Imagine a National Park. Picturing waterfalls and mountains? Or Dr. King's childhood home, Japanese internment camps, and a school that became a battleground for racial integration? National Parks aren’t just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance, preserving the stories of who we are and how we came to be. Join Park Rangers, researchers, authors, and activists as we discuss what liberty and justice for all means on our public lands. Opinions shared by guests are not the official position of the NPS.
Episode 1: Roy Wood, Jr. interviews Charles Person (Freedom Rider)
Welcome to our first episode featuring Charles Person and Roy Wood, Jr. Charles Person was a Freedom Rider. Freedom Riders rode buses across the south to test Supreme Court rulings declaring segregation unconstitutional in restrooms, bus depots, and waiting areas. Roy Wood, Jr. is a comedian, best known for his work on the Daily Show. Raised in Birmingham, he has written that Alabama represents to him “painful history, new hope, and home.” Audio footage courtesy of Freedom Riders Park, Inc.
Welcome to We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights.
Close your eyes and imagine a National Park. Are you picturing waterfalls and mountains? Or do you think of Dr. King's childhood home, Japanese internment camps, and a school that became a battleground for racial integration?
National parks aren't just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance, founded to preserve the stories of who we are and how we came to be. National Parks inspire us to do better, be better. To climb mountains both physical and figurative. Join Park Rangers, researchers, authors and activists as we discuss what liberty and justice for all means on our public land.
[Music volume increases. Song: Turn Me Round, by the Psalters]
Welcome to our first episode. My name is Kat, and I'm a Park Ranger at Freedom Riders National Monument and Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. Today, we are honored to welcome Charles Person and Roy Wood, Jr.
Charles Person was a Freedom Rider. Freedom Riders rode buses across the South to test Supreme Court rulings declaring segregation unconstitutional in restrooms, bus depots, and waiting areas. Brutal violence in Alabama showed that when it came to integration, the nation was failing. Freedom Riders sat down on these buses in order to stand up for the truest of our nation's ideals. Mr. Person has just published a memoir of his experiences and a call to action for change: Buses are a Comin'.
Roy Wood, Jr. is a comedian best known for his work on The Daily Show. Raised in Birmingham, he has written that Alabama represents to him painful history, new hope and home. I'll let the two of them take it from here.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Well, let me start just on the behalf of all of Black America, brother Person, and just tell you, thank you. Just a simple thank you. And that's before we even get to the medals that are on your chest as a Marine Corps veteran, just thank you for what you all chose to do in that ride down South. I have a million questions. I hope some of these you haven't been asked before, but the book, the memoir, pardon me. It's straight up poetry. And the thing that I really enjoyed about your memoir is that you didn't just go into what happened and often when I, when we look at a lot of the media that's created around the civil rights - but I'm talking TV and film primarily. You only have enough time for the what. This is what happened. This is who did it. This is what changed. These are the policies. Whereas with your memoir, you were able to really get into the why people chose to do what they did. My first question to you, just out the gate. You're 18 when you decide to become a Freedom Rider, how did you convince your Mama to say yes? ‘Hey, Mama, I'm going on a racism tour down South. But don't be worried.’
Charles Person: Well, I didn't quite tell her the whole truth. I just explained to her that I was going to be seen for advanced training in nonviolence. Now she knew that I was active in the Atlanta movement, that I had been in jail, and like most parents, she figured there was not much more that could happen to me. And no one realized that when laid in store for the Freedom Riders, but Dad more or less convinced her that I would be okay. The men in the family supported me, and that's what made it possible. But convincing Mom, you know, everywhere they're going to worry. I had never left the South before. I'd never left the state of Georgia before. So all this was new, and at 18, it was quite an adventure.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Now the Freedom Riders were comprised of young and old, men and women, more importantly, White and Black. How much interaction had you had with White allies up into that point before you got to DC and met the people that you would be on the bus with?
Charles Person: In the Atlanta movement, unfortunately, we had very few Whites participate. [unintelligible] There was one White fellow that was in my freshman English class. But other than that, our Association, we were really lone wolves operating alone in Atlanta. So it was really encouraging when I got there, the meet of the Whites that were involved, it was really surprising. And they really welcomed you on board. In fact, the Bergman's, Dr. Bergman and his wife, so they were more or less like my parents. They said "We're going to take care of you." And believe it or not, they tried.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Let's stay right there for a second with Dr. Bergman. He was one of the people I believe, if correct me from wrong, but in the memoir, you talked about how Dr. Bergman said, and this is going back to the why, people were choosing to take a stand. Dr. Bergman saw the mistreatment of African Americans while he served, and it was one of the things that kind of stuck with him and just that one little annoying thing that just never left his mind. And he decided to act on it. And he saw the Freedom Rides as an opportunity to actively be a part of something that would push the nation forward. What advice do you have, if any, for White people today, who...they have that same inkling in the back of their mind, like Dr. Bergman, but they haven't quite taken that step or want to try and find that program. Well, I guess what advice would you have for them in deciding to make that step forward?
Charles Person: I think the biggest problem most Whites have today is they are a product of our educational system. And the biggest problem with that is that we were...Slavery and the Trail of Tears, the Manifest Destiny, the Mexican Wars, they were all taught as little modules. They were all separate, whereas if you connect them together, then all of a sudden you see a picture of how we became that country from sea to shining sea. And once that happens, then they have a new outlook on what our aspirations are and how bad we were treated. In other words, sometimes you say, "Oh, yeah, well slavery was this and that, and sometimes the movies glamorized those aspects of slavery or how we were content and happy little pickaninnies. And that was not the case. So they need to realize how life was for Blacks, not only in slavery, but during the era of Jim Crow. Once they have a better understanding, then we can have that conversation, and then they can understand that I'm not whining, and I'm not begging, I don't want anything more than is given any other American. I want to belong, just like you want to belong. I mean, we ask for nothing special. We just want to be treated as normal human beings.
Roy Wood, Jr.: A part of the memoir that struck me as very riveting was not only the age differential in everyone that was involved in the Freedom Ride, the original Freedom Riders from DC, I'm talking about, but also where they all were emotionally in their relationship with the civil rights movement, at that particular biomarker in their life, and how you at 18, you recognized that, you clocked that immediately. And in the memoir you described, okay, I've decided to be a Freedom Rider, which meant you had to go to Washington, DC, for a training period so that you can be taught. Let's just say more in depth nonviolent training and how to, how to maintain your stillness around, let's just say high tense situations with a lot of stimuli going on, to say the least. So in that time, you and all these other strangers, you simulate conflicts, and they were created to test your resolve to remain nonviolent. And in the memoir, you talked about meeting that the 20 year old John Lewis, and in the book you described them as this.
“I smiled. John seethed. John was always serious, always straight faced, always solemn. For me, the importance of the work was primary, but I also felt a sense of adventure. There was no adventure in this for John. For John, this was as serious as life gets.”
At what point in the Freedom Ride did it stop becoming an adventure for you as well and turn into an actual, full focus, primary mission objective?
Charles Person: I think once we got started and we started meeting people in various towns and how they opened up to us, for example, every night, we had to be put up. We had to stay someplace. And we stayed with people and many them, they didn't have very much, but they gave us the best that they had. And after seeing this, you gotta realize I was coming from Atlanta and seeing these people and how they were reaching out to us, who were strangers, and they gave us, like I said, the best they had, that for me, made this journey, it took on more significance. I wanted in some way after the Rides, be able to go reach out to these people and thank them because the journey for me would not have been possible. Plus, also, they gave my parents, I guess, sanity because they knew that I was being taken care of, even though they didn't know these people. It was quite an evolution, you know, from the beginning, the training and all that and how things mounted as we went further and further South.
Roy Wood, Jr.: The thing that I found interesting in the training chapter, and I'm sorry to just stay on that part of the memoir for right now, but for me, this is the first time I've ever seen that layer of the civil rights movement peeled back. They talk about non violence, non violence, and we practice nonviolence. Well, if you practice something that means you have to be trained in it, which means that you all sat and you all figured out ways to yell slurs at each other and sometimes from people who weren't necessarily believable when they said it to you because you knew what their heart was. You knew who they really were and what their soul was. For them to try to recreate a situation of racism for you to react to was a little funny. I would imagine, in the moment, at least a little bit off kilter. Tell me about some of the moments on the trips where you all smiled.
Charles Person: Well, I think the most important thing for us was the evenings. During the day, while we're on the bus, even though, say, I may be sitting with a Rider, we didn't converse very much. We wanted to be focused, and we wanted to make the appearance that we were just passengers. You just happen to have sit in the same seat. But in the evenings we always had dinner together and we discussed what went right that day and what went wrong. And that was also a time when we were given our allowance. And that was important because one of the most embarrassing thing that could have ever happened to us, had we gone into a restaurant, ordered food and they served us and we didn't have the money to pay. So it is imperative that we have funds. Also, I was taught there, and it's been with me all my life, is I always tip generously. That's one of the things, because if you get served, be generous in your tipping. And that's been a habit I've had all my life. You know, when I go places, I always tip liberally because it's important. Black people have a reputation throughout the world as being poor tippers, you know, the slightest thing is wrong with the service and we retaliate to the server and maybe it's not even the server's fault.
Roy Wood, Jr.: There's warm water in my ice water. I'm not tipping you. [Laughter]
Charles Person: You've been there?
Roy Wood, Jr.: Oh, Yeah. I used to be a server. I worked at Golden Corral for two years. I have some first hand experience. So in sticking with the memoir, Buses are a Comin', You not only paint a beautiful picture of the circumstances that led to everyone who made this choice. And, of course, you cover everything that happens in Anniston and the horrors in Birmingham. And I do want to talk about Birmingham a little later, but I just found this memoir so compelling because of the why. And you actively during the time that you all were training, you found your [unintelligible. And this is something I can kind of relate to because, well, not in the circumstances. You get what I'm trying to say. When you're in the presence of people that you're intimidated by or curious of, you're trying to find these moments within the conversations to slip in the quick thing that you were curious about. And you talked about how you went around as best you could over the course of that training period in DC to find out what drove these people to be a part of this. You know why you were there. But I want to know why she's there, he's there, she's there. And you spoke with Reverend Cox, and Reverend Cox said this. He said, quote, ‘So many others made sacrifices so I am not a slave. It's my turn to sacrifice on behalf of someone else. We can sacrifice now, Charles, for those we will never know, who will never know of our sacrifice and will never care we did this. We can sacrifice.’ Do you feel the story of the Freedom Riders and what happened there? Do you, do you know the worth? Like, how aware, because in the moment it's not, you can always go: 'This is going to be a monumental thing that we will be talking about for decades.' But did you know at the time how monumental this was going to be, as the bus is pulling out of Washington, DC? Did you all know?
Charles Person: I don't think that we were aware of the impact. We weren't deluding ourselves to think this is going to be some great revolution or things are going to change. All we hoped for is that we could make a difference. If we can highlight to the country that how things really were, how bad they actually were. And I think that has been the [story?] of the Freedom Rides. Even now. There's so many people that have heard the term, and they have a vague idea of what the Freedom Ride was about. But because of the events that happened afterwards and the deaths and things that happen afterwards, overshadows the Freedom Rides, because it was so early. This was really the first big campaign after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And also after the death of Emmett Till. All those things had a very strong impact on all of us who were involved. But we weren't going to say that we're going to change the world. We didn't have...we weren't savvy enough to think that what we were doing was going to change the world, but it did.
Roy Wood, Jr.: There's often conversations about, where protests are concerned, about outside agitators. So I was in Birmingham during the George Floyd moment that we had as a country, and there were a lot of protests. There were a lot of demonstrations. And then there was also this group, this contingency of outside agitators that were coming in and starting a lot of ruckus and hijacking the narrative. And that's what the media chose to run with, more often than not. You spoke of something very interesting in the memoir about how, you know, you all have come through Anniston and the bus has been fire-bombed, and many of you have been beaten within an inch of your life. And you get to Birmingham, and you simply need a doctor. And there were Black doctors who were declining, and understandably so, because of the pressure that they were under, they still had to live here when you all leave. Y'all coming in town and you all in the eyes of some Black people at that time, the Freedom Riders were seen as outside agitators. In the moment, because you go through all the training and all the preparation, how did that feel when you all are in need of medical assistance, and the only people who can give it to you are Black people. But the Black people who give it to you are risking literally their entire fiscal existence to help you. In some cases, may be risking their own lives. Were you all understanding of that rejection? Did it anger you? What was that feeling to you yourself being seen as outside agitators when you knew what you were doing was to try to help the greater good.
Charles Person: At first, it was very disappointing and you didn't know how to react. But as it was explained to me why the doctors had taken their position, but I think it seemed wherever there was a door was closed, another one opened, because what we later found out, the only medical help I received was a nurse in Reverend Shuttlesworth's congregation, and she did a remarkable job, considering that was all the medical help I received. I mean, it was sufficient. However, what happened later, that particular wound drained to the base of my skull, and I developed a knot, which got the be out the size of my fist. But the treatment that she gave, it was the only thing. But it got me through for many, many months. I'm always indebted to her, and that's I guess one of the disappointments for me is a lot of those wonderful people who assisted us in all kinds of ways, is being able to go out and reach out to them, and just say thank you because they made a big difference, you know, that that human touch, especially at the time that we were, we were battered and we were bewildered. And to have folks, strangers, come to us and say they understood, and they supported us. And I think that's why the Riders grew from 13 to over 436 Riders because of the empathy not only towards us, but to all the
replacement Riders as well.
Roy Wood, Jr.: What was...I believe it was Anniston, if I'm not mistaken, I can't remember if this part of memoir happened in Anniston or in Birmingham, but you talked about how - I'm pretty sure this was Anniston - where everyone had gotten off, they had firebombed the bus, everyone is getting off of the bus and people are being beaten and the ambulance arrives and the ambulance says it will only take the White Freedom Riders to the hospital. Did that create any type of division within your group when you all saw the way that your White colleagues were being treated, or was that just dismissed because you knew they were standing tall with you?
Charles Person: Well, I think it's the community are the people that were there, how devoted the Freedom Riders were to each other, because when they refused to take the Black Riders, the White Freedom Riders said, 'If you're not going to take them, then we're not going either.' So which would have created a greater crisis, that they not gotten anyone to the hospital, but that defiance of the White Freedom Riders, what brought all of us closer together, but also, you know, it kept them as a group together, you know, because after they left the site of the burning bus, that crowd followed them to the hospital and they threatened to burn the hospital down. These guys had already proven that they would burn up stuff. So if they would burn up a bus, surely setting fire to a hospital is no big deal to them.
Roy Wood, Jr.: I say sometimes, and I say it being playful on stage because, you know, with comedy, you kind of have to be a little silly. But I do think that there is, you know, as a 42 year old Black man and being raised more in the history of civil rights versus the actual moment of civil rights, there's a different separation. And when I look at the present day racism and tragedies that are put at the feet of Black people, there is a trauma to that. There is something terrible to watching the news. There is something that is depressing to having to always take that in and never see justice for our slain brothers and sisters. Like even with the trial that was happening in Minneapolis with Officer Chauvin, well, former Officer Chauvin, I couldn't watch it, and I just, I followed it some, but I could not watch people recounting step by step, and moment by moment. It was too much. But I have the luxury of turning off the TV and at least trying to find some sort of escape. You were born and you were raised in the South, went to college in the South as a Morehouse man. You can't escape a region. I can turn off the TV. You can't escape Atlanta. You can't escape just riding through Birmingham. And they have the Freedom Riders Monument, which just opened this year in Anniston. How do you feel when you go back to these places? Are you ever able to just exist in the present in the South?
Charles Person: That's a good one. When we went through Anniston for the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, I didn't get off the bus. I didn't want to talk to anybody. I had very negative feelings about the place. 10 years later, the 50th, I came by. The town had changed tremendously. There was a lot of empathy by ruling officials of the government, the Mayor and all those people that, you know, they were reaching out to us and were trying to make amends. And the Anniston today is a whole lot different from Anniston back in 1961. I find it a very warm community. I could live there. That's how much it has changed. And the same way with Birmingham when we came back to Birmingham,
of the people. See what has made the difference is the Black community realizes the importance of what happened then and they're reaching out and saying, 'Hey, we're sorry.' And this is the new us, and that's...the new us is what we can embrace. And that's why those portions of the South don't have the stigma that they once had. And I think what happens, what makes it better is people like you who are born there, and, you know, you're the younger generation. You're in between that old past and that new future. And I guess that's what gives us all hope is the fact that we realize that things and people do change and we can make a difference as to how we relate to one another. And I think, this for me, has been the biggest change because I don't feel any anger towards any of those places. In fact, I dispensed with anger a long time ago. I have no reason to hate. I've given up all those, mainly because we won, you know. If we were still on the effects of Jim Crow, I may have a different attitude. But because there are changes, I can be benevolent and say, 'Hey, I can embrace the change.' And I do.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Let's talk about the medals on your chest there. You're 18 and you survive something ridiculously traumatic in the Freedom Ride. Three months later, you're at Paris Island training to be a United States Marine. For what that country had shown you it could be three months prior, why make the choice to go and defend it in Vietnam?
