Duke University Alumni Magazine


Retracings: Davis in the fields of Mississippi
Photo: Jessica Allan

An innocent question to a hotel clerk leads to a journey documenting the civil-rights movement.

still think of it as the day trip that turned into a seven-year odyssey.

My first job out of law school, I clerked for a judge based in Savannah, Georgia. As part of our duties on the federal 11th Circuit, we traveled to appeals courts in the Deep South to hear arguments in cases from district courts stretching from the hill country of Alabama down to the Florida Keys. The tradition dates back to the earliest days of the American judiciary, when judges were required to "ride the circuit" on horseback.

In the early 1990s, our federal caseload included numerous cases that originated when the racial tumult of the civil-rights movement brought legal reforms to the South in the 1950s and Sixties. Many governments, schools, and prisons still labored under complicated consent decrees designed to stamp out some aspect of segregation, while private parties sought justice through the laws against discrimination in the workplace. These issues were fresh in my mind when I made my first trip to Birmingham, Alabama, site of a dramatic showdown between Martin Luther King Jr.'s organization and the old racial order in the spring of 1963.

My quest began with an innocent question to a clerk at my Birmingham hotel. I had some extra time one afternoon and went down to ask him if he could tell me where to find the church where four girls were tragically killed in a racially motivated bombing in 1963. I later found out it was called the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (the same one featured in Spike Lee's documentary Four Little Girls), and it was about four blocks from my hotel. But when I asked back in 1991, the clerk shrugged and said he had no idea where it was. I asked around at a bookstore and a few other places. No one knew. So I started wondering if anyone had bothered to map out the battlegrounds of this momentous period so that curious people could experience history firsthand. I thought there might be a book on the subject, but there wasn't.

It turned out that at that time the federal government had only designated three sites in the South related to civil rights as National Historic Landmarks: Central High School in Little Rock; the King home and church in Atlanta; and King's first church in Montgomery. I started keeping notes on other civil-rights locations in the cities we visited that year, but it was nothing more than a hobby. I moved to New York and began practicing as a lawyer, figuring some historian, travel writer, or academic would eventually put the idea of a civil-rights guide into finished form, saving me any further work on it.

Three years later, the idea still gnawed at me, and no other book had materialized. Some historical societies were just beginning to put up markers to celebrate civil-rights heroes to stand alongside the obelisks and statues for the Confederacy that had always been evident in public spaces in the South. I was visiting a friend in Atlanta and decided to drive down to Selma, Alabama, for a commemorative civil-rights march. The place struck me as a time capsule: The highway, the courthouse, the churches looked exactly as I had seen them in photographs, and it still had a small-town rhythm. The Edmund Pettus Bridge arched over the muddy Alabama River, just as it had in 1965 when civil-rights marchers were charged by state troopers and subdued with tear gas and clubs. The same mayor, Joseph T. Smitherman, was still in office after nearly thirty years, as was the pastor of a leading black church that had held the first mass meeting to organize for civil rights. At that point, I decided that I had better write the book I had been pondering before the legacy of this history slipped out of view. I used material gathered in Selma to fashion a book proposal, and set aside six months to scout out historical sites by car.

My journey began with a commemorative march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1995 to remember the fifty-four-mile civil-rights trek of 1965 that solidified the drive for new voting-rights laws. Several people from the original march--gray-haired but still bellowing the Movement songs of old--joined high school and college students in carrying a banner along Highway 80 out of Selma, through the desolate area of Lowndes County known as Big Swamp, and on to the state capital, Montgomery. This time, Alabama State troopers lined the road to protect them. In fact, they were so vigilant that they mistook my 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit, which I had parked temporarily in a cotton field, for a potential car bomb. Later, when I accidentally drove into a ditch, Movement organizers simply lifted the car out with their hands and dropped it back on the highway.

A nighttime meeting at a church by a road crossing called Trickem Fork brought residents from the surrounding towns to greet the marchers. That meeting brought to life all the fervor and warmth that had marked the Movement's nightly mass meetings of years past, which were central to organizing for racial change.

At the outskirts of Montgomery, marchers were greeted by a peculiar site. Former Governor George Wallace was waiting on the steps of a Catholic compound, where marchers were scheduled to make their last stop before entering the city limits and marching to Wallace's old office at the state capitol. Wallace had made himself famous by, among other things, planting himself in front of a schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 1963 to physically block the entrance of two black students. This time, Wallace had a different purpose. He had years before renounced his past racist statements and sought to project an image of repentance. Hunched in his wheelchair but sharply attired, Wallace could barely be heard as the crowd settled in front of the building entrance. But he had not lost his knack for theater. He clasped hands with the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (formerly headed by King), issued a shaky welcome to the marchers, and said to the audience, "I love you all."

