The University of Louisville Martin Luther King Jr. Scholars Cohort of 2024, of which I am a part, recently went on a “Civil Rights Immersion Experience” throughout the South. We stopped in Memphis, Tennessee and Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham, Alabama. We viewed a plethora of civil rights museums, historical sites, and memorials. It was the most powerful and thought-provoking journey I’ve ever taken. So, I’ve decided to share some of my feelings about what I saw. This was a special experience for our whole cohort that had a strong impact on each of us individually–therefore the thoughts below are mine alone. That said, the cohort helped shape my thinking through lengthy discussions throughout the trip, and by proxy, influenced this piece as well. To each of them, I say thank you.
Lorraine Motel: The Deathbed of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr–Memphis, TN
There once lived an African king. His people, stolen from their motherland, faced violent hostility in a foreign land. He was moved to help them break the chains of oppression that they experienced daily. The king was a man of peace and love: he loved all humanity and believed in humanity’s capability to be redeemed. His devotion to love fueled his devotion to peace. He called it non-violence. Violence, to him, was wrong, ineffective, and created complex social problems. He preferred loving his enemy into releasing power, not beating him into it.
The enemy hated the king despite his patient love for them. But their hate could not hold back his power, for it was not his alone, it belonged to his people. And his people were longing for freedom. The king took charge of a war that his people had been fighting for centuries, and he led them to victory in many major battles. After finishing the first battle, he began to lay the groundwork for another. His people, now citizens, were still hungry, still poor, still abused, and still powerless. He wanted to change that. As he organized his people to get them bread and shelter, he realized they weren’t the only ones who were hungry. He rallied the range of poor people to demand bread together, and this terrified the enemy.
This scared them so much they had the king unceremoniously killed. The “most hated man in America” was gone. A people were left divided and directionless in the wake of a senseless murder. Senseless: the man preached love and brotherhood to an enemy bent on violence; but violence prevailed. They could not claim self-defense because the king was not violent, therefore they directly attacked the value of his humanity—and his people’s. His people had no choice but to retaliate with the methods the king opposed. And everywhere they lived, they fought. They would not be ignored.
Though the king died, the war did not. Battles are being fought right now, they will certainly be fought in the future. The enemy claims the war was already won and urges us to sleep. We can work with them, sleep with them, live with them, eat with them—yes our fight was long but now we can rest, it’s done. Convincing the king’s descendants of this is paramount, because their organization must be avoided at all costs: their efforts must be weak. They lionized the king they once despised, the king they killed. They took the institution where he spent his final days from his people and degraded it into a corporatized shrine to his whitewashed legacy. The location of his final breath now a tool to indoctrinate his people into docility. Mere feet from the spot where the king died now lies a gift shop.
I try to walk in the king’s footsteps. I don’t believe in idols, but I idolize him. The enemy made sure of it. In their schools, they gave me only a few heroes to pick from my people, and he was top dog. I read his writings, listen to his speeches, and study his methods. I always wanted to see Lorraine, the sacred place where darkness drove out his light. Having now been, I vow not to return until it is in the hands of the people he served, instead of serving the interests of the people he fought. It will be in our hands.
Viewing the grotesque scene of thievery and indoctrination left me with but one sentiment: rage. Rage against Lorraine’s presentation. Rage against Lorraine’s ownership. Rage against racism that forced the king to fight. Rage against the philosophies of peace and non-violence. Rage against the fact that my people are so powerless that we don’t even choose the destinies of our historical landmarks. Rage against the fact that most of my people are fooled by the sham presented at Lorraine.
Looking at the exact spot where the king was assassinated, a tear escaped from my eye and slid down my face. I could not allow it. That tear wanted, no it needed, to accelerate into a sustained sob. It should’ve been a cathartic experience to mourn a fallen leader from my tribe, but how could I allow myself that relief? How could I when his fight is not done and when the enemy controls the narrative of his most precious and powerful thing: his legacy. The words of another African leader, who was responding to the killing, rang in my head as I stared at the spot where they killed the king, “We will give no more tears for any Black man killed.” No more tears, not for the king nor the others who are killed every day up to today. We must defend our humanity, not merely mourn its loss!
