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Between the Lines

Interview with Jim Carrier
A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement
Jim Carrier

Jim Carrier takes readers on a state-by-state tour of the civil rights movement. From well-known and heavily-visited monuments to forgotten historical landmarks, Carrier details the civil rights struggles and triumphs that took place at café counters, in the backs of buses, from the pulpits of churches, and on the steps of government buildings throughout the South, the North, and beyond.
Jim Carrier is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including The Ship and the Storm. He has written for National Geographic, SAIL, and the New York Times. From 1999-2001, he worked for Morris Dees at the Southern Poverty Law Center, where he created and developed their Web site. He lives in Montgomery, Alabama.

Jim Carrier is also a firm supporter of social "tolerance." Please visit www.tolerance.org for more information.

Also see - Interview with Jim Carrier for The Ship and the Storm
Q: What is the importance of landmarks in the telling of black history?
A: Memorials are one way we remember. They keep a hero or an event alive. They can be visited by school children to solidify their sense of history. People often make pilgrimages to these landmarks. They mark in a very physical and sometimes spiritual way our sacred spots. I wrote this guidebook in part to promote landmarks where none existed. In much of the South, Confederate monuments still occupy public spaces. They were erected during a Jim Crow era in which black history was virtually nonexistent. Yet today, 50 years after the civil rights movement, countless courthouse squares still have no landmark to the revolution that took place there. What is the South saying to school kids who visit? That Confederate values still hold? I find it odd that in many communities where blacks now control city councils and boards of education the public spaces have not been remodeled to reflect the new reality. In many places, unfortunately, the only "landmarks" are the gravestones of those who died in the struggle.

Q: In the guide, you specifically mention "Civil Rights Row" (which includes memorials for Jefferson, King, and Lincoln) with the words, "each stood on the shoulders, and honored the vision, of the previous man.” What actions by these men led you to make this statement and what is the significance of the positioning of the three memorials?
A: Jefferson was a "founding father," the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence. His five words, "all men are created equal," are the fountainhead of human rights. When he wrote them, however, even he didn't believe them. Only white men with property like him were equal. Slaves didn't count, and women had to fight for another two centuries for their birthright.

Lincoln, 85 years later, expanded the meaning of "created equal," both in his efforts to end slavery and in his eloquent philosophy. In 1863 his Emancipation Proclamation freed three million slaves, and his Gettysburg Address, a eulogy to Union soldiers, reminded the nation of its "unfinished work." He vowed a "new birth of freedom," a dream derailed by his assassination.

King, exactly 100 years later, forced the U.S. to honor Jefferson's creed and Lincoln's vow. He didn't do it alone, of course, but he was the oracle of the movement that brought integrity to America's founding promise.

Civil Rights Row is my term. I would like to think this was not an accident by the National Mall planners. But the physical layout of the two existing memorials and the site chosen for the King memorial are brilliant landscape architecture. I recommend the long walk between the three as a meditation on the long path of equality.

Q: Many of the locations in your book are in the South, as were many of the events that shaped the civil rights movement. Do you think the physical proximity to the these locations in history makes Southerners more sensitive to civil rights than persons in far northern or western regions?
A: Yes, but in a prickly way. The civil rights movement erupted in former slave states where black citizens were still denied their constitutional rights. Led by African Americans, the movement upended in the space of 10 years a social and legal order that had existed for 200 years. So, yes, Southerners are more "sensitive." There is lingering shame on the part of whites, and great pride in ownership on the part of blacks. Here, "civil rights" are celebrated as a black holiday, although younger generations take them for granted. We see in the struggle for building memorials to the movement that issues of racism and diversity remain unresolved and just below the surface. Elsewhere in the country, I think civil rights are viewed as belonging to everyone.

Q: Which of the museums, monuments, or historical landmarks most impressed you, either emotionally or by the very nature of their architecture?
A: There are four good museums in Memphis, Atlanta, Birmingham and Montgomery. But ordinary icons of the movement—bus stops, lunch counters, bridges, and churches, touched me. It was there that folks demanded ordinary rights—the right to take any seat, to order coffee, or to try on clothes, and especially, to vote.