When I got back to Birmingham, changes were everywhere. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where my mission began, was renovated and shone with the splendor of a Broadway theater, while a new civil-rights museum had grown up across the street. In nearby Kelly Ingram Park, graphic sculptures of snarling police dogs and young marchers facing powerful fire hoses re-enacted the famous street clashes of 1963 that had been on front pages worldwide. As in many communities, churches and civil-rights groups continued to work for change, although civil rights had given way to a focus on penal reform, economic opportunities, and revitalizing downtown businesses.

Then came Mississippi, which was new territory for me. I had spent several months staying with friends along the way, but in Mississippi, I was on my own. One of my journal entries from my trip to Meridian, where slain civil-rights worker James Chaney grew up, gives an idea of my daily routine:

"I rumble across six railroad tracks, get an orange juice and Snickers. I go to the church where the memorial service for Chaney was held. I know there is a mid-week prayer meeting at six o'clock. They are in the basement chanting blessings. Two women sing in the higher registers. I find the pastor, and explain. He is accommodating, shows me the sanctuary, sits me down in front of the bulky metal heater, shows me some old church programs. The place smells of damp bibles. No one has the program from the Chaney funeral, but the place was packed with people, he knows that much. Someone may have a tape of it. He taps two people who have been in his church since the 1940s to talk to me. One gabs, the other sits with goggle-style sunglasses and rubs his cane. I run the tape recorder. I don't get much this time, but ask them apologetically to sign legal releases. They sign. I give them my card, pat the old man on the back. He needs to go home to dinner. I wave, walking down the steps. Have to call B'Nai Brith and the NAACP for follow-up. And the local TV station. I sling the notepads into the back seat along with everything else. I check to make sure the usual leaks haven't reached my computer.

"I retrace the tour I just did of downtown. Like all of them, it is burned out, except for Kress 5 & 10, Bill's Dollar Store, the hotel with rusty neon signs. Neutron bomb downtown. I make a map, the ink streaks in the rain. I ask at the beauty salon what the number of the next-door building is. It is where Schwerner and Chaney were last seen before going off to their deaths. It used to be the office of COFO (Council of Federated Organizations), complete with cast-off college texts and hand-cranked mimeograph machines. The hairdresser does not know the number.

"Decide to stop agonizing. Go to Chaney's grave. Easy to find, despite eye-rolling direction givers in town. On a hill just before the road turns to dirt. It is a moving sight. The eternal flame is out, but the roses, rain, slate sky embody solemnity. The headstone reads: 'There are those who are alive, yet will never live. There are those who are dead, yet will live forever. Great deeds inspire and encourage the living.' I realize that I am standing in a hood of mosquitoes. I photograph the grave, once in color, once in black-and-white. I notice other graves and wonder if this was a segregated cemetery. I vaguely remember something about either Goodman or Schwerner [who were white] wanting to be buried beside Chaney [who was black] and not being allowed to. I pull off to the side of the road and lie down on the two front seats. Sleep for a half hour, and no one bothers me."

The Mississippi Delta was more of the same, only flatter and drier. Many times I traveled back and forth across highways, seeing nothing but open fields and a comet tail of dust kicked up by a pickup racing down a dirt road in the distance. Every town seemed to have its ramshackle houses on cinder blocks, its barbecue joints, and its Head Start vans. Sources very kindly guided me along the routes they had traveled as Movement leaders, re-mapping the area in my mind. By this time, it was getting hot during the day, and I stopped off at a mountain retreat outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, at the Highlander Center, where Movement strategy and training had taken place since the 1950s. In their wonderful library with a peaceful view of the valley, I immersed myself in documents, tape recordings, and photographs from the Movement era.

Finally, I made it back to New York, my car bulging with notes, photocopies, and tapes. I had a meeting with my editor from Norton, and he asked me to guess how many miles I had logged during the trip. Although my odometer was broken for much of it, I estimated about 30,000. It was a journey unlike any other I had experienced, a powerful mix of inspiration, frustration, and surprises. There were days when I didn't speak at all, except to the hotel clerk or the cashier at the drive-through window. Other days I felt like I was in conversation continuously from breakfast until after midnight. It took all the concentration I had to stick with the mission, rather than following any number of fascinating detours that beckoned at several junctions. What kept me going was the willingness of people to stop what they were doing, listen to my purpose for coming, and tell me something about their past. Now, nearly three years later, some of those people have died or moved to other cities. I feel lucky to have met them when I did and to have preserved a piece of their lives, however small.

Fannie Lou Hamer House
and Gravesite
721 Fannie Lou Hamer Drive
(formerly James Street)
Ruleville, Mississippi

Fannie Lou Hamer's grave: Movement motivator rests in Ruleville, Mississsippi
Photo: Townsend Davis

Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer was born in 1917 and grew up in the fields of the Delta. She became a Movement heroine for her steely will. The youngest of twenty children, she began picking cotton at age six on a plantation. She worked the same backbreaking hours as the rest in the field, from "can to can't," and later became a timekeeper on the plantation of W.D. Marlow. Only miles away, but eons apart, lived James Eastland, the ranking segregationist in the U.S. Senate during the 1960s. He owned a fifty-four-hundred-acre plantation near Doddsville, a few miles south of Ruleville. By 1964 so much had changed that there was talk of Mrs. Hamer challenging Eastland for his Senate seat.