Arriving in Alabama
“Sweet home Alabama, where skies are so blue. Sweet home Alabama, Lord I’m coming home to you.” Riding through Alabama’s countryside for the first time gave me true appreciation for those lyrics. The skies there are pure powder blue, and they seem more infinite and vast than usual. So immense is the Alabama sky that I felt like I was under it. I know, we are always under the sky, but there I could feel it. Its power was tangible, its beauty undeniable. Huge clouds filled the sky like masterpieces on a blank blue canvas. Illuminated by the shining Southern sun, they were bright, white, soft like cotton. The powder blue gave way to the verdant peaks of the trees. So many trees, tall and short, old and young, thick and thin, lush and green. The trees were bridges from the sky to the ground. The ground where the humans are, where we have etched our own art onto the canvas. As I rode, I watched the landscape transform. It cycled between forest and swamp—the tree line intermittently breaking to expose hidden mountains in the distance covered in greenery. Out here, the human footprint was small. Only rarely did I see man-made shelter amidst the sprawling nature.
Once my amazement at the artistry of Alabama faded, one persistent and pressing question took its place. How could hate thrive in such a beautiful place? How could a man sell another man under this sky? How could he force him to pick cotton under these clouds? How could he hang him from these trees? How could he stomp him and spill his blood into this ground over and over and over again? Alabama is where human atrocity and beauty meet, a confounding place whose wonder can’t be trusted because it is built on unnecessary bloodshed and perpetuated by oppression. A beautiful land stolen from the Indians and built by Africans, yet ruled by the former European. They have mismanaged it into hatred, squalor, and scorn.
Montgomery: the Origin of the Movement and the Confederacy
Our foray into Montgomery began with Dr. King’s church, from which he led the boycott of city buses in opposition to white supremacy. It sits right in the shadows of the Alabama state capitol, the stronghold of the state’s power. 25,000 had marched from Selma to this very building to demand the ballot. Walking from the humble two-story church to the ostentatious capital complex in the same footsteps as those freedom fighters was empowering and enlightening. Dr. King’s church and house were mere blocks from the state house, both marked by historical plaques that ironically featured the Alabama flag, a derivation of the Confederate flag.
The capital complex was astounding. Composed of intimidating buildings constructed with pristine white stone, the capital is set in the middle flanked on every side by imposing government offices. The grounds of the complex were frequently tended to–flowers lined the walkways and trees dotted the surrounding freshly cut landscape. My eyes were caught by a statue standing alone: his facial structure eerily familiar from Kentucky’s own capital. I approached it to read the name placard attached to confirm my suspicions. Jefferson Davis, the “president” of the Confederacy, stood there gallant and unashamed. Unsurprised, but disappointed I began to see other statues hidden in the greenery. Confederate. Confederate. Segregationist, a more modern Confederate. Then came the largest monument commemorating dead veterans from every branch of the Confederacy—the foot soldiers of American racism. 20 feet tall and scarily intricate with a cornerstone laid by President Davis himself. Thoroughly disgusted, we left without viewing the capital’s back side. What back there could redeem this up here?
Upon departure, the similarities between the capital complex and the plantations of old struck me. This is how people would see Alabama. White, clean, tailored, perfect. The niggers who built it and maintained it are hidden away from the big house. Their presence would tear this grotesque facade of peace and prosperity apart. But as long as Black is in the back, law and order remain, the facade sticks.
Alabama is bad at hiding its true intentions. They put their true heroes on the front lawn, but we should question the big houses in every city and state and the one in D.C. too. What are they hiding behind the granite and flowers and monuments? I think Alabama may have company. The plantation nature of this state is clear, but the plantations of 1860 are the prisons of 2022: they transform over time. Jefferson Davis need not be present for a plantation to be.
