If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? --Albert Einstein

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Message from Montgomery

Note: Please be forewarned that I have included a disturbing photo at the end of this post.

The morning of my sixtieth birthday, my husband, Wendy, and I drove into downtown Montgomery, Alabama, counting on road signs to guide us to civil rights landmarks. We passed one for the Civil Rights Memorial and, while backtracking to find it, an iconic red-brick church rose up before us. My heart caught in my throat at the site of the Dexter Street Baptist Church where MLK, Jr. was pastor from 1954 to 1960.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested after she famously remained seated on a Montgomery bus. One day later, people crowded into this very church where they decided to launch the bus boycott. Wendy and I speculated on the fear that must have permeated the sanctuary barely four months after the widely publicized torture and murder of Emmit Till. (Photo is at the end of the post.) We are in awe of the astounding courage this non-violent protest required.
Unfortunately, a funeral was scheduled for that morning, so we were unable to go inside.

Wendy had read that the Civil Rights Memorial was only a block away, so we rounded a corner and came right up on it. I quickly recognized the black-table fountain from my Southern Poverty Law Center literature. This gorgeous monument was designed by Maya Lin, designer of DC’s Vietnam War Memorial. She was inspired by MLK’s paraphrase of Amos 5:24, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Photo from
Inside, we learned that she left a space on the civil rights timeline to
indicate that there were many incidents before this time and after.

I was not surprised that, to enter, we had to go through airport-like security since I was well aware of the many death threats against founder Morris Dees. Also, you may remember the 2009 murder of a Holocaust Museum security guard by an aging white supremacist.

Among other things, the museum featured a fascinating mural of the major events during the Civil Rights Era. But there was also a reminder that, on a smaller scale (thank God), these types of things still go on. One example was a pair of young men who were “looking for people to kill.” Black, Hispanic, anyone as long as they weren’t white. They eventually killed a young girl because “she trusted us and she was in-between.”

One of the last exhibits was the Wall of Tolerance, a digital display where the names of people who have taken the following pledge flow down the screen.
“By placing my name on the Wall of Tolerance, I pledge to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance. I will work in my daily life for justice, equality and human rights - the ideals for which the Civil Rights martyrs died.”

Both Wendy and I proudly added our names and immediately watched them roll before my tear-filled eyes. I tried several times to photograph them, but none came out. The photo below came from the SPLC website.

I was one year old when the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was handed down. I grew up with this movement in the background and was profoundly affected by it as a teenager. Human dignity and civil rights issues have molded my life. I feel very strongly that forgetting the sacrifices of the martyrs who came before us risks a return to the oppression that provoked it.
Photo of 14-year old Emmit Till
in his casket. The inset shows
the boy before the murder.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Inside "To Kill a Mockingbird"

The courtroom of "To Kill a
It was my birthday and we were headed for Mobile, Alabama. “There’s a Carnival cruise ship there,” my husband, Wendy, said. “I hope you brought your passport.”

“I bet you got a good price,” I teased. This was Day Two of my five-day sixtieth birthday celebration and each day was a surprise. Wendy would come to a corner or fork in the road and I would watch anxiously to see which way we went, adjusting my guess based on the turn. I was having a blast.
At about eleven in the morning, he steered the VW into a truck stop for a restroom break. Or so I thought. He didn’t get out of the car, but instead handed me an envelope and said, “Here. This is your birthday gift.”

When I opened the card, I cried out with joy and gratitude. Inside were two tickets to the local production of To Kill a Mockingbird that Monroeville, Alabama residents put on each year. Monroeville is the home of reclusive author Harper Lee and the prototype for much of the book—her only work and my very favorite book/movie.
I have read the book a handful of times, but I have seen the movie too often to count. As a conflict resolution teacher, I used clips from the film to show how Atticus would get spit in the face by Bob Ewell, wipe his face and walk away—not in fear, but in courage. Never did I have a middle schooler call Atticus a coward; they all recognized his dignity and valor. And when the black townspeople at the courthouse rose in honor of Atticus after he defended Tom Robinson, tears never failed to fall from my eyes. (During my single days, I often said I’d like to marry Atticus. )

I meant marry the Gregory Peck
We drove the twenty miles to Monroeville and had a look around. The Old Courthouse Museum was where Lee’s father, the model for Atticus Finch, practiced. This courtroom was studied and measured by set designers, then re-created in Hollywood where the movie was filmed. Stepping into the actual room was magical.

No photography during the play,
so use your imagination.
While we looked around, one of the curators asked Wendy if he would like to be on the jury for the evening’s performance. They chose only white men for authenticity. “Do it!” I urged. This could not get any better. Imagine him behind Gregory Peck, looking stern and disgusted with Tom Robinson.

Entering the courtroom, I sat in the witness chair, channeling Mayella Ewell. “Your fancy airs don’t come to nothin’, Mr. Finch!”

Mayella on the stand
Me on the stand

I climbed into the balcony and crouched where Jem, Scout, and Dill watched the trial with Reverend Sykes and the rest of the “colored” community.

Outside the courtroom, encased in glass, is what’s left of the tree that grew in front of the real-life Radley house. This was as close as falling into a rabbit hole and landing in 1930’s Maycomb, Alabama, as one can come. My whole body buzzed with excitement.

Me as Mrs. Dubose: "Don't you say 'hey'
to me, you ugly girl!"
In the evening, we sat outside the courthouse for the first act. An amphitheater has recently been built where pre-trial scenes are enacted.
After that, the court clerk and Sheriff Heck Tate announced those selected for the jury. Wendy and his compatriots headed in the back way and I found a seat on the jury side of the courtroom, second bench back. Right behind me sat “Miss Maudie” and “Miss Stephanie” who whispered their gossipy comments throughout the play. Only those within a couple-foot radius could hear them. It was so cool!
Many of the local actors are related to, knew, or knew of the actual people the book was based on. I was very impressed with the talent of these volunteers, who have even taken the production around the world.

Atticus Finch Monument
Atticus Finch, although fictional, is an American hero. In Monroeville, the Alabama State Bar erected a memorial to him, calling him a “lawyer-hero.” The American Film Institute named him the greatest film hero in the last 100 years. Over the last fifty years, this novel has affected people throughout the world the way it has inspired me and I was privileged to feel a part of it.