Charles Person: Well, in two fold reasons. One is that my mother knew that I would stay in the Movement. She knew that there's no way I was going to not be involved some way. So she encouraged me. She says, 'Why don't you join the Army?' And because I hadn't been totally truthful with her from the beginning, and after what had happened, I figured I owed it to her. So I did some, I pursued a different route. At the time, the Army was trying to recruit Blacks for the Academy at West Point. Because in those days, the only way you could get in to West Point was have a congressional appointment. Well, you know, they weren't appointing too many Blacks to West Point out in the South. [Laughter] So I wasn't gonna get that. But the thing is, I had all the tests and all that stuff and, of course, academics, that was never a problem. And the physical, it was no problem. But that particular afternoon, the day before I was supposed to do my final to enlist, there was an article on the Marine Corps. And I said, 'Hey, Let's try this.' I went out to the Marine Corps recruiter and he was happy. I did extremely well on the test. But then he found he couldn't enlist me. Because what had happened, when we were arrested in Atlanta, they put our case on what they call the dead docket, which meant I couldn't leave the city at all.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Blacklisted.
Charles Person: So what happened is the recruiter went down there, and I guess he told them, 'So we can get this one out of your hair.' So they allow the recruiter to enlist me. And that's how I enlisted in the Marine Corps. But, you know, I come from a community, we had a lot of veterans in my neighborhood, in Buttermilk Bottom. We had World War I veteran who was disabled. We had Korean War. And, of course, my dad and his cousin were World War II veterans. So in our community, the military didn't have a stigma. In other words, they would say to us, 'Stay in school, get a good education, or join the Army, they'll make a man out of you.' So that's the kind of environment I grew up in, of course my dad was a very proud soldier, in spite of all the crap he had to put up with when he was in the army. I mean, he endured some stuff that... nothing like I experienced then in the Marine Corp. But, you know, I had heard the stories so I was prepared for all the stuff that could possibly have happened.
Roy Wood, Jr.: What's the biggest difference between the two war zones, Vietnam and the civil rights movement?
Charles Person: Well, in Vietnam, I had a gun. [Laughter]
Roy Wood, Jr.: Touché.
Charles Person: You know, I was a peaceful warrior. My role, I think I was destined to do there because I was one of those people who, I was not afraid. I was not afraid during the Freedom Rides. And when I got the Marine Corps and we got in Vietnam, I was cool as a cucumber because I had experienced stuff like, you say, as a nonviolent person, I endured that. And here I was in a situation where I had colleagues, they all had guns and all that other stuff. But I also, you know, I'm serving my country, and when we get to Vietnam, it showed how ill-prepared America was for that war. For example, we're landing in a country where the native language is either Vietnamese or French. In our command, we had no one could speak either language. So what do they do? They rounded up a bunch of us kids who spoke French, enough high school and college French, and we became the interpreters for the US Marine Corps in Vietnam.
Roy Wood, Jr.: If you all just aren't there on that day, we just not communicating with nobody.
Charles Person: Yeah. You know, it's like, 'duh.' They didn't know the good guys from the bad guys. But like I say, you know, the Freedom Rides prepared me for a lot of things in life, but also they prepared me for Vietnam. And I think I survived Vietnam because of what I learned on the Freedom Rides.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Two more questions, and I'll get you out of here. I know we don't have a lot of time. I feel like there is a disconnect between your generation and the generation that's coming behind me. A little bit of my generation, too, in terms of the tactics that should be employed for getting rights, the tactics that should be employed in terms of social justice and equality. I've always been of the belief that civil rights in Jim Crow....I believe that there was much more of a concrete...racism was more concrete and obvious. 'Hey, stop hitting me in the head. Let me go in that school and get an education, please.' Whereas I feel like racism now, it's a lot of policy, there's a lot of...it's not as solid. It's not as clear, it hides. It's a vapor now. And you have to have different tactics for that. And what do you think the young generation and your generation could learn from one another so that there is more of a cohesiveness
to the ideologies of how to fight oppression?
Charles Person: One of the things that I think the young people need to do, if you're going to be a leader, you have to realize that there are dangers inherent in being a leader. And I think a lot of the Black Lives Matter leaders are intimidated by the people who threaten them. So in many cases, you don't know who is in charge of a Black Lives Matter group in your particular city, and I encourage them: Define who you are. Let people know who you are, let them know what the cause is and why you are fighting. The reason: this way you develop allies. A lot of times people will say, 'Well, I don't know why they're marching. Why are they doing this?' You need to explain. Let people know, and so they can realize that, 'Hey, this is for their benefits, for all of our benefit,' And we need to develop allies. You can't operate in a vacuum. And we all live in a community and everyone can contribute. But if you don't let people know, they're not going to participate. I love the enthusiasm of the young people. I enjoy the numbers that they're able to turn out. And they also have to realize that you are in control and you are responsible for what happens. We always had monitors. Also, we had a dress code. And that's important because if you saw somebody throwing a molotov cocktail with a shirt and tie on, do you know, 'Well, hey that's one of our people?' But in most cases, these people have no dress code and you can't isolate them. But I think that they've gotten a bad rep this past summer. Most of violence was not of they're doing and not of the people that sponsored them, but the narrative changed and a lot of people now think that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group because they haven't gone out and corrected the record. And I think that's one of the things they need to even now, they need to go out and say, 'Hey, this is who we are, and this is how we operate.'
Roy Wood, Jr.: You spoke about in a previous interview that I saw, you spoke about the relationship with the media that you all were able to forge during your era, which helped with the narrative of what you all were out to accomplish, when you're at these to protest. How much does media play a role in this misrepresentation of Black Lives Matter's intentions? Separate and apart from what you're saying in regards to them needing to have a more cohesive, a more organized cohesive structure, because sometimes I feel like, well, if the story has been covered differently, then maybe that would have helped as well. I'll get you out of here on this question. So, I try to take my Mama to see Selma, Oscar-winning film, and she declined at the time. She eventually watched it with me at the house. Once it came out on HBO or whatever. But my mother said something to me that I didn't understand until I saw the Derek Chauvin trial. She said, 'I don't need to see a movie about it. I lived it.' Do you watch any of the civil rights films that come out from time to time? Do you partake in any of the films that speak to things from your era?
Charles Person: It took me a while to get to that point. At first, I could not watch it, but I have kids, so you got to be able to sit there and talk with them. And once I came out, let them know that I was involved, because for...I was married to my wife, Joetta, for 10 years before she even knew I was a Freedom Rider. It's just not something that comes up. But after a trip to Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, we saw there ... a reporter was there -
Roy Wood, Jr.: There's a piece of the bus there, in an exhibit.
Charles Person: And so we were able to after that, we started talking about it within the family. And then I started getting invitations to talk to groups and stuff. But it was very painful. I mean, even now, though, I probably break up a lot of times. I have flashbacks, and today there's none of us are very few of us receive any psychological training. I mean, after the events. So we never, in other words - It happened, and we went on with our lives. And for me, even now, sometimes I'm in interviews and If I'm not prepared for a question, I'll shut down. My system will shut down. I'll break down in tears. So a lot of it, like, you feel now. I had an interview doing Black history month for a school, and we had four hours continuous with this group. And at the end of the day, I was... I just couldn't respond because I'm telling them the story, but I'm reliving each moment, and it just really got to me, and I said, 'I'll never do that again knowingly,' because I know that the system just can only take so much. And the kids had such good questions, and they would take me back. And I could see myself in Birmingham. And I could see these guys, and I could see - It's not so much what they said or what they called [out], it's how their faces were contorted with hate. And you wonder, 'How can someone who has never seen me, hate me so much, or my people?' You mind is trying to rationalize what's happening and there's no rationalization to an illogical situation.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Well, the memoir is Buses are A Comin', and I'm going to end one more time on Revered Cox's quote: 'So many others made sacrifices so I'm not a slave. It's my turn to sacrifice on behalf of someone else. We can sacrifice now, Charles, for those we will never know, who will never know of our sacrifice, and will never care we did this. Tell you right now, we care. This nation cares. Black America cares. Charles Person, thank you so much for the honor of just sitting and talking with you about this memoir. It's so meaningful. And I hope to get down to Anniston. I had to get me about - I'm going to take all the vaccines. So once I get all three vaccines in my system, I'm going to be out the door, and I'm going to be down to Anniston and I'm going to visit the Freedom Riders National Monument.
Charles Person: Well, thanks for caring.
Roy Wood, Jr.: Yes, Sir. Thank you so much, brother.
Ranger: Thank you for listening to We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our series. Thank you to the Psalters for use of their song, Turn me 'Round. Until next time.
Episode 2: Rev. Shuttlesworth and the Freedom Rides
In this conversation, we focus on Reverend Shuttlesworth's role in the Freedom Rides. Interviewees include Dr. Martha Bouyer, Executive Director at The Historic Bethel Baptist Church; Reverend Thomas Wilder Jr., the current pastor at The Historic Bethel Baptist Church, and one of Reverend Shuttlesworth's children, Mrs. Ruby Bester.
Welcome to We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Close your eyes and imagine a National Park. Are you picturing waterfalls and mountains, or do you think of Dr. King's childhood home, Japanese internment camps, and a school that became a battleground for racial integration? National Parks aren't just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance founded to preserve the stories of who we are and how we came to be. National Parks inspire us to do better, be better. To climb mountains both physical and figurative. Join park rangers, researchers, authors and activists as we discuss what liberty and justice for all means on our public lands.
Ranger Kat: Thank you all so much for being here. I just so appreciate it. It's really amazing to be able to have this conversation. I've had the pleasure of meeting some of you, but just for the benefit of everybody, My name is Ranger Kat and I'm a park ranger at Freedom Riders National Monument, and I am so incredibly honored today to welcome Dr. Martha Bouyer, Reverend Thomas Wilder, and also Mrs. Ruby Bester. It really is just a pleasure to have you all here. So I'll first introduce Dr. Martha Bouyer. Dr. Bouyer serves as the Executive Director of the Historic Bethel Baptist Church Foundation. She also is involved in many other educational initiatives to strengthen civil rights education in the classroom. Welcome, Dr. Bouyer. Thank you for being here.
Dr. Bouyer: Thank you.
Ranger Kat: And also joining us today is the person who now stands behind the same pulpit where Reverend Shuttlesworth once stood. Reverend Thomas Wilder has been at the helm of The Historic Bethel Baptist Church since 1988, and has helped the Church continue to develop as a space for worship and education. Welcome, Reverend.
Reverend Wilder: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Ranger Kat: And we are especially honored and excited to have Mrs. Ruby Shuttlesworth Bester to join us today. She is the second oldest daughter of Reverend Shuttlesworth himself. Ruby Shuttlesworth Bester is a retired educator, a motivational speaker, author and singer, I've heard. Welcome, Mrs. Bester.
Mrs. Bester: Thank you.
Ranger Kat: So let's start maybe each one of you can explain what your connection to Reverend Shuttlesworth was and is and also your connection to The Historic Bethel Baptist Church. Let's start with Mrs. Bester.
Mrs. Bester: Well, I'm daughter number two, Pat was number one. She came two years earlier, Fred came a year after me, and then five years later, came our baby sister Doctor Carolyn Shuttlesworth. We came to Bethel in 1953 as a pastor. We were there because Reverend….right here. I can't think of his name, right. Madley had suggested that Daddy go to Bethel and we went there and it was a warm fellowship. It was very nice. I was with Bethel from the time I was eight years old until I was 16. I started elementary school and graduated from Parker High School. But we left in 1961 because Pat had been at Spelman for a year and it was really hard to keep her there because we just were poor. And my mother, when Reverend Booth suggested that we come to Cincinnati because Revelations was available, my daddy didn't want to leave, but my mother insisted because Pat was in College, I would go the next year and Fred will come to next year. So we came to Cincinnati for economic reasons, even while she was in the south at Spelman, Pat babysat Dr. King's children. But that's why we came here. Bethel is number one in my heart because they allowed Daddy to change how we thought, using the Lord and dedicated people who believe that if you work together, follow your leader and do it non-violently, we could be successful. It was a terrible time, but they joined together their unity and strength with their faith in the Lord. Okay, that's my introduction.
Ranger Kat: Thank you. Beautiful. Reverend Wilder, what do you like to go next?
Reverend Wilder: Sure. My name is Thomas Wilder. I am the current pastor of Bethel Baptist Church. I've been there as you said since 1988. My connection to Reverend Shuttlesworth is that I served as his last pastor before he passed away. When he came back to Birmingham, he joined Bethel as a member, which I admired tremendously because a person of his stature, of course, everybody looks to him as the pastor. And there was still a lot of members who were there when he was there. But I admire the fact that he never tried to usurp my author or go around me or overshadow me or whatever. He helped me in every way he could. Of course, I was not stupid enough to try to think that I could take his place. So I always tried to honor him and officially named him Pastor Emeritus of Bethel because I think as long as Bethel stands, Reverend Shuttlesworth will always be known as the pastor because he was the one that sort of propelled it into the spotlight. So that's my connection to Reverend Shuttlesworth. I was his last pastor.
Ranger Kat: Alright, Dr. Bouyer.
Dr. Bouyer: Well, my connection really is twofold. I met Reverend Shuttlesworth long before I ever went to Bethel, I'm ashamed to say, but Reverend Shuttlesworth was a speaker for me. I do a lot of teacher workshops and training. I started this project about 20 years ago and the project is Stony the Road we Trod: Alabama’s Role in the Modern Civil Rights Movement. And when I started the project, I reached out to him and asked him about coming to speak to the teachers that I was working with. And he agreed to come. And he said he would always do anything for teachers because he understood their importance in terms of getting the story straight, teaching history and telling the story. So I met him. And as a result of trying to develop the Stony project, we went over to Bethel and I met Reverend Wilder because whenever I would bring teachers over, he would take his lunch break or leave work to come over to meet us. And then in 2014, the Foundation was looking for an Executive Director to run the Bethel project, and I applied for the job, and he hired me.
Ranger Kat: Thank you. Well, I wanted to ask all of you something about the South and kind of setting the stage for people. So there's racism, and then there's racism in the South, and then there's racism in Alabama in the 1960s. And racism in Alabama is like a whole different thing. Can you explain to listeners what set Alabama apart, even from other States in the 1960s?
Mrs. Bester: Oh even before the 60s, in the 50s they were mean. As children, my parents had to buy our books, and they were used books from the white schools, written in, but they had to buy them. We couldn't go to the theaters. And if we did, we had to sit in the balcony. There were certain parts of town you just didn't go in. It wasn't even about after dark, it's no time. You could not be there. In fact, the whole structure of North Birmingham, they were talking about it with this new railroad system, they almost enclosed us in, so we couldn't get out to do whatever we needed to do. I mean, it was a train here, train there: within two or three blocks you had you had to wait on a train. So there were a lot of atrocities that went on that just kept us down as a people. But as a child, I remember the books that all kind of graffiti and whatever was in it. But that's the main thing I remember. Not being able to go places, not being able to do things, having basically to stay in your own community. I really learned how Birmingham is divided on the North and East or is it the north and south? But anyway, after Daddy was sick, I was there so much and I got lost so much that finally I just had to learn Birmingham so that I could get around to Oxmoor, where my Daddy was raised. North Birmingham is just as you come into the city. But then I didn't even know anything about South over there where Cullman and all those places were but we were very restricted to our community, locked in by the trains that… you had to start early to get any place on time. But the people worked together in Birmingham, they worked together to do what needed to be done. And I thank God for those people at Bethel. Mr. Blockman, the chairman of the Deacon board, can't call his name. I'm looking at his face…
Reverend Wilder: M.J. Davis?
Mrs. Bester: Not M.J., the older one, the real old one. Had one tooth.
Reverend Wilder: Okay. That was Charlie Watson.
Mrs. Bester: Yes, yes, no, no, no. Charlie Robinson was across Waterland.
Reverend Wilder: Watson, Watson.
Mrs. Bester: Watson, Right. Mr. Watson, that was it. Wonderful. Wonderful. Mr. Blackson, I mean, those people were they were good people. Miss Clark and her husband, we came into a love situation there. We weren't running from anything when we came, but we came into a situation where they totally accepted and loved on us. And they gave us all, all of the children. Most of the children that came along with me went on to get advanced degrees, not just a college degree but Masters and PhD, because we were always encouraged to learn. We always had something going on at Bethel. I loved Bethel Baptist Church because…and then they had a lot of stuff for the young people to do. When Daddy talks about Bethel, he said, “I loved them because they loved and they followed me.” All of our people were registered voters. And that's very significant because a lot of the people, Black people did not want him to disturb the status quo. In other words, getting us in more trouble. And really, it happened when we came here. There were people that were afraid that Daddy coming here in 1961 was just coming here to make some more trouble. And they actually shunned him, okay. But the Lord is always still in control. And Revelation was the Church we went to because of Reverend Booth. There are three churches I will always love, that is Bethel, Revelation and Greater New Life, because in the time that we needed them, they did for my family what needed to be done. When we were bombed, when we were mobbed at the
Church at the school, they were there. And then I was so thankful of how they reached out to Daddy. When he came back at 84, 85, he might have been 84, 85, I think he came back to Birmingham, but they took care of him again. And I'm grateful for those three churches, but especially grateful to Bethel for following him and giving him the love that sustained him, because there was a lot of fear going on. But the mass meetings allowed us to sing, praise God, and just laugh. Just even in the midst of all of what we're going through, they would be telling jokes. And it was a wonderful experience. I loved going to the Monday night mass meeting because, in fact, my brother wrote a poem about the Monday night mass
meeting. There was always an encouraging word, somebody to help you. I don't think I, did I answer your question? I have to be careful, because I get to talking.
