB. But every now and then, new synapses would form across the shared wiring of the group. And not all of them were heavy, which perhaps was the only way to let them take hold. “So I woke up this morning, and for the first time, I finally made the connection between Obama, and, like, all of this,” sophomore Dena Kaye-Phillips gushed. Pemberton admitted that it was actually reassuring to learn about Martin Luther King Jr.’s extramarital affairs, because it was helpful to humanize him. Over dinner one evening, the group delved into the nuances that make black Greek life and non-black Greek life so different at Duke. And at some point during the 33.5 hours on the bus that week, Schorr and Kaye-Phillips broached that most sensitive of topics with Pitts and junior Mea Warren: black women’s hair care. What does relaxing your hair mean? How often can you wash your hair? Is braiding painful? And in return: What is Shabbat? Why do Jews keep kosher? Is Judaism a religion, an ethnicity, or what?

 

Learning history is like glue—when wet, it sets into cracks you can’t even see, and by the time it dries, the surface and possibly the whole nature of the object has changed. The glue on this trip hasn’t finished drying yet; its coating will make itself apparent to members of this group in different ways over the years. But in the meantime, one imperative has become clear. Warren summarized it best: “We’re our own black-Jewish coalition.”

And so, in those first somber moments after Pemberton’s incident, the group headed out on foot to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Quietly at first, Kaye-Phillips and Pitts, and then Warren, began singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody (Turn Me Around),” which we had picked up from watching documentaries on the bus. And then, one by one, the rest of the group joined in, until the banks of the Alabama River echoed with our song.