Magazine article Insight on the News

Riding to Freedom through Alabama: An Insight Writer Joins a Group of Journalists on a Tour of Historic Sites Remembered from the Civil-Rights Struggle and Observes the Changed Face of the South. (the Nation: Reporter's Notebook)

Magazine article Insight on the News

Riding to Freedom through Alabama: An Insight Writer Joins a Group of Journalists on a Tour of Historic Sites Remembered from the Civil-Rights Struggle and Observes the Changed Face of the South. (the Nation: Reporter's Notebook)

Article excerpt

The morning of Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb went off at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. It was Sunday and the church was packed. Four teen-aged girls--Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carnie Robertson and Cynthia Wesley--died in the blast. That day the youth of 16th Street Baptist Church, including the four dead girls, were going to conduct the worship service. The Sunday-school lesson for the day was "The Love That Heals."

Though the explosion was so powerful that it damaged cars parked nearby and buildings across the street, it blew only the face of Christ out of one of the church's stained-glass windows.

The murder of those four children touched the hearts of millions of Americans back in 1963. It still was much on the minds of 15 journalists from the United States and Great Britain who toured Alabama in January, nearly 40 years later. Guests of the state's tourism office, we visited the 16th Street Baptist Church, where today the girls are memorialized as "Angels of Change," and other spots that played central roles in the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Our journey, "The Alabama Ride to Freedom, 2003," began at that church in Birmingham. But soon we boarded a bus--like the "freedom riders" of four decades ago--to travel to Selma and then to Montgomery. Our guide was the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Now a vigorous 80, he was, back in the 1950s, one of Birmingham's black leaders, arrested by his own count "more than 35 times" during the civil-rights struggle. On Christmas Day 1956, another bomb severely damaged both his home and the Bethel Baptist Church where he pastored.

We journalists were a motley crew: blacks, whites and Asians. Two of us, Shuping Lu and Hao Hong, now work for Chinese-language publications in New York City. But in 1988 they were among the student activists demonstrating for democracy in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, where they lost many friends. Hao told me he was on the Alabama tour so he "could see how protest was handled in the United States back then."

He was aware, Hao said, of similarities between black protest for voting rights in the United States and the Chinese-student demand for democratic reform. When the tour was over, Hao told me that he "now saw what can be achieved in America through organization and commitment and hard work."

A black journalist, Cynthia Nevels, was in Alabama to see where one of her grandfathers had been born. "He fled the KKK and came North," she said, "but he talked about hunting and fishing and growing up down here." Nevels, who is president of Infocus Media News Service in Washington, had another reason for joining the tour: "I want to see the places where the fights were fought that helped secure the basic rights I have today," she said.

For this reporter, the tour was a return to the past. A civil-rights activist in North Carolina between 1962 and 1965, I was eager to see how the South had changed over the last four decades and I was interested in visiting the spots, now turned into major historic and tourist sites, that had played such important roles in the movement for equal rights.

What we were reminded of during our four days in Alabama was how much the early civil-rights movement was based on religious faith. Its leaders were ministers and its meeting places very often churches. We also came to see how deeply American the movement was. This is a country based on individual rights and that is what black Americans sought. Just as all Americans visit such sites as Independence Hall in Philadelphia or Valley Forge, where the fight for our freedoms was begun, so now all Americans can visit the places in Alabama where those freedoms came to be extended to blacks.

How much had things changed? Enormously. Four decades ago, Birmingham earned the nickname "Bombingham," for the number of bombs set by racists hoping to destroy the black drive for the right to vote and play a role in governance equal to that of whites. …

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