Ranger Kat: You did. I think that what I heard you say is that racism in Alabama was really entrenched. And you describe how your life, it was the community because you couldn't go out and do things, and even your schooling really, it was second class. And I'm wondering, well…
Mrs. Bester: It was worst than second class. It was at the bottom. Daddy made a statement, and he used it a lot. After we won the civil rights battle that we did, he said, “Segregation might be dead, but her daughter, Racism, is very much alive.” And that's true. Today all you got to do is look at what they're doing in Congress, But racism, that really has to be a thing of the heart. But people don't talk about the people in Birmingham of other races that joined in with us, and those people should be recognized. But there were also people that came in. Dr. King's group was not that many men that traveled with him. I think that Reverend C.K Steele in Tallahassee, Florida, didn't travel with him. He was a pastor, as Daddy was a pastor, but Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker, Reverend C.T. Vivian, and I met some of those other people that traveled with him at a thing at Howard University, and they had a world peace thing later. It was wonderful, and Daddy was able to fly up to be a part of it. But racism is a thing of the heart. And since people's hearts are so bad, that's why we must now legislate.
Ranger Kat: And I'm glad that you brought up that segregation may have ended at racism has not. And I do think that the Freedom Rides in many ways were one of the first really big nails in the coffin of segregation. So I'm wondering maybe we could start with Reverend Wilder. And I'd like to ask all of you, with the recognition that you may not have been very old when this happened, or maybe you weren’t born yet, but what is your most powerful memory that you have of the Freedom Rides?
Reverend Wilder: Okay. I was not a part of the Freedom Rides, per se. I was fairly young, and we live in a very small community, so they didn't come to our community. But one of my earliest remembrances of just things related to civil rights has to do with a man by the name of James Corter, who was the local representative of the NAACP in my community. I remember we met in a church that, it really seemed like it was 10 miles out of town and then 10 miles off the main road. It was way back up in the woods. But I remember going there, my parents going there. And I remember going to another church that was more immediately in town. And I think the guy, I'm not sure who he was, but my memory wants to say he was somebody who is very prominent in civil rights. But I remember as a child, probably six, maybe seven years old, joining with the older people, as they sang, “We Shall Overcome.” That's a very poignant memory in my mind. But I remember the first major civil rights issue that I remember very vividly was the day that John F. Kennedy and Dr. King were shot. I was in the fourth grade, I believe. And I remember we were in a trailer and my teachers coming in and crying like babies. I mean, just absolutely crying like babies because of what had happened to Dr King. And again, it's just a very, very vivid memory because I was so young and because I guess I was just trying to really understand what was going on.
Ranger Kat: Dr. Bouyer, what about you? A memory that you have the Freedom Rides?
Dr. Bouyer: Kat, I really don't have any actual memories growing up of the Freedom Rides and I grew up in Birmingham. A lot of times things that happened in our city, were not broadcast locally. Even if they were placed in the newspaper, they were placed in the back, you know, like another place it would have been in the front page, but not in Birmingham. But what I want to do is I want to help us kind of frame what was going on by reading a couple of Jim Crow laws, laws in Alabama, related to transportation. And this one is about buses. All passenger stations in this state operated by any motor transportation company, shall have separate waiting rooms or space and separate ticket windows for the White and Colored races. For railroads the law stated, the conductor of each passenger train is authorized and required to assign each passenger to the car or the division of a car, which is divided by a partition designated for the race to which such passenger belongs. Now, these were laws that governed transportation, buses, railroads throughout the state of Alabama and even in Birmingham, we had laws that said it was unlawful for a Negro and white person to play together in company one another in a game of pool, billiards, chess. The list went on and on and on and even spelled out punishment for individuals who allowed that. Now, I may not have known about growing up about the Freedom Ride, but I lived here and I understood in many ways the idea of sitting in the back of the bus. I understood we had to do it. I didn't understand the why behind it. And I understand from some of my friends, your question earlier about racism in Alabama, there were laws that did not allow Black people to try on clothes, and that could have also been a particular department store. But if you were Black and you want to buy clothes or a hat or shoes, if you didn't know your size and if you tried it on it did not fit, then you were in many cases forced to buy that even though you can’t wear it because of the law or the thinking behind that is that a white person would not try on something that may have been tried on by a Black person. So I agree with Ruby. That things were hard and that the segregationists were unrelenting, very mean. And they backed up everything by, force and law, this idea of massive resistance ruled the day. We were trying to bring about change through non-violence, their thing was massive resistance at any cost.
Ranger Kat: Well, thank you for sharing, reading those laws. It's so hard to hear them, and have them read because they're just so horrifying. And to think that that was just so recent in our history, too, is also pretty horrifying for me, as someone who didn't grow up, who wasn't alive during that time. I want to talk a little about, and Mrs. Bester, I know you have a lot of personal memories of the Freedom Rides, but I have a question specifically for you about that, but I want to turn now to Reverend Shuttlesworth and how he continuously chose faith over fear. So here's a person who literally has a target slapped on his back. And I think Mrs. Bester did a really good job of explaining how even the local African American community being concerned about him coming into the community because he was so driven to change things. The police were surveilling him. The parsonage and the church had been bombed three times. He was being sued by the City. So here is a person that already has a lot going on for him, a lot that he's dealing with and then in come the Freedom Riders, and they don't have a peaceful journey until Alabama. They met with some resistance. But in Alabama, things go terrible. The bus and Anniston is fire bombed. Many of the Freedom Riders, they're all beaten. They're all beaten with fists, with iron pipes. And then another bus is stopped in Birmingham. And again they are beaten with fists, with iron pipes by these huge mobs of hundreds of white supremacists. And many of those Freedom Riders are then trying to find a place where they can regroup and recuperate. But the police didn't really do much to protect them. So who's to say that they won't be attacked again? And whoever welcomes them in to try to help them to regroup and recuperate might also become a target. And they call Reverend Shuttlesoworth and he says, “Come into my home, come stay with my family, with my wife, with my children, come into my home.” And I just keep thinking about that moment when he gets that call. It wasn't his responsibility. It wasn't his Freedom Ride. He hadn't been planning it. He actually even discouraged Freedom Riders from coming into Alabama because he thought it was so dangerous. But he repeatedly chooses his faith over fear. And I want to know how he did that.
Mrs. Bester: God. He had a tremendous faith in the Lord. I didn't realize the strength of my father's faith, although I witnessed it so many times. I didn't realize it until I got very old and started reading more of the things he had gone through. It was so bad, our phones were tapped. We were, like, you say, surveilled by the police. We got calls all time of night, funny calls, whistles being blown, for whatever he did. If they knocked on the door at 3:00 in the morning, Daddy would always open the door. “Good morning, officers. How are you?” Big smile. You just never knew. Let them know that you weren’t anxious. Even when he wanted to announce what we were doing, Demonstrations, to tell other people in other cities, they would travel out of Birmingham to mail it because we knew that we were a target. I found that faith over fear, and fear is really False Evidence Appearing Real, faith over fear will arm you because God has your back. And if you really believe in the Lord, you just believe it. Daddy said when the Lord tell him to jump, he don't say how high. He just starts jumping, because he knows that He will make a way for him to land. I'm sorry you didn't ask me, but I just had to say that.
Ranger Kat: Well, that question really was for you.
Mrs. Bester: Okay, good.
Ranger Kat: And I have another question, Mrs. Bester, about your mom, actually. So your mom, this is Ruby Keeler Shuttlesworth, after whom you're named, I assume, she also welcomes the Freedom Riders into her home. Her story is one that we don't hear much about. But she was right alongside the Reverend when it came to -
Mrs. Bester: Oh, yeah.
Ranger Kat: I mean, she also suffered when the parsonage was bombed. She also attempted to integrate the school along with yourself, I understand, and she was stabbed during that integration attempt. So she was in the trenches with her husband every step of the way.
Mrs. Bester: Yeah. They also tried integrated train station. Go ahead. I'm sorry, dear.
Ranger Kat: I wonder, could you shed some light on what she thought of the Freedom Rides and what she thought of the Freedom Riders being welcomed into her home and what her role in all of that was?
Mrs. Bester: My mother was the kindest woman that I've ever known in my life. Ain't saying because she's my mother. Other people have said that to me. In College, they called her Ruby Sweet. But she truly loved my father. And she supported what he did. She protected us. There were times that she wouldn't let us go. But she always gave in to whatever daddy he wanted to have done. She and Daddy integrated the train station in Birmingham, where Reverend Lamar Weaver, went into the colored section, his car was rocked. He was attacked and everything. And they just went in and sat down and got their ticket and got on the train. But as far as the Freedom Riders, my mother, our home was a gathering place for whoever was trying to do what was right. For whoever had a question on what to do. And a lot of times, the Freedom Riders, Diane Nash, Hank Johnson [sic], they would call because they knew that he had their back as much as he could. When that bus was stopped in Anniston, and they wouldn't let anybody go get them. But Daddy, he had to stop his men on the way and say, “Take your guns out. I know you got them. Just leave them here in this garden. But we came to know what our guns against, what they got, waiting up on us at that bus.” But I interviewed Mr. Johnson and I was moved to tears as he told the story. Is that I always say, thank you, darling. It was just amazing. But the thing is, there are people that are still alive that are still within their right mind that know the story. And we're asking people that heard about it. We need to talk to them, if they are able to tell it. Because, and every time I speak to young people, which I've done over the years, I say, you need to get a pencil and paper and go sit with your grandmother and ask her how it was so that you can compare how good it is. Our young people today they don't know what we had to go through. Like you read those laws, Dr. Bouyer, I have that little book. And even in reading the books, your heart just sinks because it shows how disdained we, as a people, were thought of, just nothing. But like I said, the Lord made us able to do this because he gave us that strength to just keep on going. I never will forget the Monday night meeting. Where Reverend Phillips, No, Yeah, I think it was Reverend Phillips admired the suit of one of the two detectives that came to our meetings. He just touched his lapel. “I like your suit.” A new suit. Well, the next day, they had beat him up and carved KKK on his chest. Okay, so what happened there? Lent itself to other things. Just like when the house was bombed, the police said to daddy, “Reverend, I didn't think they would go this far.” And he said, “Well, you go back and tell your Klan brothers if the Lord can keep me through this, I'm here for the duration.” And they always say before the bombing, he wouldn't get on a plane. He didn't even want to go on a plane while it was sitting. But after that, he lost his fear of flying and other things. And he traveled all over the world later. But it was God keeping us, God letting us know that whatever, wherever I'm going to be there. And the people believed that because we had this movement Choir, Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights choir. Nims Gay and Mamie Brown were asked to start that. So when we got to the meeting, we had a lot of good singing, a lot of good speaking, a lot of good inspiration because everybody was on fire in this place, at this time, in this Church, we say we are equal. This is what we will do to work on it. And he worked on the schools, the police department, housing, everything that said negativity, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights dealt with it. And I have a picture of the board members like Ms. Dust Brooks,
Lucinda Bruce Brown Roby, people that were heroes in their own ways. But when these people came together for a time, and we did every Monday night, people looked forward to going. They looked forward to doing. And then we were trained how to do, how to march. Like, for instance, if we didn't have a lot of people, you stretched the line out. Whatever you needed to do for that situation, you do it right now. It's called be ready and ask the Lord to help you do it. But faith and fear. We did not show fear. We might have had it. But joining hands together, it made us stronger. You can't break a line. You can't break a chain that's gripped, you know. Segregation was so bad that even today, there are people who have the mindset of still being there, because it was so ground into them. I don't care what you did, what you accomplish, you remember how you were disdained in earlier life. But the Alabama Christian Movement, the Movement choir, the people that joined in, it made life hopeful. I did an interview called History to Hope, History and Hope. And I told them that our history has always been hope, hoping that the Lord will again provide for our safety, for our children, for whatever we were proposing to do, and give us the right way to do it. Our young people today don't know that it's not what you say, but how you say it. And after the civil rights movement was over, people used to say, “Ooh, that's an old fashioned to say, yes, ma'am and no, ma'am.” That's what we did. And at 76, I still say it because it's habit. We were trained to do what we needed to do to get through a terrible time. And even though many people well, really, I feel an interview, too. The four little girls were bombed after the March on Washington, and there was another man, Aaron, who was castrated. But somebody came back and put turpentine on the wound. And there were two other boys killed on the same day those four little girls were killed. But Birmingham was not as violent or murderers, I'll say, as other places have been. But we felt the stain of it. And I think the fact that when Dr. King finally came to Birmingham, he had been invited seven times, according to Andrew Young, we just, it made a difference. The nation considered Dr. King as the only leader. But there were many leaders in many cities, and many people left their cities to come and join with him. And that's why the story should be told. I'm really thankful what people are saying about Daddy, but they need to talk about the Colonel and some other people that helped him do what he did, because he could not have done it without support. But the thing that I really want our readers to know is that a lot of people hit the Internet to get information. Internet is what somebody put on there, and you really have to check your facts. In fact, I need to call Wikipedia because they call Daddy Reverend Fred, Frederica Shuttlesworth. And I'm named after my mother and father, Ruby Fredricka, and that's cause when my brother was well, when my sister was born, he thought the next one will be a boy. And so he immediately put Ruby, no Fred Lee Shuttlesworth Jr. And the lady said, “But Reverend, she's a girl.” He says, “Okay, give her her momma’s first name, Ruby Fredericka.” And everybody calls me Ricky. But that's significant in the fact that if anybody says Ricky, I know I know them from way, way back. But our trials in Birmingham with faith and fear, we were always reminded, even when they called in blue whistles on the phone. And we couldn't slam that phone down because you're going to get in trouble with the FLS. You had to put the receiver. I don't care what people said or did. We were instructed and knew better than to retaliate, because that's not what we do. So we had a lot of good training out of the experience in Birmingham to be ready. Like, for instance, if somebody didn't show up for a speaker. “Okay, Ricky, here, say something.” A singer, “Pat sing something.” He used his resources. And a lot of times people don't realize you don't have to pay for anything. Just look around. Everything we need to do, what we need to do is right there. All we have to do is ask the Lord. And I don't mean to be ecclesiastic and start preaching. But the more I think about what we went through, the more I praise God for bringing us through it.
Ranger Kat: Thank you and thank you for shedding some light on your Mom and the role she played..
Mrs. Bester: I didn't hear you.
Ranger Kat: I said, I'm glad you shed some light on the role that your Mom played too. And you mentioned Diane Nash, who was one of the Freedom Riders. And there's a quote of Diane Nash in a book about your father that's called A Fire You Can't Put Out. And she said that: “Fred was practically a legend. I think it was important for there to be somebody that really represented strength. And that's certainly what Fred did. He would not back down, and you could count on it. You know, I'm wondering if maybe Dr. Bouyer, I know you studied the story quite a bit, and you help educators to teach about it. How important was it to have somebody like Reverend Shuttlesworth in Birmingham to encourage the Rides to keep going? Because after that first ride, with all the violence that they encountered in Alabama, it would have been very understandable if they just sort of called it off. But pretty immediately, Diane Nash and the Nashville Student Movement send down new reinforcements. What do you think about Fred’s role in paving the way for that?
Dr. Bouyer: I really do think that Reverend Shuttlesworth was not just the man for the hour, but the man for the movement. As Ruby said, her father was the man not only in Birmingham, but I also refer to him as the architect of the movement in Birmingham. And just for a moment, I will talk about SNCC and Diane Nash and the students. And definitely the role that Reverend Shuttlesworth played when the attack happened in Anniston. As Ruby pointed out, he dispatched members of his organization, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. This was an organization established in Alabama after the then Attorney General Patterson outlawed the NAACP. Reverend Shuttlesworth was the Alabama President, and the NAACP was just really winning the race for equal rights to the court. And after the Brown v. Board decision, Alabama and all the Deep South States became really afraid as to what the NAACP might do. So therefore they asked Reverend Shuttlesworth to give up a list of all the members. He refused to do so. So the organization was declared an out of state or foreign Corporation and could not operate here. There was a flaw in the law that the state established about businesses, that an organization that could function. In the law, they stated that literary organizations and religious organizations did not have to turn over their membership list. So Reverend Shuttlesworth and a group of five other minutes got together down, really downtown, at the A.G. Gaston Funeral Home. This is where they met. And they decided it with him as a leader. What are we going to do? Do we stop working? Because the state of Alabama says we can't operate here as NAACP? But they found the flaw in the law and they established a new organization. They were very deliberate in the name of the organization, being Alabama, so they could not declare it to be a foreign corporation. And then Christian. Remember, I just said a flaw in the law stated that religious organizations did not have to give up their membership roll. So this new organization would be the driving force for civil rights activities in Alabama, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. And one of the things that I want to say about Ruby Shuttlesworth work that is so important, is the day after the beating of the civil rights activist with the Freedom Rides at the Trailways bus station and Birmingham. They all came once again to Reverend Shuttlesworth. He brought those people to his home, to his Church. And one of the men, James Peck, was beaten so badly all about the face and head, he was bleeding profusely. So he received some treatment but was fearful about staying in the hospital. So they brought him to the parsonage where the Shuttlesworth family lives. And Ruby tells the story better. But she said her mom, it was Mother's Day, and she had put a favorite white chenille bed spread on the bed. And when they brought him in, she said, “Put him on the bed,” and everybody's looking at this… put him on the bed. She did not care that, you know about the injuries, the wounds, what might happen. And when Ruby told this story, I read about it in the book Freedom’s Children. She said they could never, ever wash out the stains from that spread. But it didn't bother the Mrs. Shuttlesworth. She was willing to give everything that she had to support the movement in any way. And I just think it's important that we teach students in our schools about civil disobedience. And I've often made the point of comparing Reverend Shuttlesworth to Sam Adams. When we talk about the American Revolution, we go on and on about what a great, wonderful, brave person Sam Adams was. Well, Reverend Shuttlesworth is my Sam Adams. And I realized that at the time he came to Birmingham, in regards to civil rights and this whole idea that we've been talking about racism. I was doing a study once on the Holocaust, and they talked about six steps to a Holocaust. And really, by the time he came, we were at step six. And then I feel like Ruby, that God, particularly called him for this particular time and purpose. So he's my personal hero. I've been honored to have him as a dinner guest at my home on two separate occassions. But like I pointed out earlier, he would do anything he said for teachers because he understood that if the teachers got it right, if the teachers were able to teach us these lessons with a passion, conviction and knowledge, really based on the truth, that they could change things. So he always availed himself. He always came to participate in a Stony workshop, and always because the idea of empowering teachers, and he would more or less arm them. “You go back to your schools and you teach this history and you let the students know.” It's like for me, Kat, that anybody can be a hero. Anybody can stand up against wrong, against evil. And just having an example like Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth helps us to know that we, too, can stand up for right.