Because they are so commonplace, many scenes of the struggle are deteriorating or disappearing. One example is the remains of the two-story brick store in Money, Mississippi, where 14-year-old Emmett Till spoke to a white clerk in the summer of 1955. He later was murdered by the clerk's husband and thrown into the Tallahatchie River that runs behind the store. Money is a dried-up little Delta village, the building is caving in, and vines are slowly claiming the bricks. It's a powerful physical reminder of this story. But there's not a single thing to mark the spot or the event. It ought to be a national monument.

Q: Did you learn anything particularly striking, perhaps a hidden but significant piece of history?
A: My most valuable lesson was that the civil rights movement did not occur between 1954 and 1968, the years used as bookends for the "King years." When you stand on the corner where Rosa Parks got on her bus in downtown Montgomery, you are also standing on the spot where slaves were sold to cotton growers and Jefferson Davis launched the civil war. This layering is true all across the South. Where oppression ran deepest, resistance to change was fiercest. This discovery—new to me, but well known to black historians—led quickly into the history of Jim Crow and slavery. It's all connected, and where possible, I tell civil right stories back to the time when slaves arrived.

Q: Many of the civil rights activists started as religious leaders. Did these men have a following because of their developed speaking skills? Or because they were better educated than the others in their communities?
A: Both. In an essay on black institutions, I quote Taylor Branch who observed that during segregation "all roads converged at the Negro church. It served not only as a place of worship but also as a bulletin board, a credit union, and even a kind of people's court." This revolution was hatched behind the walls of churches. Black preachers, as early as Gabriel Proesser, found in scripture the admonition, "let my people go." The modern movement was fueled by the oratory of preachers, the community of congregations, and the Biblical grounding that theirs was a just and righteous cause..

Q: The Holt Street Baptist Church on South Holt Street at Jefferson Davis Avenue in Montgomery, Alabama, is well known as the location of one of Martin Luther King's most inspirational speeches and thus an important landmark.
What can a traveler expect to see and feel when they reach this location?

A: There is a historic sign, but the church is empty and deteriorating. The congregation is alive and well in another location, and it promises to make something of the original site. Unfortunately, the church is almost directly below an interstate exchange, the construction of which gutted a once-vibrant black community. The 1965 Voting Rights historic trail runs by the church.

Q: Is the struggle for civil rights over? Have we redeemed "the soul of America" as Martin Luther King had hoped?
A: No. In fact, the lack of memorials may reflect the reality that civil rights are still in flux, subject to political swings. By any measure—poverty, schooling, prison populations, etc.—the divide is stark between people of color and the white majority. That said, I believe that civil rights are now taken for granted—expected and demanded—by every segment of our population. Even old white men invoke them when they feel discriminated against. I believe the civil rights movement's greatest legacy is a standard by which we are held accountable and toward which we constantly reach.

Q: Is there a comparison between the black civil rights movement and the current gay and lesbian rights movement?
A: Gays and lesbians rightly demand the constitutional rights Jefferson promised: innate equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They are only the latest group to demand an end to discrimination. Unfortunately, churches lead the resistance to and the attack on gay rights. The campaign of a few loud homophobes is fueling deeply held fears and biases and smack of fire and brimstone redux. Sooner or later, I believe, the power of our national creed, common sense, constitutional rights, and the golden rule will prevail.

A Note from Jim Carrier
After the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, I came to Montgomery, Alabama to work for the Southern Poverty Law Center. I wrote the center's community guide, "Ten Ways to Fight Hate," and directed the launch of the Webby-winning site, Tolerance.org.

While in Montgomery, I noticed visitors from around the world looking for civil rights "sites." These included Martin Luther King's Dexter Avenue Church and SPLC's civil rights memorial designed by Maya Lin. Each March hundreds of people come to Selma to mark the anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," the 1965 voting-rights march over the Edmund Pettus bridge.

Research of civil rights tourism found impressive numbers: Two museums, in Memphis and Birmingham, each host 150,000 people a year, and the King center in Atlanta reports more than one million. Many were children in school classes, but the interest in "heritage tourism" is rising.

A number of new sites are being developed. These include the Greeensboro Sit-in Woolworth's store, a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall, the Topeka, Kansas school integrated by Brown v. Board of Education, and a James Meredith integration memorial at Ole Miss in Oxford. At least three states are talking about slave museums. Above all, the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement (2004) is right around the corner.

Yet, there are few resources for the visiting public, a handful of brochures, several old black history guides that did not include the modern movement sites, and one large "guided history." I saw a need for a user-friendly travel guidebook.

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Jim Carrier

Jim Carrier

A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement

A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement