Friday, April 9, 2010
Sweet Home? Alabama
This past weekend I traveled from Atlanta, Georgia to Jackson, Mississippi on Greyhound. A mechanical mishap with my 1973 International Scout in Jackson the previous week meant that this was the second time in three days that I was traveling that particular stretch of Interstate-20. My eastbound trip to Atlanta included precious little time in places we stopped – just enough for a plate of pulled pork in Anniston, Alabama (“bar-b-que is the truth,” proclaimed the man behind me as I opened up the styrofoam container). However, on the westbound trip back to Jackson, we had an hour layover in Birmingham. So with time to stretch our legs, my traveling companion Whitney, and I decided to check out a little bit of Birmingham.
Our immediate goal was the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) on 5th Ave. and 16th St., a short ten minute walk from the Greyhound station downtown. A prurient fascination that all northerners, i.e., those who grew up outside of the states that still had legal slavery on the eve of the Civil War – Yankees, if you stay in the South long enough to get called that – had gotten the better of us. Besides, it had been over 15 years and a Ph.D. in history since I had been to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. What else do you do in Birmingham on a Monday afternoon?
After we got our bearings, we started down the street to the museum. Barely a block from the bus station our walk was interrupted when we noticed an arresting pair of signs along the sidewalk. Set one right after the other, some four or five feet apart, the markers stood probably around six feet tall and two-and-a-half feet wide. The first, marked A16, had a silhouetted figure cut out of the center, while below a short paragraph gave context for the civil rights marches during the Christian Holy Week in 1963 and beneath it was a small map of the downtown Birmingham with the locations of other similar markers. Behind it, on another sign of the exact same size was emblazoned a photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., being led away in handcuffs by a police officer. Text at the bottom of this sign told more specifically about King’s strategy of using the week between Palm Sunday and Easter as a time to bring attention to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s campaign in Birmingham, what another marker called “the most segregated city in the South.” On the back of the sign in large white type against a bright orange background was a stirring quote from a participant talking about the marches. The signs, one local resident walking down the street told us, “will lead you straight to the Civil Rights museum. Just follow them to the Kelly Ingram Park.”
The Birmingham markers tell a radically different story than most of the South’s memorials, monuments, roadside markers, and plaques on designated historic buildings that declare, to whomever might be listening, the official story of the past. Historians call these displays “public memory.” As W. Fitzhugh Brundage in The Southern Past, and David Blight in Race and Reunion have explained, institutionalized memory – given permanent form and sanctioned in the shape of monuments and markers – has often been a way for those in power to justify their position. Official memory often takes the form of a reactionary nostalgia or Whiggish history that makes the status quo seem right and proper.
The typical southern historical marker was one that promoted the “moonlight and magnolias” Gone With the Wind myth of the antebellum south, a place where slavery and the concomitant racial regime that it created never existed. Alternatively, signs marking civil war battlefields tell a great deal about military movements and heroic stands but nothing about the context or politics of the Civil War. Drive the 444 miles of the Natchez Trace Parkway and you get an antiquarian’s wet-dream, practically an encyclopedic account of the Lost Cause Myth: plantation homes to stop at and while away the time under groves of ancient trees punctuate road signs marking the tragic story of brave southern men fighting valiantly – “brother against brother,” always “brother against brother” – in a war that created “heroes on both sides.” A war for what, of course, the typical sign fails to mention (just look at Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's proclamation declaring this month "Confederate History Month").
Of course, the Birmingham markers were not about slavery and the Civil War, they were about the legacy wrought by slavery, the war, and its aftermath: the strange career of Jim Crow. The Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail markers told a harrowing story of brutal law enforcement, sophisticated segregationist laws, intransigent southern elites, and courageous civil rights workers. There are two series of markers. The first, entitled “The March to Government” follows the movement’s frontal assault on state-sponsored segregation and highlights laws and protests of those laws that marked the Jim Crow South. “The March to Retail” focuses on both black-owned business as well as the movement's boycott of white-owned business in the 1950s and 60s and shows how Civil Rights workers engaged consumerism as a mechanism for change. I was struck by the honesty and clarity of the signs, and what seemed to be Birmingham’s willingness to confront a more controversial aspect of its past. The creators of this heritage trail should be congratulated for putting together such a affecting display of public history and one that will no doubt be of great use to educators and of great interest to tourists in the near future.
That said, the more I think about these signs and their existence, the more I wonder: is Birmingham “confronting” its past, or is it commodifying it? The link to tourism (after all, I was a tourist that day) is what has troubled me since my visit. The Civil Rights Heritage Trail along with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute were named by the Alabama Tourism Department the 2009 Attraction of the Year. Given that the South is littered with “heritage,” primarily of the plantation home variety, does this mark a shift in America’s willingness to examine its complicated history? Or is something else going on, here? I wonder if this million-dollar installation is demonstrative of the larger mainstreaming of the “The Movement,” a new politics of nostalgia that contains the more radical critiques of anti-racism by acknowledging certain grotesque elements of history, only to point out their supposed passing. King and Civil Rights in Alabama have become iconic; fire hoses and dogs allow present-day Americans a sense of distance and superiority from some atavistic racial regime. That was “the past.” It’s over. Safely confined by History, the literary fiction that allows a society to note “the end” of past eras.
But History is just that: a mode of ordering the world. Like fiction, it trades in a set of literary devices that allow us to make sense of the past and to understand our relationship to it. What is the relationship to the segregationist past conjured by the Heritage trail. To what end the conjuring?
Of course, I don’t want my criticisms to diminish what is accomplished by these signs. The twin trails – “The March to Government” and “The March to Retail” – are both excellent examples of how public history can address and engage aspects of the American past that are very much part of our current politics. But, does this periodization paint too rosy of a picture?
The more explicit state-sponsored machinery of segregation was dismantled thanks in part to the efforts of the women and men chronicled in these signs. But what about the segregationist legacy left in its wake? The more subtle and far-less legible elements of racism still built into state structures? Additionally, what about the unequivocal link between poverty and blackness that marks much of, not just the south, but the nation as a whole (which King himself was bringing the nation's attention to when he was assassinated in Memphis)? A linkage that my recent bus trips on Greyhound, and my short layovers in various downtown bus stations, only underlined.
No one heritage trail can address all of these issues, to be sure, and the BCRI, at least, stresses continuation in the struggle for equality. But I fear that for certain viewers, the heritage trail and the sculptures in the park might run counter to their creators’ intentions. Instead of exhuming a past that many would like to forget, it might actually help to mark its supposed passing – a funeral, perhaps, for those dark times when discrimination was the order of the day, as if Jim Crow were overturned, racism were conquered, and such discriminatory practices would never, ever, be tolerated in our enlightened American present.