Ranger Kat: Beautiful. Thank you. I think Dr. Bouyer, you touched a little bit on the importance of education. But I would like to ask both of Dr. Bouyer and Mrs. Bester, given that you're both educators, what is a part of the Freedom Rider story as it relates to Reverend Shuttlesworth that people get wrong that you wish that teachers knew more about so they could teach correctly in the classroom?
Mrs. Bester: I just did a, when I knew we were going to be talking, I read a lot about the Phillips, about the Freedom Riders. And James Peck was on a bus that was led by somebody else. I can't remember his name. But then he had to leave, and Peck had to bring them on in, and they called Daddy to say it, he did tell them to be careful. And then when the bus had been messed up and everything, they called him to come and get him. But the Freedom Riders story is significant because these young people in college before they left made their wills. They were determined that to do what they did. But if they didn't do it, they want to set their things in orders, whether they did it or not. They left everything in order. And that type of discipline, facing, knowing that you might be facing death, lets you see the death and width of their love, but doing what is right and attaining equality for all citizens. The Freedom Riders were young and they left school where their parents had saved money. And, you know, it was hard back in those days to have money, but they did it because they had a belief that we can do this. And they didn't think about their lives. They just went ahead and did it. We have a lady here, Mrs. Betty Roseman in Cincinnati who was on a Freedom Ride, and she was the one assigned to go call if anything went wrong. And something indeed did go wrong when they stopped. And anyway, she was making the phone call back to the office and the bus left her. But a man came by, A White man came by, told her to get in the car and on the floor. And he took her to safety. And she never, ever was able to thank him because he just told her, “Get out here. You'll be safe here.” He took her back where the people, there were so many people that assisted, but those Freedom Riders, you have to look at what they were giving up. My father was there because they knew he would be there, Okay? And they knew from what he had done before that if they called him, he would answer. But when I interviewed um, is it Hank Thompson? Dr. Bouyer?
Dr. Bouyer: Yes – Thomas, Thomas.
Mrs. Bester: Thomas, okay. I realized that how much they meant. And we have yet to thank them for the many things that have happened because of what they did. Frederick Douglass started it. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, all of those. But each year we have had people that were willing to sacrifice their life, their time, their reputation, whatever it took to gain citizenship, humanity. And the people that are coming now have like when Obama said, he stands when he acknowledged Daddy's airport. He said, “I stand on your shoulders.” To hear him say that was really nice because he is so accomplished. But I look at the movement now. The Black Lives Latter, and I'm so grateful that it's just not black lives out there demonstrating. In fact, there are maybe five times the number of Blacks in the protests. And that just shows you where we have come as a country. And it's just a blessing. It is just a blessing. But we must remember the Freedom Riders themselves. They chose to get on a bus without a policeman, without any protection, no weapons. And they put their lives on the line in the city in each aspect of the bus rider. We did a bus riding thing in Birmingham, and I was with this white guy and two other white guys and two other teenagers, and he got on first and went to the back. The Black teenager stopped in the front. Well, I was a fourth one to get on, and by the time I got on, the bus driver realized what was going on, and he just kind of closed the door on my back as I was getting in. But people still did whatever they did to us. What it was throwing coffee, spitting, sometimes cigarettes put out on you for whatever the thing you were doing. The people were non-violent and that was trained, in the people that came, before they got on the bus, they told them what would happen. And so the Lord has equipped us to do what we needed to have done during those times. And yes, it was fear. But we didn't show fear. We kept on because we believe in the Lord and each other and the cause. And I hope I answered your question.
Ranger Kat: You did. I think bringing up the training piece is something that people don't often realize how much extensive training in non violence people went through in leading up to the Freedom Rides and also the application process to become a freedom rider, and I think they needed letters of recommendation. It was a very long, extensive process and a deep understanding that no matter how much pain you may experience, that you are not going to lift a fist and I can't imagine that level of dedication and commitment. It's really amazing. Dr. Bouyer, is there something that you try to counter when you're teaching teachers how to share the story that you feel is really critical that people know this is the real deal, something that people are not teaching correctly, that you really would like to tell educators to inform them.
Dr. Bouyer: I think that what happens is that we overlook a lot of the, I call them unsung heroes of the modern civil rights movement. As people begin to study and teach about this, they teach about maybe just two people. These are names that have been lifted up internationally, but we forget about people like Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Colonel Stone Johnson, Reverend C.T. Vivian, names that Ruby lifted up earlier. So I try to provide teachers a full or a fuller view of this time period and the role that Alabama played, the idea of looking at legislation like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that all of that came out of Birmingham. So I try to address, what are your issues as to why you don't teach it? Is it a matter you don't have time, you don't know what to teach them about. You don't know names to lift up. So I take away all the excuses as to why it's not taught, and then I provide the information. But Kat, one thing we've got to also understand is that a lot of other teachers who may even be in their 40s, 50s and still in the classroom, the civil rights movement was never formally taught, in a lot of common settings. We are now finally sifting through all of this knowledge and all of this information, and we're finding out the who's, what, why, when, why is it important and we're able to do that? And part of what we do with the Stony project is that I take teachers all across the state, and then they get to meet people that participated in the movement. They get to walk in places that they sometimes only heard about. And it's amazing. When we look at being able to say I was there, I met, I understand better, will increase the likelihood of teachers doing a better job.
Mrs. Bester: They’re going to teach it better.
Dr. Bouyer: They can because of their interactions. It used to be when I started the Stony Project that we tried to do all of this in a week. But my teachers always said, “we don't have enough time, Martha, is there any way we could increase the time?” So now I offer the Stony Project as a three week teacher institute, and I still have in most cases, I've had at least, I do this for 30 teachers on purpose. I want to really make an impact. If I've got 50, 60 teachers, I can't really do what I would like to do with a number that large. So I've got 30 teachers, and I really try to make an impact With, over the three week period. And when I think about it, 30 teachers, even if 20 of them stayed in the classroom an additional 3,5, 10 years, look at the impact of this particular program. So it really is very planned. Very specific. If I can get 30 teachers, elementary school, middle, high school, home school situations. And the teachers are all given an opportunity to develop curriculum based on what they saw, what they heard. I bring in noted scholars from all over the country to come and talk. I provide them with all of the resources so that they can do a better job. And I'm going to send you something, Kat. We don't have time this morning for me to read it, but it's a quote from Reverend Shuttlesworth that every time, I just want to read just a little bit, but I'm going to send it to you. Okay. And this is entitled, America means Integration. Just a little bit. America.
Mrs. Bester: America what?
Dr. Bouyer: America means Integration. I’ll strike from the flag those colors of red, white and blue. America means integration. Else take out of the Declaration of Independence the words all men are created equal. America means integration. Else take from the flag - the pledge, I'm sorry. One nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. America means integration. Else close down your courthouses and tear the meaningless signs down from over the doors. America means integration. Else we open the crack in the Liberty Bell and let it no more proclaim liberty through the land. I'm going to send you this because
Mrs. Bester: Would you send me that too, please.
Dr. Bouyer: Yes, it is so profound.
Mrs. Bester: I’ve never heard it.
Dr. Bouyer: Ruby I share with teachers and visitors who come to the church. But, I'm sorry. I'm going to have to read the rest of it. I'll still send it. But America means integration. Else send back the Irish to Ireland, the Orientals to Asia, the Anglo Saxon back to Europe, the Negro to Africa and call the Indian from his reservation, give him keys to the country and write sonnets and epics of his heroic deeds. America means integration. Else knocked down the Statue of Liberty and chisel off her base of slogan, Give me your poor, etcetera. America means integration. Else quit singing, Our Father's Got to be, Author of liberty. And this was written by Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth proclaiming –
Mrs. Bester: Never heard it.
Dr. Bouyer: to what we say were are. And I still believe this. And whenever people are just moved, whenever they read this as to what he had to say about our nation, he was not trying to destroy the United States. He was trying to build our country to be what we say we are and what the world looks for us to be. And that includes all of us who call the United States of America home, regardless of our skin color.
Mrs. Bester: That was beautiful. Thank you, Dr. Martha. Kat, can I say one thing?
Ranger Kat: Of course.
Mrs. Bester: America needs Integration was great. Daddy also wrote a thing that if you were going to participate in any way, marching, whatever you did, there were ten things that you had to do and sign, and they were scripturally based. And at the bottom he said that if you can't demonstrate, you know, non-violently, we also need people to drive people, to prepare food, to make signs. But I think you should send her that. And then I want to tell you, Kat, that I met Dr. Martha because Daddy was doing the Stony the Road Project, and he had a brain tumor. So we had to travel with him. They would fly him in and my brother and I would drive to wherever he was. And this was in Birmingham at the Civil Rights Institute. And after Daddy died, Dr. Martha asked me to continue, which I've done to take his part in that. But I had never gone on the full tour, okay. And I was blessed to be able to go to 2, 3 of her tours with her teachers. They were on the bus and I had my car and Jackie was with me. And we were there when Obama on the fiftieth anniversary, called Daddy's names as he was talking about the people that had made that thing possible, Even Glenn Eskew’s book, when we were talking about the Civil Rights Bill, it starts with, But for Birmingham, we wouldn't be here today. And that's because Birmingham opened, when the people of the world saw the dog biting children and the fire holes being put on them, everybody said, “What is going on?” and people looked up. Four Little Girls tells the story very good. When Daddy was hit by the fire hose and had to be hospitalized, someone came and told him that President Kennedy and Reverend, Dr. King, had called off the movement because it was just getting too violent, or whatever reason, Daddy got out of the hospital after having two high poles, those put you out, and went to A.G. Gaston, and in the movie the man say, “The weak one came to the door.” But because he came to the door at the A.G. Gaston motel, the demonstrations did not stop. And we went on to get the civil rights bill that year in ‘64 and then the next year, the Voting Rights bill. But people don't realize that this group of people that started the Southern Christian Leadership Conference worked together. They went from city to city to do what they had to do. But I am so thankful for Dr. Bouyer for starting this, because you can't show what you don't know, and our kids don't know the history of the Black man. We have the history that the white man has allowed us to be shown and taught in school. We had the one month of February to do, but all Americans are significant. They've changed Black history now to diversity. And that's good. We are all diverse, but we're all Americans because we were born here. Doctor Bouyer, if you would send her that sign up form, do you have a copy of that?
Dr. Bouyer: I do. And Reverend Wilder, I’ll let him talk about the pledge, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights pledge. Reverend Wilder, will you share that with us?
Reverend Wilder: Absolutely. I was going to comment when she mentioned that. It was important. It was important that people remain non-violent. It was important that people understood what they were doing. It was important, and he stressed it, that this was a Christian movement, not that they were trying to make everybody Christians, but it was operated by Christian principles. And he started off with meditate daily on the teaching of Jesus Christ. You keep yourself physically strong and neat. And Dr. Bouyer often mentions, and I agree, that the one that I had said would probably trip me was the number eight, where it says that I would refrain from violence, of fist and of tongue and of thought. And I say I could probably make it past the fist, but I had something to say and I know I'd have something to think about, but that was Reverend Shuttlesworth. He was fiercely nonviolent.
Mrs. Bester: He really made it plain.
Reverend Wilder: Yeah, it was.
Mrs. Bester: And don't use your hands, your mouth and don't even think about being bad. That's not what we do.
Reverend Wilder: Thank you for the introduction on that. I think that was just very critical to show that this was not just lip service. This was not just something he did when the cameras were rolling or when the writers were there. This is what he believed.
Mrs. Bester: Exactly.
Ranger Kat: I'd like to ask you to all of you what the significance of this moment is. We're approaching the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. All of you have a connection, personal, spiritual and otherwise, with Reverend Shuttlesworth. I wonder if you could think about what is the meaning of this moment for you, this upcoming anniversary, where we are in history, how we're doing, how we're moving forward. And if you could maybe think about it as an opportunity to share, maybe in like, a minute, what it is that you feel about this upcoming anniversary.
Reverend Wilder: I'll start if you don't mind, and then maybe we can build on a crescendo, since I'm probably the least informed. We’ll start at the bottom and go to the top. I think it is important, particularly in light of the backdrop we have with the death of George Floyd and all the protests and everything else. That was a rainbow of people. And we saw the same thing, I think, in the Freedom Rides. We saw young people who were willing to risk and who were willing to challenge because of their youthful idealism, which is absolutely great, as opposed to cynicism. I but I see a reflection of the 1961 Freedom Rides reflect the same thing what we're doing now, reflect what was done in the 1960s. There were young people who saw what the law said, who heard what the law said, and they were willing to stand up for and suffer whatever consequences they could. So that's my minute.
Mrs. Bester: And they were prepared.
Dr. Bouyer: My minute. I would like to use a line form a very popular song. But the song is We've Come This Far by Faith.
Mrs. Bester: Yes.
Dr. Bouyer: But I want to say we still have a long way to go.
Mrs. Bester: Oh, yes.
Dr. Bouyer: And we know that we didn't get through all of that on our own, that it took men and women and children. And I'm sure the children didn't even fully understand what they were doing. Those Freedom Riders that came out of Nashville, the SNCC Group, as Ruby said, before they left, they all wrote their last will so that their parents would understand what was going on. A lot of those young people who came into Birmingham and they were so beaten, Bull Connor called their parents. And is like, “Do you know what your son and daughter, do you know what they're doing?” And their parents really, for a lot of them, sent them to plane tickets and they left here on TWA Transworld Airlines, going back home. And some of them flew directly from Birmingham to Louisiana, which was their final stop. But I still want to say that as a nation, it's wonderful to look back 60 years ago to see how far we've come, and to know that that's by faith. But let's look forward to the future, 60 years from now. Where will we be? And I just think based on what Reverend Wilder said, that we've accomplished a lot, but we still have a long ways to go.
Mrs. Bester: Amen. As far as my minute, these Freedom Riders were ordinary people who in those days got lucky because they were able to go to college by the sweat of their parents brow, or whatever they did, which was a great accomplishment. But they left college. They left it because they wanted freedom, humanity for all people. They risked everything. So I salute the Freedom Riders, and I'm so glad that people are finally recognizing what they did. There are so many people that did lot of things to make our country better. And the Freedom Riders definitely made a difference. They were…the bus that stands right now in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. And the descriptors of what happened on that bus and many other buses that they were on, shows you the terror that these young people went through. But they did it because they believed in freedom. And the one thing about it, is that everybody worked together. And I think it helped a whole lot in integration. We were forced to be with. But when I went to the March on Washington from Cincinnati, I was 18 years old, and it was amazing just to walk down the streets. We didn't associate with white people, but everybody was calm, cool, collected and connected in the sense that we will show the world that we want to stand together for human dignity. Human rights. That's why I love the name of that award. Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights. And it doesn't matter your color, because if you cut us all, we bleed red. But Reverend Shuttlesworth honor is for the Human Rights Award. And the recipients of these awards have been outstanding and doing things for the people as a whole, being knocked down. Like I tell people all the time, if Reverend Vivian had not died three days before John Lewis, many people in America would still not know who he was. But I remember John Lewis. I remember him being an integral part. He was a different person. He chose to serve. In fact, John Lewis got a ticket to come and work with Dr. King. Rev. C.T. Vivian was also invited to come and work with Dr. King because what he had done on his campus as a student, but one inspires another, the others go out and inspires. And that's what it was. It was touch and move. And the Freedom Riders have not been given the credit that they deserve. But they did a lot. They went into unchartered, mean territories and suffered a lot. But it made a difference. It made other people know that this should not be, we should be more proactive. And really, you can see it rolls up. Like you said, Dr. Martha, is moved up to right now. People have joined in a freedom protests. Freedom from hatred and the keyword should be love. I am thankful to the Freedom Riders for what they did. Can you tell me, Kate, what is the date for the celebration? Where will it be? I looked it up, but I couldn't find it.