She first heard about voting while attending a civil-rights meeting at William Chapel in Ruleville. She quickly adopted the Movement, and it her, lending her booming voice and a keen eye for injustice. "Mrs. Hamer became a person who could not only bring people together," said SNCC [Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] worker Charles McLaurin, "but who could say things that would make people move."

After her first failed attempt to register in August 1962 forced her to leave her home on the plantation, she took refuge at a guest house in Ruleville. She passed the voting test on her second try in December 1962. About the same time she moved in to a rented home at 626 East Lafayette Street in Ruleville, near William Chapel. She began to travel for the Movement and served as a popular speaker and a SNCC field secretary. Her first trip in April 1963 was to the Dorchester Academy in Georgia for citizenship training. She went back to the citizenship school on Johns Island, South Carolina. Returning home from that trip, she and two other Movement workers were beaten in a notorious incident at the Winona jail. Her account of this incident formed the core of her short but riveting testimony at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. The Montgomery County jail (217 Sterling Avenue, Winona), where the incident happened, remains a jail today.

The first time Mrs. Hamer cast a ballot, she voted for herself as a congressional candidate for the MFDP [Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party] in 1964. She challenged Jamie Whitten, a twelve-term segregationist with a firm grip on federal agriculture policy governing the Delta. She lost in a landslide because of the still-minuscule number of registered black voters. In 1964 the Hamer house became a Freedom Summer headquarters. Students white and black lugged their trunks to James Street, filled the house with Movement chaos, and taught classes on the lawn near the pecan tree.

Mrs. Hamer also worked with the Delta Ministry and the National Council of Negro Women to develop housing and a day-care center in Ruleville. In 1969 she founded a 680-acre agricultural cooperative called the Freedom Farm, located in north Sunflower County not far from the Marlow plantation where she had worked for eighteen years. The co-op grew beans, peas, okra, potatoes, and peanuts and raised hogs for members to eat. It also sold cotton and soybeans.

Mrs. Hamer's prominence in the Movement led to honorary degrees from several colleges and a critical role in the 1968 challenge to Mississippi's all-white Democratic delegation. She gave her name and time to a lawsuit to desegregate the schools of Sunflower County and ran unsuccessfully for the state senate in 1971. Battling ill health, she continued to make appearances and work for the Movement. One day in 1972, after picketing a white grocery store that had mistreated a black customer, she collapsed and was admitted to the hospital. Five years later, on April 14, 1977, she died of cancer at a hospital in Mound Bayou.

Mrs. Hamer was buried on land formerly held by the Freedom Farm and now the property of the city of Ruleville. She had died virtually penniless, so Owen Brooks and other activists raised money for the funeral. Her headstone reads: "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired." Her husband, Perry, a farm worker known as Pap who later worked for Head Start, died in 1992 and is buried beside her. The Ruleville post office was named for her in 1994, and her name is still wistfully mentioned by black and white leaders who saw her as the embodiment of commitment. The house is now inhabited by one of Mrs. Hamer's grandchildren.

Armstrong's Barbershop
708 Eighth Avenue North
Birmingham, Alabama

James Armstrong: barber and Movement veteran in his shop, 1996
Photo: Townsend Davis

For more than forty years former Army man James Armstrong has been cutting hair here. Owning his own business gave him the independence to support the Movement from the beginning. If there were front-line duties, he was there: at the Greyhound Station attempting to integrate the waiting room, with [Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights founder Reverend Fred] Shuttlesworth in Gadsden to retrieve Shuttlesworth's jailed children, and in the city jail in April 1963 after the ACMHR's first effort to integrate downtown stores. Armstrong's family was one of the eight black families who sued in August 1957 to integrate the public elementary schools, and his children, Dwight and Floyd, were the first blacks to be admitted to Graymont School in 1963.

A flag bearer in his Army unit, Armstrong also was designated to carry an American flag during the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. Since then he has carried a flag during commemorative retracings of that route. During one of the marches, which went all the way to Washington, D.C., he wore out two pairs of size 11D shoes.

The barbershop is still in operation. The window bears the warning "If You Don't Vote, Don't Talk Politics in Here." Old magazines are stuffed in a rack, and photos of black officeholders from across the nation adorn the walls. Why doesn't he give it up, as his children have urged? "I just stay down there and enjoy the lies," he says.

W.W. Norton and Company published Weary Feet, Rested Souls: A Guided History of the Civil Rights Movement, by Davis '82, last January.

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