Peace and Justice Memorial to the Victims of White Supremacist Lynchings–Montgomery, Alabama
4,075 Black people were lynched in America. There is no way to tell what the actual scope of loss is, because many lynchings went undocumented. The Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery attempts to visualize that loss. Hundreds, maybe thousands of rust colored boxes hung from the sky. Each was assigned to a county where lynchings occurred, and featured the name of each person who was lynched there. Name after name after name after name after name. Life after life after life after life after life. I was speechless while viewing the memorial and I’m speechless still. The best I can do is describe some of what I saw and thought to demonstrate the weight of terror lynching scarred on humanity.
As I approached the hanging boxes, the breadth of them became clear. There were so many names and boxes. I walked up and down the rows one by one, soaking in each name, each date. These names are English: Smith, Jackson, Clark, Spence. How senseless: Africans dying in a foreign land for nothing but hate and greed. 23 Africans murdered on one day. 237 murdered on another. What happened these days? What fueled these crimes against humanity? I kept seeing people with shared last names eliminated on the same day. It’s often wondered why our family structure is so fractured. How could it not be? Many names were not names at all, they instead read “Unknown.” We can never forget the Unknowns: victims whose names weren’t even collected before their demise. How many Unknowns are there? How many Unknowns will we never know about?
I left the Peace and Justice Memorial in pain and rage, having made a solemn promise to my ancestors: y’all did not die in vain.
Birmingham: Magic City
By the time we reached Birmingham, I was numb. Hardened by Memphis, Selma, and Montgomery, I couldn’t quite feel anymore in Birmingham. This city was home to one of the fiercest struggles of the movement, but its tragedies and triumphs had no effect on me. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four Black girls were killed by a klan bombing, evoked no emotion when I saw it. Only emptiness. Addie Mae, Carol, Cynthia, and Carole. I’m sorry I couldn’t feel for you Queens. The cruelty towards our people is simply too great for a man not to be desensitized to it. The presentation of the battle you were forced to be martyrs for is so wrong, crooked, and traumatizing that my humanity could not handle it without eventually disassociating.
Right across the street from the church was a statue park that glorified the violence. Still cold, I walked through the statues depicting weak Negroes. We never fought back. At least that’s what these statues say. A huge white police officer with a vicious dog holding a Black man up by his shirt (the Black man had the features of a man, but was the size of a boy). An abstract piece with two walls on either side of the walkway: demonic police dogs were lurching out of the walls as I walked through. The last statue in the park was a wall that stood over the walkway, with an opening for spectators to walk through. Once on the other side, I stared down two water cannons: I flinched, then turned around to see two little Black kids hunched down against the wall, I guess using their backs to try and shield themselves from the unrelenting water pressure. I thought back to Jefferson Davis and his comrades in Montgomery. What purpose did those monuments serve? What purpose do these?
The dreadful stroll through the park ended in its center with a symbolism I couldn’t ignore. A large fountain lay there with an inscription, “This placid fountain mirrors the peace that the brave Freedom Fighters helped forge.” The fountain was dry, not an ounce of water to be found in it. It would not be complicit in the lie that peace prevailed. If peace did prevail, as so many seem to think, it was faux. That insidious peace that Dr. King described, “It was peace that had been purchased at the price of capitulating to the forces of darkness. This is the type of peace that all men of goodwill hate. It is the type of peace that is obnoxious. It is the type of peace that stinks in the nostrils of the almighty God.” A negative peace which is the absence of tension, not a positive peace that is the presence of justice.
Conclusion: We are the Hope
The problems facing our society can often seem overwhelming: too much for us to handle. This is especially true when we are immersed in them. For a week, I was immersed in the worst society has to offer my people. All of us are constantly immersed in the bad of this world. Our screens won’t let us escape it. But hope and optimism cannot be found when we’re drowning: it can only be found in ourselves. We know the myriad conundrums facing us, so why wait to make some change? We must act: immersing ourselves in struggles of the past is not enough. Frederick Douglass said, “the youth should fight to be leaders today.” We are the change agents of today, we are the people that can ensure that future generations won’t have to drown. At the very least, we can give them the tools to swim.