Ranger Kat: So May 14 is the exact anniversary, and we will have a virtual event taking place that day. We have a number of virtual events that are taking place leading up to that date. And then really, because the Rides went from May through December, there will be events through December that will commemorate the Freedom Rides. And ultimately, once we have a more concrete list, I will make sure that you receive it. And I'd love to close out by asking you all to share the one word that you feel best describes Reverend Shuttlesworth.
Dr. Bouyer: Courageous.
Mrs. Bester: God’s man for the times. Oh you said one word. Servant. Okay.
Reverend Wilder: My word would be sincere because my interactions with him, he sincerely believed what he said. This was not pressed. This was not written for him. He believed that God was going to take care of him, and he acted like it.
Mrs. Bester: He did.
Dr. Bouyer: Because they said more than one word, I'm going to just say a few more. And the reason I chose courageous, it's like where there is no conflict, there is no need for courage. And because of the conflicts that African American people, black people face on a daily basis, not just in Alabama, but even in Washington, DC, our nation's capital, it was also segregated. So the conflict was segregation and therefore Reverend Shuttlesworth, God gave him the courage to challenge the conflict.
Ranger Kat: Well, thank you. It truly has been an honor and a pleasure to spend time with you today. And we're planning to use excerpts of this to share with the public the role that reference Shuttlesworth played in the Freedom Rides because it's a piece of his story and his activism that doesn't often get shared. So we're really excited to educate people about that. Before I close, is there a question I didn't ask that you wish I had that you would like to sort of expound upon to share with the public?
Mrs. Bester: I just want to thank Reverend Wilder for upholding what they say, I did a thing in Howard University is called Passing the Torch, and it was people that have worked with Dr. King passing the torch, basically, to the young students at Howard. But Reverend Wilder has been so essential in helping me educate Northern children. I've been to Bethel many times, and he's always opened his doors, even treated us to lunch on several times to share the history. Because people today can't imagine. Our young people can't imagine what we went through, and a lot of them think it didn't happen. And that's where we need to say. You got to check your sources. And I just wanted to appreciate and thank Reverend Wilder and Dr. Bouyer for your intense work in making known what happened in Birmingham and affecting the lives of so many people that are better because of it. And I thank you, Kate, for including me in this discussion. I truly learned a lot.
Ranger Kat: Thank you. I'm really glad that you were able to join everybody else.
Dr. Bouyer: I think you did a great job, your questions were really challenging and caused us to really, I think, just go deep within ourselves to actively participate in this. And I just want to thank you again, like Ruby, for including me.
Reverend Wilder: Ditto for me as well. And I want to thank both Dr. Bouyer for all of the work that she's been doing since she's been with us for that time, but also Mrs. Bester for joining us on such short notice. I was just…Dr. Bouyer and I were talking the other day, and we said, I wonder if Mrs. Bester would be willing to join us on the call. And when we reached out to you, you graciously accepted. So let me say publicly how much we appreciate that.
Mrs. Bester: I appreciate that. Thank you, sir. Thank you. That somebody can be moved forward from hearing our discussion. That's the blessing and hopefully they will share and do their research so that they can be a better person in their neighborhood. Because we are all at this state of our country, we need each other, and we need to understand that God is still in control. Thank you, Kate. I appreciate this opportunity.
Ranger: This is We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Thanks to the Psalters for use of their song, Turn Me Around. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our series. Until next time.
(Music continues in background)
Episode 3: Ashley M. Jones, Poet Laureate of Alabama
Listen in to our latest podcast with Ashley M. Jones, the first person of color to be the Poet Laureate for the state of Alabama. Ms. Jones shares what it means to her to hold this post, the magic in the Magic City, and lessons we can all learn from the movie Frozen. Join us.
Ranger Introduction: Welcome to We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Close your eyes and imagine a National Park. Are you picturing waterfalls and mountains? Or do you think of Dr. King's childhood home, Japanese internment camps, and a school that became a battleground for racial integration? National parks aren't just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance, founded to preserve the stories of who we are and how we came to be. National parks inspire us to do better, be better. To climb mountains, both physical and figurative. Join Park Rangers, researchers, authors, and activists as we discuss what liberty and justice for all means on our public lands.
Kat: All right. Well, here we go. From our, like, 8 feet apart.
Ashley: Yes. Very COVID safe.
Kat: Very COVID safe, wearing our masks. And I want to say welcome. My name is Kat, and I'm a Park Ranger at Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. I also work at Freedom Riders National Monument as well. But I'm based here, and I'm so honored to welcome you here today, Ms. Ashley M. Jones, the poet laureate of Alabama. Truly it is just such a joy to have you here. Ashley holds an MFA in poetry from Florida International University and is the author of a number of poetry collections. And I hear that you brought a few of them in your purse.
Ashley: I did.
Kat: So thank you so much for joining us today.
Ashley: Thank you for having me. This is so fun.
Kat: Yeah. I'm glad that you're here. Well, I want to start first and foremost with the poet laureateship because that's, like, the big news in your life. And I'm curious, could you set the scene for us as to how you found out that you were awarded this honor, if you knew you were going to be considered? What you felt and experienced when you found out? Where were you when you found out and how the people in your life responded to the news?
Ashley: Well, it's interesting. A lot of people assume that it was like the Oscars or something like, you don't know if you're going to get it. And the moment is, the moment you're like, oh, wow, what a surprise. And it's a little bit different than that. At least in Alabama, the process is pretty long. So I knew that I was interested a few years ago. I knew that it was a four year term for each laureate, and I knew that the previous laureate didn't express an interest in doing it again. So I thought, okay, here's an opportunity. Hopefully, somebody wants to nominate me. And so last year, several people from the community sent in nomination packets on my behalf. And so what that entails is they asked for my consent. First of all, it's not a surprise at any stage, like, you have to be willing, which is great. So they asked me for my consent. And in the packets, there is a little demographic portion, and then there's a letter of support from them, and they could also ask others to write letters in that packet. And then there's also a writing sample in that packet. So there were, like, I think four or five people who nominated me. Those nominations then went to the Alabama Writers Cooperative. And the Alabama Writers Cooperative is an organization which serves writers here in Alabama. It's the oldest, fairly certain it's the oldest writing organization in our state. It was founded in 1923, and they shepherd this process for the state of Alabama. So the packets were sent into them to a committee that was assembled by the AWC President, TJ Beitelman. And the committee is made up of different writers and professionals from across the state. They deliberate on all of the nominations. I believe there were a total of four people nominated last year, and I was chosen unanimously as the selection to go forward before the membership of the AWC. And they had to then vote me in as the official selection. From there, I'm awaiting my firm date from Governor Ivy's office to be commissioned by her. So that's the whole process. And like I said, it's a lot longer than most people realize. And then, so as far as my surprise, I wasn't surprised for the whole year that it was all happening because I was a part of the whole process. But I was surprised, and I did not think I would be, but I was very surprised during the voting process. So it was over Zoom, obviously, because you know how it is. We were on Zoom, and I knew all the people who were voting because I'm a board member of AWC. So these were friends of mine, which doesn't mean that it was like nepotism, by the way. It just means I know the people. That's kind of part of the job as poet laureate, you know the people. So I saw them voting. And as I was looking out into the Zoom, and of course, I had on my special voting day outfit. We can get back to that later. I was in my parent’s house because that's where I've been staying for a while since my father passed in April. We've all just kind of converged at my parents house, which I mean, we always were there before, but now it's a different sort of togetherness. So I was there and I knew my mom and siblings were upstairs watching the Zoom in another room. And we all just kind of were waiting to see, like, okay, are they really going to do it? And so seeing the people raise their hands, that just sort of threw me in a way that I wasn't expecting. I really felt…it's hard to really put into words. I felt just thrilled and then also a little nervous and really just honored and humbled that all these people really believe in me and believe I can do the job. And then the gravity of the history of it started to sort of descend. I knew for months, okay, I'm going to be the first Black one, blah, blah. It’s kind of like, whatever, that's cool But I didn't really understand, like, oh, wait, this is a whole paradigm shift happening before my eyes. And I'm the one. I think it started to hit me that I was the one who had to do the thing before. I was like, oh, yeah, I'll do it. But in that moment, I was like, oh, I'm going to do it. Who am I? What said that this was my destiny. It's moments like those where you just really start to step back and say, wow, was I really put here for a purpose? And is it right now that I'm realizing I'm walking in it? Anyway, so I had this whole moment and everyone was so proud. And what I didn't say too, is that TJ, the President of the AWC, he also is my Department chair at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. And he was one of my first teachers when I went to school there. So I've known him since I was twelve years old.
Ashley: So you see where I'm going here, the layers are just unreal.
Ashley: And to see the pride on his face too, meant so, so much. Here's someone who has really been with me from almost the start of my writing journey. And he was such an important teacher for me in school because he encouraged me so much and I felt like he really saw me. And that's so important as a teenager to feel like an adult actually acknowledges you as a human being. And then the media started coming in and that's when I really was like, wait a minute, what am I doing? What have I signed up for? But it really was what you dream about when you're a little person wanting to be a writer. You hope that people care about what you say. You hope that you can make a difference. You hope that the little person that you were has someone that they were looking for. I was looking, I think, for me as a little girl. And it's just so incredible to think sometimes we are the ones that we are looking for. I think somebody maybe has said that before. So whoever's quote that is, thank you for the quote.
Kat: I think it's in the movie Frozen.
Ashley: Oh, no.
Kat: I'm sure someone else set it besides, but I just remember it very distinctly because many little girls do love that movie [points at self].
Ashley: Wow. Maybe I'm like a 90s Disney purist.
Kat: Okay. I can respect that.
Ashley: I don't know. I hate to be a purist in any way, but I just…really nothing quite hits like those movies of my youth. And I don't have kids of my own, so Frozen never quite made it for me. And I love watching kid’s stuff. But something about Frozen just hasn't quite…maybe because everybody likes it. I'm like kind of a hipster, which is maybe embarrassing to say, but everybody loves it so much. I'm like, okay, yeah. Something's got to be amiss, right? No shade to Frozen, though. We love Frozen. The twist ending, my goodness. Right?
Kat: Yeah, for sure. Yeah.
Ashley: But anyway, I just have been feeling a lot of feelings, and I'm so glad that my dad did know that it was going to happen before he passed away. And of course, the first thing he asked was like, oh, how much does it pay?
Kat: Because he's your dad. Right.
Ashley: But he was very proud. He was proud of us. If we just took a breath, like, you could do anything. And he was just so proud that we existed, which is what you want in a parent.
Ashley: We have been me and my siblings, we've been so blessed to have our mom and our dad. I would not be anything if I didn't have them, honestly. They laid the path for us in every way, truly, from little babies, making sure we're cared for, making sure we could read and write and imagine. Gosh, I can go on a tangent about that.
Kat: Well, actually, I do want to ask about your parents, so I can skip to those questions, actually, because I read about your parents and how much they valued creativity. And I read that your father did pencil drawings.
Kat: And I know your mother encouraged reading and writing, and I'm sure had a creative practice of her own. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit to where they absorbed that love of creativity from, and if there's something in particular that they created, particularly your dad or your mom, like a pencil drawing that is meaningful to you or has informed your work in some way.
Ashley: Well, yeah, there's a lot of answers I have to give now to this question. I'll start with my dad, who, as you said, he could use a pencil to create, like a photo realistic portrait. He had no lessons ever. When we asked him, how did you know you could do this? He said, well, I just picked up a pencil one day, and I was bored. And I said, I want to draw Mickey Mouse. And so I did. And it was only when I think his mom said, oh, that's really good. He realized I'm good at this thing. And he never really made a career of doing art. He would help us with our projects. Both of my parents are very hands on, like, super hands on parents, but he would, like, help us draw things for school. And actually in our house, we have these portraits of all the kids, so me, my sisters and my brother that he drew by hand and they're hanging up in the living room. But other than that, he didn't really draw very often at all, even though he had this amazing talent. But he did do a lot of things in the garden and that was sort of the way his visual arts manifested, creating beautiful… How do I say, I'm not a gardener, but you know how the flowers are arranged in the little plot. He did that thing.
Ashley: And he built things out of wood. We have these herb… I'm not a gardener. The things that herbs grow in, like the planters. People assume that I'm so good at gardening because of my dad. That was his thing. I enjoyed the fruits of his labor and did what he told me to do when I was out there.
Kat: There's a lot of weeding.
Ashley: Yeah. That was not something that I enjoyed at all. But he built these things by hand and he loved imagining how to rig something up. He could fix literally anything. We rarely had to call any sort of repairman. That's why now it's like what do we do when something breaks? Who do we call? Because usually dad would just fix it even if he didn't know what he was doing as a kid. I thought he just had all this experience in fixing, but he just was figuring it out by himself because he was brilliant. I don't know where that came from for him, honestly. He wasn't raised in a particularly creative household. He was one of twelve children and he endured abuse from his father. He was a terrible man. I never met my grandfather at all. But my aunts and uncles and my dad tell these horrible stories about him. Clearly a very hurt man. There's no way you can do things like that to children or to your wife if there's not something broken inside of you.
Ashley: So I have always wondered what that is and what of that lives in me because it lived in my dad too. He spent his whole life fighting the history of that and the shadows of that.
Ashley: He did a great job of not repeating what his father did. That was very clear in his mind that he would not be that kind of father and he was not at all. But I can't imagine what he was carrying. Anyway, so I'm not sure why he decided to draw that day if it really was just I'm bored and want to do something. I don't know. I would say that it was given to him. I believe all of us are given something and I believe that God or the universe or whatever you call it reveals that to you at whatever time you need it. And so perhaps he needed to escape or to feel valuable because his father was one who told him that he was not valuable, told him he wasn't smart all these things. And so maybe being able to draw gave him some sort of confidence. I don't know. And then my mom, I'll transition. My mom, she is not an artist in any traditional sense. She doesn't draw or sing. I mean, she sings, but she doesn't sing very well, which I love.
Kat: [laughing] Do you want me to edit that out in post?
Ashley: [laughing] Oh, she knows she can't sing because I told her. I'm so nostalgic for her bad singing, like she would sing us lullabies terribly and she was kind of making it worse for fun.
Ashley: But she's not a singer at all. And I told her, Mom, if you've been pretending this whole time and you actually are a super good singer, I'm going to be so angry. Not because I want the good singing, but I've grown so attached to this terrible singing, right? And then you just do this. But so far she's not pretending, she's not a singer and she doesn't write, like she's not a writer or anything. However, I think if someone had made her do that as a young person, she definitely would be doing it. And she's got such a good eye. I've always gone to her with my work since I was young to ask her, what does it sound like? Is it good? What should I fix? Give me some ideas. And she always is able to do it very naturally. So she never discouraged us. Neither of my parents, we were raised in a household where what we did was art. We were reading by age three, which I think is maybe unusual, I don't know, but we were reading a lot and she taught us how to write very early, made sure we knew how to do sentences and vocabulary and all of that. We watched public TV. We didn't have cable when we were little, which I didn't know was like a marker of economic standing. I had no idea. I was like, oh, well, we just have this channel. It's good. As a kid, you'd never know, right, until you meet other kids and they're like, oh, you don't have this, you don't do that. You're like, oh, well, I don't, but I'm not unhappy. But we would watch Barney, Arthur, Sesame Street and at night we'd watch Lawrence Welk, which I know is like ridiculous for little kids to look forward to. The Lawrence Welk Show, right? But we did. And during the day too, we would be able to do like, little arts and crafts. My mom would make Play-Doh from scratch, which again I thought was just like a cool thing that parents could do. I did not understand that it's because Play-Doh was expensive. Just didn't even cross my mind when I said, we've been so blessed like our parents and are just amazing, providing us with every experience we could ever need and not really letting us know that maybe our situation was different than some other people. So we would do that and paint, draw. I used to draw a lot before I knew that I wasn't good at it. I just did it because again, my parents didn't say like, oh, you suck. They were like, oh, good job, you're doing so great. Keep exploring, whatever. And so, yeah, she and my dad definitely encouraged us to just be ourselves. And I think they noticed all us kids like imagination and reading and that kind of thing. And they didn't say, you need to be more practical. Stop making believe, stop running through the backyard singing, stop reading all those books. None of that. They were very encouraging and put us in schools that fostered that as well. I think I answered the question.
Kat: Yeah, I know I sort of threw, like four questions at you, which I apologize for that. But no, I think that you really hit it. And thank you for sharing more about your parents, because I think that where we come from that just informs so much of who we are. And it's just such a beautiful testimony to your relationship with them that they've given you this incredible gift of always affirming you and then never letting you know that maybe there was a struggle, regardless of the situation, they provided these really wonderful, enriching opportunities for you. And it was never like, oh, we don't have access to X, Y, or Z. How can we be creative, maybe even just in our ability to be parents? And I want to just double check that this is recording so I can keep kind of checking up on it. Cool. [checks podcasting equipment]
Ashley: I'm trying not to move my arm too much because I'm a very much a this kind of talker [waves arms].
Kat: Your bracelet actually sounds really great in the mic. It does. So if you ever want to exclaim and move your bracelet, it's not a bad idea.
Kat: Oh, man. We're building this airplane as we're flying it over here. So you did touch on this. But I do want to return to this because I think it is such an important thing to address. And especially, here I am. I'm a representative of a civil rights park, and I just want to talk about the amazing milestone that you've achieved as the first person of color, but also like, wow, it took that long. Here we are in the year 2021. It's just astounding to me. As I mentioned to you, I have read and listened to some of the interviews that you've done, and in a previous interview, you said you felt honored, but it shouldn't have taken this long. And I wanted to ask you, are there some poets in Alabama's, past or present, people that you feel should have been considered for this honor, whose names you'd like to lift up now?
Ashley: Well, as far as the past, I don't know the names, and I think that definitely says something. I don't know a lot of poets of color who remained here, or at least who were celebrated by the literary community enough that I would know them. And that definitely speaks to how insular it was when all this began. The poet laureate office was started in 1930, which is just seven years after the AWC was started, as well. And you can probably imagine who was eligible to be in those groups. And so a lot of the time of not having a person of color was because we literally couldn't. I mean, it was probably against the law or whatever for us to even enter the physical room and certainly the metaphorical room as well. So I'm not really sure. I'd have to do some research to learn who was making space for Black poets in Alabama throughout all of that time. As far as right now, there's so many amazing poets in Alabama. And I hope after I'm done after these four years, that there'll just be a bunch of people who have the opportunity to serve. I mean, I can think of a few just off the top of my head who are doing amazing work. One is Jacqueline Trimble, Dr. Jacqueline Trimble. I like to give her her respect. I playfully call her the Reverend Dr. Jacqueline Trimble. She's not a Reverend yet, but I feel like she's got to do it eventually. But she teaches at Alabama State University, which is dear to me because where my parents met is ASU. They attended there for undergrad, and that's where they met. So I love that school for that reason. But anyway, she teaches down there. And she has one book out currently called American Happiness, which I highly recommend. If you like my book, you're going to love her book. I mean, she writes about race and Southern-ness and the difficulty of holding those two identities as a Southern woman, as a Black woman, as someone who's politically engaged, as a mother, as a Christian woman. All of these intersections meet in her book. And she has another book coming out next year, I want to say, called How to Survive the Apocalypse, which the poems in there… You want to be ready. That's all I will say. You need to go ahead and seek out the Pre-order link for that book because it's amazing. And you may see a familiar face on the back giving it a blurb. I don't know. You didn't hear that from me, right? But yeah, she's definitely someone who's done a lot of important work in Alabama and represents so many communities. She's also Black, but we have an age difference, too. So she represents those who have families. I don't have any children. She calls herself an emerging poet. To me, she's just like part of the landscape. But since this is her second book and we're not the same age, I'll say it that way. And so she's like, well, I'm just starting. And a lot of people like me who took a long break from getting their degree, she stopped because her mother passed away and she had to raise her family. And she came back to writing poetry after all those years after she had already established her career as a scholar and worked at various universities, she's now kind of returning to her passion for writing. And so I think she does represent people who aren't always celebrated in our community. Like, right now it's all about the hot young virtuoso. And I'm not calling myself that, by the way. I really am not. But that's kind of what's in fashion. And people feel self-conscious if they're not 30 and got billions of books and rising to the top of all these lists and everything.
Kat: I think there's this prevalence to have these lists like 30 under 30 and 40 under 40. And what I'm really drawn to is, like the 80 over 80, like, who are the people who are still creative, still doing interesting things, regardless of the barriers that present themselves as people age? That I think is truly remarkable - for people to set their work aside, set their life’s passions aside, because there are other roles that we play in our lives and then to pick it back up, that is truly inspiring.
Ashley: I can't imagine, truly. Like, I literally cannot imagine stopping and coming back to it after living all of that. I told her this, actually, we were on a podcast together earlier this year and I said, well, it's interesting that you say you're self-conscious because I feel self-conscious being a Southern woman who's now 31, I'm unmarried. I'm not about to get married or anything. I don't have kids. I feel like I'm not whole in some way because of what society has told us about being a woman anywhere but especially in the south. And she said to me, no, you're walking your correct path, so don't even worry about that. So I said back to her, well, so are you. If I'm doing the thing I'm supposed to do, then you had to do what you had to do as well. It all had to happen that way for some reason. I don't know what's going to happen to me in ten years. I don't mean that in a bad way, whoever's listening. But I just mean, like, maybe it's that I'm getting this done now so that I can leave to do something else, have a family or whatever I need to do.
Ashley: But yeah, there are many of us working in Alabama now, and I really just hope if nothing else comes from my appointment, I just hope that it shows whoever is out there that it is possible for them that they can represent Alabama and not feel like, I don't know. I'll say it this way. It can be hard to tell people where you're from if you're from the deep south. People make so many assumptions and most of them are wrong unless they assume that we know how to cook. Usually that's true. But other than that, and it can be hard to be someone who is political and progressive and inclusive. And also I'm representing Alabama. But I'm hoping that through me serving these four years, people of all belief systems of all genders and gender identities, sexual orientations, economic situations. I hope everybody is like, oh, cool. That could be something I could do, too. It is possible. It's not a closed off club. Not to say that everything is solved by me being here. That's the furthest thing from the truth, I think.
Ashley: Which maybe we'll get into. But, yeah, that's the hope. That we'll have so many more names we can say and it won't be some like, wow, it's been almost a century. Hopefully it's well, okay, in this four years we had this person, that four years we had that person, and we have just a plethora of names we can look at.
Kat: Right. Yeah. It's interesting that you brought up the perception that people have of the South. I'm from Michigan and my husband is not white. And his mother, his father passed away, but his mother was so terrified for us to move down here. And she's from the south, and she's also not white, and I think has a lot of her own traumas from growing up as a Black woman in Tennessee. And we've moved down here and like, absolutely, there are so many issues. It's still, in many ways the city is segregated. But we've also been really impressed with a lot of aspects of the city as well. So we've realized it's not an either or. It's an and. And Alabama and Birmingham can sort of encompass so much. And it's sort of almost in this like… maybe if we look cosmically, maybe in this space of limbo, of transitioning from one thing to the next, and it's just a lot is happening, but a lot of good.
Kat: So we've talked a little bit about the poet laureate-ship, and I want to respect your time. So maybe I'll skip the next question that I planned to ask you. Unless you feel strongly about it.
Ashley: I don't remember it.
Kat: It was about tokenism. But do you want to?
Ashley: I think we may have to talk about that a little bit.
Kat: Okay. Let's go for it. Let's go for it. So anyway, I have been thinking a lot about tokenism and how the successes of a few African Americans are often held up to demonstrate change when obviously for so many, the meaningful change is yet to come. And I was thinking about your situation in regards to this, and I'm wondering, too, reading the poems that you wrote, reading a little bit about your background in terms of education, if to you there's any comparison in terms of experiences being the first person of color to hold this position and then thinking back to your days in primary and secondary school where you wrote you were the only Black girl in most of your classes, is there like a connection there? And if so, how would you describe that connection?
Ashley: Yes, I think there absolutely is a connection. And this is the thing that most people don't really want to get into because it makes them uncomfortable, because it's really easy to sort of tie it up and say, oh, well, you're here, we did it. It's done.
Ashley: But if we even look at integration and integrating schools in the, I guess, 50s and 60s and beyond, honestly, we don't have to get into it. But looking at that practice, we know it didn't solve anything at all. If anything, it created new problems. Thinking about my dad who integrated a school in Bessemer when he was a kid, he said it was like going to war every day. People were just fighting them, throwing things at them, and it's like, wow, what am I even doing here? This is supposed to be, quote, unquote, better. But of course it's not better because the actual problem is not being solved. Simply putting two people in the room together doesn't erase what they've been taught, what they're expected to do when they see someone of a different race. It doesn't erase the pressure to perform hatred. I'm sure not every kid who threw something, who threw a rock at my dad, I'm sure not every one of them believed he was worthy of that rock, but they also knew that some other kids or their parents or someone made a situation where they had to do that thing. And that's not being addressed. If we're just, okay, come into our school, that's the end. If we're not changing the curriculum at all, if we're not addressing the ways in which Black children are taught differently than white children, if we're not addressing the homes that they go back to, the redlining that happens, what are we actually addressing? Nothing. And so it's necessary. That's not a step. That's I think maybe apart of it, but it's not the complete solution. And I do think people are way too eager for an easy solution to a complicated problem. Because, again, if you think about where the problem began, it wasn't as simple as a white person went to Africa and was mean to someone. It was a lot more than that. We're trying to repair just a horrible I mean, all the words you use to describe it are just terrible. Genocide, rape, pillage, trafficking, brutalizing, whatever. All of those things are so deep, it's difficult to just say, oh, here's our Black person at our office. We have diversity. It's the end. Absolutely not. And the same is true for me, even though I did not integrate a school like my dad did, just sitting in a room knowing that you're either one of, like, three or five or one, period. It's not a great feeling. You don't feel like, oh, now I've made it. You really feel like, where are my people? Does anyone see me here? Am I a check mark for them? Are people patting themselves on the back because now they have one in their school, in their classroom, whatever. And so a similar thing can happen with some of these firsts, obviously. Again, like I said in the last answer, it is a good thing to be visible as a Black person holding this position. That's fantastic. I'm very proud to do that. But I don't want anyone to confuse that with now we're done. The work is just beginning. Actually, there's a lot more to do. And for me personally, I do feel like it is the case often with these firsts that the first who is allowed to cross the border, this metaphorical border has to be held to such a ridiculously high standard. Yes, and I'm not being boastful at all, but I've been working myself to the literal bone, like, for my whole life to hold myself to an unreasonably high standard, because I know I'm not going to be able to enter any room at average like other people might be able to. That's just not true. Obviously, I'm proud of my accomplishments. I worked hard because I wanted to work hard. But I also understand there's a reason it's me, if I'm put here to be that person, to allow maybe others down the line to not almost kill themselves working, great. I'm glad that I can do that service, but I do want to make sure people understand thinking of someone as exceptional is not a compliment, making it seem like, oh, you are doing well despite your race. That's not good. There's nothing about being Black that has held me back inherently. It's not like my Black brain can't work like other people. It's the society that I'm working against, not my own Blackness. And that's sort of how I think about this whole situation. Not just with me again, just with any first that we've ever studied in school. Those people are always held to a ridiculous standard. And by the same token, those of us who are murdered very publicly are held to an interesting standard as well. When someone is murdered, and I have to say murdered and not killed because it's very important in how we use our language, all of a sudden reports of, oh, they weren't perfect, though. They one time smoked some weed. So that's why they got killed, or they weren't a very nice person. That's why they got killed. They lived in a bad neighborhood. It's ridiculous, truly, that we're still not allowed to just be human beings as Black people. That's really what I'm trying to do with the Reparations book that I just released is just assert that we are human beings, that's it. The sooner we can get to that point, we're not going to have to do all these political gymnastics to justify people's murders or to say, oh, we have our first Black, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, let's be proud of ourselves. If we just understand that Black people are human beings already, maybe we can eliminate some of these problems in the future.
Kat: Wow, it seems like such a big role to step in on so many levels generationally, personally, and then reflecting multiple generations down what the work that you're doing will mean for so many little Black girls, so many people of color. But I think so many Black girls in particular, to have what you're doing and the voice that you're giving to this experience. Not to say that every experience is the same, but the aspects of it that are a collective experience, I'm sure it's going to be really transformative for you and then for the state. Certainly they chose you for a reason. They know your work. They know your voice. So I'm really looking forward to seeing the work that you do in the realm specifically of civil rights, human rights, social justice. Kind of like going back to that idea of ancestry and how the past informs the present, which then informs the future. It's so weird. Someone once said, and I know this was not in the movie Frozen, that the past has never passed.
Kat: And I think that is just such a true statement. In the previous interview, multiple interviews, you've described reciting a poem in class about Harriet Tubman written by Eloise Greenfield. Right?
Kat: And I think it was when you were in the second grade, which is, that's a big deal, as a second grader, because I think you had memorized the poem, like dang, girl, well done. And in an interview, said that you felt a power you hadn't felt before. And I'm wondering if you could describe what that power felt like in your body, and did you feel that transmitting to the people you were reading in front of? Was there something happening there collectively? And then who or what was transmitting that power to you?
Ashley: Okay, I'm going to try to answer each of those questions.
Kat: I'll repeat them, because again, I'm tossing multiple questions at you, which is not fair.
Ashley: No, I mean, this is how the game works. People have been interviewing me and just asked me five questions at the same time. So I'm getting better. Okay. Yeah. That moment is so funny. Honestly, I had forgotten about that moment until a few years ago because there's a poem in my second book about the actual recitation day. And I don't know what it was that made me remember that it happened, but once I remembered it, it all just came flooding back. And I don't think, to answer one of your questions, I don't think anybody in the room but me felt the power. I'm pretty sure the other seven year olds were just, like, nervous about their presentation. Nobody really cared. You know what I’m saying? My teacher, I'm sure she was pleased that I did what I had to do, but I don't know that… I could ask her. She's still in my orbit. I maybe should ask her one day if she remembers. But no, it was definitely just for me, within me, this feeling, and it felt a lot of ways. For one, I'll explain a little bit about who I was at age seven. That's pretty important, I think, to the story, as you may know, I was a very different sort of child. I always joke that I was born an old lady. Like all of my siblings, we're all just little old people always like, weirdly mature for our age. And watching Lawrence Welk unironically. Like, we were literally entertained by the Lawrence Welk Show. If you don't know what that is -
Kat: [laughing] I actually don't. I've been too embarrassed to say it up until now. But now, since it's a theme, that's going to be…
Ashley: That’s because you’re young enough, like I shouldn’t know what it is.
Kat: Well, I'm older than you, so…
Ashley: You’re not old enough to know Lawrence Welk.
Kat: Yeah, I'm definitely not.
Ashley: When you look it up, you're really going to laugh, because it's truly ridiculous that these little Black children were looking forward to the Lawrence Welk Show. It was like a variety show. And I don't even know the years that it ran, but it looked like the 50s and 60s, I guess, all white, like very milk toast, like picture Perry Como, Bing Crosby kind of feeling. And they would do little numbers together, sing little songs, and all very happy. The world is perfect, that kind of thing.
Ashley: And my favorite part was the opening. Like, when they put the title screen up, there was all these bubbles that came across the name the Laurence Welk Show. And we loved that.
Kat: The simple things in life.
Ashley: Well, yes. I mean, looking back, it's truly ridiculous, the things that we were excited about. But you are who you are.
Kat: It's true. Yeah. You might as well own it.
Ashley: Exactly. So that's the kind of kid I was. Watching Laurence Welk and reading all these books and just living in my own world of imagination. And I was in the self-contained gifted class from second grade to fifth grade, which is a really interesting program. I don't know if you've heard of this before, but I think they don't do it anymore. And for very good reason. Actually, it does, I think, a lot of damage to a student on either side because they had what was called the typical classes, the non-gifted, which already you're setting up a weird hierarchy. And then the gifted students who were self-contained. We had a small class of about ten students, and we got to do the interesting stuff, right. We would go on trips and we'd get to read more exciting books than maybe the other children because we were advanced, quote unquote. But for me, little empath Ashley, I was just like constantly wishing I could have friends in the other classes because in the gifted class, there was this sort of competitiveness that I really was not into. I mean, I'm a Leo, but I'm a very different sort of Leo. It's not that I don't like competition.
Kat: We'll ask your siblings later. We'll be interviewing them, and –
Ashley: They would probably be really nice. But also, I'm sure they'd have a take on my competitive nature, right?
Kat: Every sibling does.
Ashley: Yeah. Wow. Anyway, so it wasn't really conducive to who I was at the time to be so worried about my grades. And I think I really learned a lot of bad habits about equating my worth with my grades because we all want to make the highest grade possible. And I remember if you made a 90, it was like, shameful, almost.
Ashley: Not from the teacher necessarily, but just the other kids. They were like, oh, well, I'm in 98. And I'm like, wow, I must be stupid. I'm in a gifted class. I got to stay here. And I remember, too. We would get math assignments that were not what the other kids were learning. And I would take it home to my dad and be like, dad, do you know what this is? Because I don't know how to do this. They didn't tell us. We're supposed to know because we're gifted. At least that's my memory of it. I'm sure if you interviewed other people, they might have another thing to say, but that's how it felt for me. And on top of all of that, I had enlarged tonsils and adenoids. So I was always congested. I had a voice that I did not like because it was just all sick sounding. And I would always look at the other kids, especially the other little girls, who could breathe through their noses. And I thought, oh, they're so pretty. They can just breathe. I'm like, over here heaving. It was terrible. So I had a lot was going on in my mind, and on top of that, I had this proper way of speaking. I couldn't do the amazing, cool way of speaking that I heard my family, like, my aunts, uncles, grandma, mom, and dad, like, they all had amazing, like, the jazz that Black people can bring to a thing. Oh, yes, they had that. The way they even laughed. It was just, like, so free. And I was just very like, oh, my gosh, very structured. Which that's another conversation perhaps. But anyway, all this was in my mind, and I got this book from the library, Honey I Love. And I didn't really read poetry that much back then. Actually, it was mostly fiction books. I was obsessed at that time with the book Harriet the Spy, because I had a little spy Journal that I carried around just like her. And I would spy on my family, which is super creepy, I know. But anyway, for whatever reason, was reading Honey I Love. And it was just, like, thrilling to see Black characters and they weren't in pain. That's the other thing. I had been very afraid of Black history because my parents had us to watch Roots, which I appreciate. Like, now as an older person, I'm like, okay, good. We learned about it, blah, blah, blah. But at the time, I was, like, so scared.
Kat: There was a poem about it in Magic City Gospel. I think you wrote that you were three years old. I've watched Roots. It's really intense.
Ashley: It's extremely intense. And I definitely thought that it was possible to be put into slavery. And that's no shade to my parents at all. They explained all they could. But as a kid, you just can't comprehend. As an adult, you can't comprehend it either. No, but certainly as a child, it doesn't make any sense.
Kat: Well, time also is sort of this hazy concept for a child.
Ashley: It is. Roots wasn't made in slavery times. It's like with these people, Lavar Burton is on Reading Rainbow right now. I love that guy right there. If he is there, then…
Kat: Yeah, if the guy from Reading Rainbow can be enslaved, any of us can.
Ashley: Any of us. Yeah. So I had stopped reading Black books. That was my thing as a kid. Our parents made sure we were always surrounded by Blackness in every single way, which, again, going back to how did we get blessed with these parents? I don't know what I did in the past life to award me these parents, but I took a left from Black history because I was so scared of it. So reading this book where there was none of that, and I saw the Black people smiling in the book. They just were alive. It was amazing. And I felt like, oh, man, yeah, this is great. I'm Black, just like these people. And so I memorized the poem, “Harriet Tubman.” And I remember the day that it was time to recite. My mom came to the school, which was, like, amazing, because you feel protected, because your mom… none of the scary elementary school things can happen to you because there's your mom. And so she dressed me up as Harry Tubman in a white dress. Who knows how to dress like Harry Tubman, truly. But that's what we did. And I got in front of the class and I was ready to go because, of course, I've been practicing over and over again. My mom made sure, she still makes sure we know what we're doing all the time. And I remember standing up there and I began to recite the poem. It began: “Harriet Tubman didn't take no stuff, wasn't scared of nothing neither. Didn't come in this world to be no slave and wasn't going to stay one either.” And it goes on a little bit. But I remember saying the words and just feeling like, oh, yeah, I don't fully realize. I didn't have those words as a seven year old, but I just felt, like, not self conscious. I didn't scrutinize my voice. I didn't feel awkward saying, didn't take no stuff because I was very proper English kind of little girl. But I just felt, like, free in a way. And for me, it just was a clear like, okay, cool. This is what I want to do now. I've done my little stories, but now it's time for the real stuff. I'm going to write like this. And I did write about race as a young person. Somebody just asked me the other day, when did you start? I started as soon as I started writing poems. I was concerned with that as a young person because that poem, that book, was the one that turned me on to it. So I didn't see it as like a problem to write about race at all. And I just felt more empowered, I guess. Harriet Tubman was definitely speaking to me through that poem. She was leading me out of something, maybe not literal slavery, but she definitely helped me get away from whatever mental trap I have set for myself. And then Eloise Greenfield, of course, I hope that she knew what she did for black children with all of her books just to give us something to read that had our faces in it, something that had joy in it. It's vital for us to learn about our history. It is vital, but it's also vital for us to understand that we can be joyful as well for us to know that we're humans as well, because it does get to a point sometimes when you're in school and all you want about Black people is that they may be invented some stuff, and they were enslaved for forever, and everybody hated them. That's all you get. You don't get: and here is the long history of how Black hairstyles have traveled from Africa. Here are the songs that they sang, and here's what they meant. Here is the great history of the literature. You don't get that. You just don't. And so, yeah, those people were speaking to me for sure. And I think I was also speaking to me. Interestingly enough, I think I finally heard myself for the first time. And that's not to say that it was all like, boom, now I'm totally fixed, but it was the beginning of a journey for me. I think hopefully that answers.
Kat: Oh, that was such a beautiful answer. There's so many things I want to follow up on. I'm so glad you brought up Black joy, because one of the things that we've been really wrestling with is we're putting together a Junior Ranger book, which I mentioned to you. And the Junior Ranger book is typically marketed towards young people under 17, but we joke that ours is for kids from three to 93. And obviously, we want to recount the history and not shy away from the harder details. But how do you represent the resiliency and the entrepreneurship and creativity that happened despite that situation, which I think is such a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit, but certainly the creativity of Black culture and all the innovations that have been brought to the United States to the Americas, really, through Black culture. And so we're wrestling with that and wanting to find a balance with it. It's been hard. Yeah.
Ashley: I mean, I do think it has to do with kind of goes back to language. For me, when you think about Black history, there's a feeling that you feel when you hear that phrase. Right. Like you expect a certain sort of thing, you expect some tears, you expect some sad thing to have happened. And I think for me, what I've been thinking about as an educator, too is framing the history not as this thing that happened to Black people as their history, but that the people who did the things, that's their history as well. If we frame it as this is the story of America, here is what these people did to others. It sort of changes it a little bit. It takes some pressure off of the Black kids who are learning it, for one, to not feel like I have to carry now the hurt that was put upon me, because it does feel that way. I think every Black person of a certain age, my age, I feel like I'm talking like I'm old, but most of us.
Kat: Right. A little kid will look at you and be like, you're 45. They have no concept of age. Yeah. I think that that's a really great point. And to me, it's like the difference between passive and active voice.
Kat: It's like this was done to Black people, and it's like, no white supremacy did this.
Ashley: Actively. It wasn’t that it just fell into their hands, like, oh, here we have these Klan robes. What are we going to do with them?
Ashley: They went out of their way to make it. They did that to others and to themselves. Honestly. We also need to start including how white supremacy hurts white people as well.
Ashley: Because that's always left off for some reason. And I guess if you go through, I'm not white. So tell me your experience, I guess. But if you go through life believing that this thing has only hurt others and you're somehow safe from it, what does that do to your mind? There's no way for you to understand how to interact or have empathy or whatever.
Kat: Yeah, absolutely. Well, when I think about the benefits of civil rights and the benefactors of civil rights, a lot of researchers say it's been predominantly white women that have benefited from the legislative advances that were pursued on behalf, in large part because of the African American community. And then you look at the differently abled community as well and all the legislation that was passed to support them. There are so many individuals worldwide who have benefited because of the efforts of the African American community. So.
Ashley: Yeah, absolutely.
Kat: You should look up what female Rangers used to wear because there was like a white gogo boot, like short miniskirt situation.
Ashley: Are you kidding? In the park in the park?
Ashley: How are you going to be outside?
Kat: I don't know. I don't know what they were thinking if, like, maybe a red carpet sort of rolled its way out in front of all the Lady Rangers. But yeah, it's our history.
Ashley: People are so ridiculous.
Kat: Yeah. I'll show you a picture afterwards, but definitely take a look at it. Okay. So let me look through the rest of my questions. Let's pivot to the role of poems, okay? We've talked about human and civil rights, and we've talked about what that means in terms of you holding this position as the first person of color to be the poet laureate of Alabama. But I want to talk about the power of a poem in itself, not the role that you're playing right now, but, like, the poetry that you write and its impact in the world. What have you seen as the power of a poem in terms of achieving human and civil rights?
Ashley: I've seen it in so many ways, and I'm really looking forward to seeing all the other ways as I continue living, because poetry is something I think that's so multifaceted. Like, it's definitely not just some words on the page. The poem is also the spirit who wrote it, the person who's listening, the person who it's about, it's everybody. And I've seen it change me. As I explained earlier, that poem, those words in a book. I did not hear someone say it. I did not watch it on a movie. I read it, and it did something within me. I see it in my students as well, of all ages, not just my young ones. They feel, I guess powerful is another word to use. They feel like their voice is meaningful because they see it there on the page. And then as the teacher, I can say, this is a voice. It's yours. It's worthy of being here. But a story that I like to tell that I think illustrates the changing power of poetry in a very tangible way. I am a part of a lot of different things, we know. But I'm a part of a group, a trio of organizers. It's myself, Alina Stefanescu and Laura Secord, and we're all poets, and we actually all are on the board of my nonprofit, the Magic City Poetry Festival. But before the poetry festival existed, we were just planning events throughout the city, kind of unattached to our organization. And this particular event that we've been doing for the past few years is called 100,000 Poets for Change. And it's a worldwide event where people from all over the world converge on the last Saturday of September. And events are planned and everybody's, town or city or wherever. And those events are centered around socially conscious poetry in Birmingham. For the past few years, we've added a fundraising arm to our efforts. So we not only do the readings, but we try to raise money for a local organization each year. So we've done this for a few years, and we've worked with several organizations throughout our time. But one particular year, I think it was 2018. What is time, honestly? But I think it was 2018. People can Google this once I say all the names of the organizations. It's easy to find. But we partnered up with Shut Down Etowa, which is a nonprofit working to assist those who are detained in Etowa County Detention Center, which is one of the worst in the nation, specifically for immigrant detention. And so we partnered up with them to raise money during our event. And we also partnered with Glass Poetry Press. And we did a commemorative issue where we published local writers and their socially conscious work. So during this particular year, we had two events. We usually just had one, but we had two this year to feature all these writers. And the events were just poetry readings. We asked for donations, as we did every single year. And usually you raise like maybe $500, which in nonprofit land is both big and small, as you know.
Ashley: But it's the best we can do. We just do whatever we can, whatever can help. That's all we want to do. So we set our little goal, maybe raise $500 again, like we always do. And at one of the events, we learned that if we raised $1,000, then that money could be matched by the group and it could be used to actually free somebody from detention. And we were like, okay, well, let's try. We don't know if we're going to make it, but we'll try. So we have our two events, and they're just readings. People are reading their poems. One of the representatives from the organization started reading letters from those who were inside as well. And through our purely just reading things, like, I can't emphasize this enough. We were not doing anything but literally reading poems, letters, whatever. We raised over $1,000, I think around $1,500. So we were able to give that money, which I mean, I don't think we were able to know specifics because legal things. But to know that that money could then be used to literally free a human being. Money raised just by people listening to poems, listening to words written. We are not politicians. We're not salespeople. We're just regular old poets reading poetry. That's it. And like I said, I already knew that poetry was powerful. I knew it. I mean, just looking at the history of our work and of my people, we have used art. The way that we create art is just unlike any other. I mean, my goodness, to survive. Even if you think about the songs that were sung by slaves, enslaved people, language is important. Using the art to literally save people or to give them guidance or whatever. This story is something that I think modern people can understand. Like, we were able to go from nothing, we had nothing to start out with, to let's free somebody with this money that we've raised. And even last year, during the I don't know what we're calling it, the political unrest. People have some PC term for what was happening, but you know what? It was people being angry because we watched a man get murdered before our eyes. During that time, my organization did poems for bail money, and a lot of people were doing it across the country. But in Birmingham, we had just like other people, it set up where if you donated to a bail fund or we broadened it to any liberation focused organization. So that included donating to places that helped unhoused people, places that provided food, etc. And all the places that are doing the work, ACLU, whatever, and the exchange. If you send them your receipt, you got a personalized poem by a team of poets we had assembled and they would write a poem just for you. And we raised gosh, I don't remember how much, but it was like, I want to say $2,000 something for all those different organizations, which again, is like tangible, usable money. One of the organizations that we fundraise for is called Be a Blessing Birmingham, and they work specifically with the unhoused community. And they were able to finally purchase an outdoor mobile shower unit for our unhoused neighbors, which is incredible. I mean, again, I'm rambling, but the point is, poems really can do so much because it's not just words, literature, whatever. It's the actual spirit. Sometimes people really make it too academic for me. Like, yes, I've studied it. I have all the degrees. That's great. But it's really a soul thing for me as an artist. Yes, I'm really excited to write a sonnet rhyme and blah, blah, blah. That's all fun. It's great. I love it. But I'm more excited to have that conversation with my own soul, with somebody else's soul. That's what I'm really doing it for, because it's not given to me by the God of Words. It's given to me, at least in my mind, by a God who is concerned with our hearts and our souls. So of course the work is doing that, too. But that's what a poem can do. Long answer. I'm sorry.
Kat: No, please don't apologize. That was beautiful. I was not aware of these aspects of your work and definitely want to hear more. And certainly the closure of a lot of public restroom facilities or just facilities in general is tied to the struggle towards civil rights with desegregation happening, and many cities in the south just closing down facilities rather than desegregating. So the issues that a lot of the unhomed are facing right now are in many ways related to the civil rights movement of the 60s and before and beyond. So, yeah, it's beautiful to hear how you've been able to make such a tangible difference. And I'm sure that of course informed your selection as the poet laureate, and I imagine we'll also inform a lot of your work in the rest of your life. So thank you for the gift of your service.
Ashley: Well, thank you. I'm glad to serve. Truly.
Kat: Well, I have a closing question, I think. Yeah. Thank you for being on this journey with me as I learned how to interview folks.
Ashley: You're doing great.
Kat: Thank you. I appreciate it. So before I ask my closing question, is there anything else that you wanted to mention before I ask about or ask you to read a poem from your book, Magic City Gospel?
Ashley: I don't know. People always ask you, what else do you want to say? I don't know what to say about myself. My goodness.
Kat: Yeah, I know. Okay, we'll move on. There was a question that is sort of a question I wanted to ask. We'll ask it after this.
Kat: And if we want to cut it, we can. You don't have to answer it.
Kat: So as closing thoughts, one of the things I found, one of the many things I found so lovely about your book, Magic City Gospel, and I look forward to reading your other ones. This one was available at the Birmingham Public Library quickly, so that's the one I read. One of the things I love is that you weave together poems that touch on beauty, love and hope alongside poems that unflinchingly assess the legacy of racism here in Birmingham. And you named it Magic City Gospel, which is for those of you who are not in Birmingham, that is a nickname for Birmingham. I wonder if we could close with you sharing what or who gives you hope in Birmingham? And then a reading of “God Speaks to Alabama,” which is on page 20.
Ashley: Oh, I haven't read that in a long time. Okay. I saw it in the questions, but even then when I read it, I was like, wow, what a deep cut. Yeah. What gives me hope, right?
Kat: Yeah. What gives you hope here in Birmingham? Or who? What a question.
Ashley: Well, okay, so honestly, what gives me hope is the community that I'm a part of or the various communities I'm a part of. The poets who are here really make me excited to be here, makes me excited to continue investing time and other things in the city. But also, I hate to be a cliche. And the older I get, it's like, we can't avoid being a cliche no matter what you do, whatever. But it's the children. As they say, children are our future, but they really are. I am so grateful to be a teacher, honestly. I mean, I definitely would not be a good writer if I was not a teacher. There's only so much the book learning can do. You got to be around youthful energy and really humble yourself as a teacher. If you're not humbling yourself, I don't think you're really teaching you really have to understand that the students are teaching you as well. They're showing you new ways. But, yeah, I'm just really hopeful seeing how excited they still are about writing. The world would want us to think that nobody is paying attention to books anymore, that we're all just on the Internet, we're all TikToking all day long, and that we need to stop teaching history, et cetera, et cetera. But seeing them engage, I mean, literally yesterday, oh, my goodness, yesterday. But I wish you'd been there, truly. So we had our competition for Poetry Out Loud, which is a national poetry competition. And so we had our school competition, which is like the first stage in a lot of different stages, anyway. So our students competed against each other to win a spot to go to the regionals. So every year it's really fun to see them do this because it's a little bit different than their typical performances, because we don't teach spoken word necessarily, not yet, anyway. Working on it, we teach more traditional, which I hate the distinctions. Everything is everything, truly. But you know how it is. So they're more used to reading from behind a podium, and some of them don't emote as much, whatever. So during Poetry Out Loud, the whole goal is for you to be emotive and just more animated than you may normally be. And they've also introduced a new category called the social justice category, which I think is just amazing that they did that. They did it last year. They started it last year in Alabama, maybe all over the country. I have to double check. But they started last year to respond to, I guess, the growing number of students who were writing original poems about social justice and in an effort to… D.I. is everywhere. So everybody's trying to do their diversity inclusion branch. So this was theirs. You know how it goes, right? But it's good. I'm glad that the students have that ability to win prizes for writing about issues. So yesterday, this is answering the question. I'm getting there. Yesterday we had our competition, and I was expecting it to be good, like it always is. It's good to see the kids doing their thing, and they love seeing each other perform. It's a very supportive Department that we have. And we had, like, guests. Our judges were from other parts of the school, which is always fun to have somebody else see what we do every day. So they get up and every single student is like, I don't even know where this came from. And I know that they're talented. I work with them. I know it. But something about these poems this year, people were just on it. The poems that they shared, I mean, just beyond. One young man wrote about how difficult it is to be a biracial person and to have, I'm misquoting this poem, I'm sorry, but one of the lines was like, how does it feel to have both the blood of the master and the blood of the slave in the same body? And I was like, well, okay, then let me get back to writing, because it's amazing. It was truly amazing. And to see how proud they were to share their work and to see us be proud of them sharing their work, that's the thing that gives me the most hope for humanity, truly, that these young people have a chance still to not become jaded, to not become soured in some way, that they can still see a way through that they feel empowered to speak their truth. I have to keep doing what I'm doing, if only to make sure that there is a path laid out for them, just like everyone did for me. They did it for me. I have to do it for them. They'll do it for someone else. That's the hope. I don't have hope in systems ever, because they are what they are. But in people, I absolutely do. And Birmingham is such a magical place, no pun intended, but it's really somewhere where I think there's so much possibility. And I think we are still struggling to understand what that means in Alabama in general. But in Birmingham specifically, I think we are in a moment where we can decide who we're going to be moving forward. We can look back at the history and understand that we can still be that kind of leader in social justice. We can still be a place people look to and look up to. But coming out of the pandemic and just trying to figure out what it is that we can do as we build the city that will determine what happens in the next 50 years, what kind of a place this will be. But I do think we can be an amazing destination, not just for our amazing national parks, but for other things like the arts and culture that we have here.
Kat: And the barbecue and the barbecue.
Kat: Let's not forget, I will admit this was a question I was going to ask, but I'll just admit this aspect of my past life that I was really fortunate to go to school with someone, with a teacher who was an excellent spoken word teacher. His name is Jeff Kass, and he was all about like, you know, Def Jam poetry. And he created a nonprofit that ended up being where a lot of those activities were housed. And they actually cut records of high schoolers writing their poetry. So I'm just like putting that little, just dropping that in your lap.
Ashley: I do not need anymore.
Kat: I know, I'm not suggesting you do it, but I'm just saying that I could see that being something that happens here because of, was it “The Voice” Porter who passed away recently and just all the work that he did and how much of a role he played in the Birmingham Public Library system and all the spoken word events that he hosted. It seems like there's a really great space for that in Birmingham. I know that was huge for me as a young adult, feeling like there was a space where my voice, my words mattered. And getting in front of a group of people and saying things out loud is such an important skill, especially when it's something that you really feel passionately about. That is the most important skill that I feel that I've ever learned, probably in my life. Besides just being a nice person.
Kat: Besides just general empathy and kindness. So it's so wonderful that you're creating that space for your students and celebrating their success and acknowledging that they have something to teach you because everybody has something to teach others, and that empowers us to know that we can. Great. Well, why don't you read God Speaks to Alabama for us.
Ashley: Sure. I'm really curious why you chose this poem. Actually, nobody ever chooses this poem for me to read.
Kat: Yeah. I guess I was thinking a lot about your appointment as the poet laureate for Alabama. And again, this is the only collection of your work that I've read, and it's so much about place and then thinking about how the education work that we do is so place based. What is Alabama to you? What can Alabama be in the future? What can we hope for our not only our heritage spaces and the role that they play in our communities, but how can we see that reverberating beyond those spaces? Like, how can we see all of it grow and change and improve?
Ashley: I like that. Yeah. This little poem.
Kat: But then afterwards, you could tell me what the poem is all about because maybe I misinterpreted it.
Ashley: No, no, I think you're on the right track. It's just nobody ever really thinks about that about this poem specifically, or this is the way that I am celebrating the space. Usually people are very focused on my historical pieces, which is I mean, I do what I do. That's all well and good. But I also forget about these moments where I'm really focusing on the place and what the place is and what it can be, what it feels like. Yeah. So thank you for reminding me of that.
God Speaks to Alabama.
I molded you from red clay, sweet cornbread, the slow
drip of a lemon squeezed over sugar and ice.
I kissed you to life on the lips, Mama
bird, I am, my tongue feeds you blood.
I have waited in this heat for
you to pucker and say my name.
I give you fire and
blackberries and white, thick cotton.
I give you the honey bee and the yellow hammer.
Find me, swallow me down and whisper me to passers
by as you sit nightly on the creaky front porch.
Kat: Thank you.
Ashley: Thank you. I like that poem. Goodness, I forgot about this poem. Wow.
Kat: Is there anything you'd like to say about it?
Ashley: You know, I think it really exemplifies the beauty that I feel here in Alabama. I wrote this when I was in Miami in grad school and, like, super homesick and just sad. Honestly, I was glad to be there for many reasons. It was a great experience, but I'm very, very close to my family, and I realized how much I really missed just the feeling of this place. And so this poem, all of these were a part of my attempt to get back, even if it was just by writing it down. And I think it was also a part of my realization that I saw just so much good in the actual place of Alabama. Excuse me. As you know, Miami does not look like Alabama in any shape or form.
Kat: I've actually lived there, so I do.
Ashley: Oh, bless you.
Kat: I've survived the traffic.
Ashley: Look, that's a whole other conversation.
Kat: It is.
Ashley: I don't know how either of us are standing.
Kat: No, it's a blessing.
Ashley: Oh, my gosh. But yeah, just thinking back to, like, there's a certain way. And I know you haven't been here long, but I think you may have already started to understand there's a way that the landscape is telling you a story. There's a sweetness sometimes in the air, like right when the sun is going down and you see just the trees and the way that the sky looks. And it's just beautiful, at least for me, when I see - I'm looking at an office, but I'm imagining the landscape when I see the beauty of the state of Alabama in all the big and small ways, even down to the way the pebbles might look, or the red dirt near my grandma's house, or the clouds on a particular day, or the way the rain falls on the crops in the backyard that my dad has planted, the way the leaves fall, the way the birds chirp, all of these things I can't help but recognize, oh, there is something greater than us. It has made this beauty for us. For me, that thing is God. And I can even see it here in Alabama, which is supposed to be such a scary place. And I mean, the whole country truly is a scary place for many of us. But there is at least still that. And it does go back to my parents because they raised us in such a way that we knew we could actually see God in a much more expansive way than traditionally seen. We can see God in the grass. That's also God. We can see God in a line in our palm. That's God, too. We can see God in books, in an evening spent around a little television watching Laurence Welk. It's everywhere. They're everywhere. God is everywhere. Gender is weird for me with God, because how can I? I don't know.
Kat: Yes. It's hard to ask God their preferred pronouns
Ashley: You can't so I just stick to God. That's good enough for me. But yeah, that's what it brings up for me. Just this moment I must have had I can't remember exactly where I was when I wrote it, but I do remember the feeling of trying to see Alabama again through the poem. So hopefully that happens to the listeners. They can feel just hugged by that image of God in Alabama.
Kat: Well, thank you for sharing that and thank you for that last image of beauty and sense of place and hope. It has truly been a joy to speak with you and I'm so excited for all that you've done, all that you will do not just in this appointment as poet laureate, but in your life work and we look forward to seeing how we might collaborate on some poetry related events as they touch on civil rights and human rights. So thank you again, so much.
Ashley: Thank you. This has been great.
Conclusion: This is We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Thanks to the Psalters for use of their song Turn me Round. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our series. Until next time. [music: keep on walking, keep on talking, marching on to freedom land].
Episode 4: But for Birmingham
Tune in as we interview Dr. Glenn Eskew, author of the book But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle.
Ranger: Welcome to We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Close your eyes and imagine a National Park. Are you picturing waterfalls and mountains, or do you think of Dr. King's childhood home, Japanese internment camps, or a school that became a battleground for racial integration? National Parks aren't just wilderness. They are spaces of remembrance founded to preserve the stories of who we are and how we came to be. National parks inspire us to do better, be better. To climb mountains both physical and figurative. Join park rangers, researchers, authors and activists as we discuss what liberty and justice for all means on our public lands. The following episode features an interview with Dr. Glenn Eskew, author of the book, But for Birmingham. The first 30 minutes are detailed synopsis of the book. If you haven't read it, this is a great opportunity for a deep dive. If you have read it or just want to listen to the author interview, skip to minute 30.
Ranger Kat: So I'm so thrilled to be speaking with you about your book, But for Birmingham: the Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. And I have to say just a couple of days ago, an uncle of mine teaches African American history at a college in Michigan, and he and his wife sent us a bunch of books about African American history in the region. And one of the books he sent us was your book wonderful?
Dr. Eskew: Wonderful!
Ranger Kat: Yeah. And I haven't spoken to him about it yet, but I can't wait to message him and say, guess who I spoke to today? Your book has traveled far and wide and is one of the books that really, I think, does an incredible job of explaining the movement in Birmingham, a really overall incredible, incredible summary, but also really gets into the details. And I've had the good fortune of reading it. But I'm wondering for those who haven't read it, if you could give us a couple of minutes of a synopsis of the book?
Dr. Eskew: Sure. And what I would do and sketching out the story is begin by setting the stage of looking at Birmingham. Most people are aware that it's a city rooted in industry, that was founded after the Civil War. So it has no Antebellum past, no official history with quote the enslavement of people, and was rather born of the brash New South, with foreign capital coming in to invest and extract the mineral wealth from the region. And that aspect of that, that story is accurate up through really the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s. And so it helps to frame the story within the context of the iron and steel industry. Because the iron and steel industry, while it was not premised in enslavement, it used a racially divisive bifurcated wage to exploit labor for the benefit of the industrialists. White people ended up earning about twice as much as Black people. That goes back to after the war, all the way up to the civil rights era. And so if you begin to comprehend that the story is rooted in economic exploitation that used race to divide people and to take advantage of them economically, then you can see how folks got so vested in maintaining segregation. White people who saw it is their only way to get an advantage, and African Americans as the barrier that's keeping them from gaining access. And it's within that framework that we find the civil rights struggle itself. Now the movement comes about in the post-World War II era. It's led by, the modern civil rights movement is led by ministers, people in churches who are, by virtue of that, independent of white authorities and white business owners. So they're able to speak with that kind of independent voice. And these Church leaders were articulating the goals and aspirations of their members, members who wanted in the post-World War II period to gain access to the system, to get the better things in America that were being mass produced, now that the country had defeated the Nazis and Japan and created American hegemony. And to get that, they recognize the need for education, the need to get into schools that were adequately supported. And the civil rights movement then clearly reflects this expression of desire to gain access to the system across the board, both economically and politically and socially, all lumped into the notion of integration. In Birmingham, that movement, which was really kind of a new reflection, was symbolized by the work of the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, a group formed in 1956 that brought together the activist members of the city's NAACP chapter that had really been kind of moribund. Shuttlesworth, when he moved to the city, he was a native of the city, well, he had grown up in Birmingham, he had left, but came back after the Second World War when he was brought in as pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville, which was a prominent Black church in Birmingham. And as pastor of that congregation, he became active in the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as its membership chairman, working to recruit people into the organization. But the state of Alabama in 1956 hands down a ruling trying to get the membership records of the NAACP. And in the process, the organization decided to close its doors in Alabama rather than identify the people who were in it, knowing that they would be the targets then of white supremist violence. And so when the NAACP got outlawed, Shuttlesworth decided to create a new group. Well, in many ways, there had already been pushing within the NAACP to reflect this kind of activism. But Shuttlesworth was particularly charismatic man, and he believed that God was helping him fight segregation and that he was, in a sense, especially after he survived the bombing of the Church, Bethel Baptist and the Parsonage on Christmas night of 1956, believed that God had saved him to fight against segregation. Now, he had attended Alabama State University in Montgomery. He was friends with Ralph David Abernathy. Abernathy is a key pastor involved with the Montgomery bus boycott. He's the one who encouraged his friend at that point, Martin Luther King, Jr. to get involved in the bus boycott. King, of course, gets selected to lead the MIA. And Shuttlesworth was actually in Montgomery witnessing all of this taking place in 1955 when the organization is formed. Consequently, he takes that idea with him up to Birmingham in 1956. And it's through his Alabama Christian Movement that we see the nascent civil rights movement in the city accomplish its successes, challenging segregation at the railroad depot, challenging Birmingham Terminal station it was called, challenging segregation with the effort to desegregate the public schools, this occurring during the height of the Little Rock crisis in 1957. When the bus boycott decision is handed down the year before in Montgomery, in December of 56, Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement announced they're going to ride the buses in Birmingham in a desegregated fashion because the courts have ruled that legal, and it's on that night that the Klan bombs the Church and Parsonage and nearly killed Shuttlesworth. He really reflected that desire for change, and as a charismatic leader, was willing to risk his life to achieve those goals of gaining equal access to the American system, ending segregation and achieving first class citizenship, as it was called. The movement, though, kind of runs along. Because of its emergence in 1957, Bull Connor, who had been the city Commissioner since the 1930s and had gained a reputation for at first preventing biracial unionism and then resisting desegregation, had been able to come back into political power just barely by something like 110 votes. He beat the incumbent who had replaced him in office and Connor returned to power as the Commissioner of Public Safety basically vowing to defeat Shuttlesworth in the Alabama Christian movement. The larger, one of the larger arguments in the book is to contrast this local struggle with the national movement. Now, when I started the research back in the 1980s, there was a general assumption about the Birmingham story that Dr. King had come to Birmingham, created a movement, and had a strategy that played out as he envisioned, forcing the hand of the federal government to then declare desegregation. And that general narrative, written by journalists and by some of the early scholars, never really looked at what happened on the local level, downplayed the significance of Reverend Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement and really kind of misinterpreted the story, seeing civil rights as an external thing that came into communities, a national movement brought into local protests. In that sense, it played into the old arguments of the white supremists who tried to dismiss the civil rights struggle as one of outside agitators. But the reality was, of course, that no, there had been a local movement, this local movement demanding change had existed before Montgomery and had really come about in tandem with the effort there with the bus boycott, so that there were a series of these local movements that came together to create what will be called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference SCLC and select Dr. King to lead it. And that effort by Dr. King was to coordinate these local protest groups. Now there had already been a national movement in what you would call the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It had existed since 1910 and had focused on voting rights and other kinds of reform, pushing legislation with the federal government. And it had chapters in Birmingham and elsewhere, that’s what the state had outlawed. But those were really tightly controlled by the external organization in New York, and they largely worked within the framework of segregation. They kind of compromised with a larger segregated social structure to accommodate the interests of the Black elite that ran the organization. What Shuttlesworth does is challenge that and the Black elite in Birmingham, what was called at the time the Negro leadership class. The traditional Negro leadership class didn't control Shuttlesworth or these ministers of these congregations of these Black working class people who were demanding a more activist approach. That's the organization, the Alabama Christian Movement, that invites King and the SCLC to come to Birmingham in the spring of 1963. They created the great event we know of as the Birmingham Demonstrations, where Bull Connor brings out the police dogs at first and tries to use violence to suppress the demonstrations, ultimately turning to fire hoses to blast the youth who get involved in the demonstrations and tip the scale in the end to achieve the victory won in the streets of Birmingham. And that larger story that we know of also points to something fundamental that I argue in the book. And just quite simply, that is, the old iron and steel industry was in decline. The political economy of the south has been changing since the 1930s and 40s. The Great Depression and the Second World War: those 2 global events had brought about the end to the industrial paternalism that was the basis of the bifurcated race wage, the segregated system. And once that industrial economy began to collapse, that segregated social structure no longer made sense. And the bifurcated race wage that justified paying white people a little more than Black was increasingly impractical. What was replacing it was a potentially new economy, one rooted in the service sector that saw racism as a kind of irrationality on capitalism, and as a result, was willing to sacrifice segregation for the benefit of a larger, integrated economy. There was more to be gained. “Money is green,” as A.G. Gaston, the Black millionaire in Birmingham, liked to say. And there were representatives of that new political economy, recognizing what was going on in Birmingham and seeing how a defensive racism was really holding the city down, limiting its evolution and development and mobilized against it. That effort was led by a man named Sidney Smyer, who was the head of the Birmingham Realty Company, real estate being one of the key elements of the service sector, where you rent space for your business or commercial enterprise. And Smyer mobilized likeminded progressives, people, many of whom were inspired by John F. Kennedy in this era of the space age and opportunity. Smyer mobilized them to at first change the form of government to try to get rid of Bull Connor. And this was accomplished by adopting legislation to replace the City Commission with the Mayor Council form of government. Connor challenged that defeat of his election as Mayor by filing a lawsuit against the very change of government that he had just run for Mayor off. But it tied it up in the courts, and it left two governments in charge of Birmingham at the height of the demonstrations. One, the old City Commission, with Connor still in charge of the police and the fire departments, and the other, the new City Government of a Mayor and City Council. They kind of duplicated their actions day after day. And so you see, Birmingham itself was undergoing a very
significant transformation. And then finally, what the book looks at that was distinctive about it, too, is how the Black community was no more monolithic than the white community. White people had long seen the Black community is kind of monolithic, meaning that there weren't really distinctions or divisions within it per se. Rather than seeing the Black community as divided as the white one with an elite Black class kind of dominating institutions, and the Black masses of people working in these menial jobs, and the two not necessarily having the same interest at heart. Such was the case, certainly, with the white community. There was a white elite in Birmingham. There was the white working class in Birmingham, and there was a middle class and a kind of petty bourgeoisie between the working class and the middle class in Birmingham. And they all had different interests in seeing the city function. The white elite, as residents of the city know full well, live in the privately incorporated communities of Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills, and Homewood. And that's where they lived at the time of the civil rights struggle. The white working class was scattered across the entire industrial sector of Birmingham, the Birmingham district it's called. And there was a kind of middle class that if it didn't live over the mountain, it lived in the city proper, but had vested interests in maintaining segregation. That was the electorate of Bull Connor, and he would pull a majority of it. These were people who held their jobs as firemen or policemen or clerks in the city government or staff at a local store because they were white, because they were given that privilege, and so they had a vested interest in maintaining it. Now, looking back, we can see how this all came together in the demonstrations of 1963, and through federal intervention, we get desegregation, which brings about an end to the legal white supremacy that required the separation of Black and white, got rid of justifying the bifurcated race wage that allowed legal payment of white people more than Black people for the same job. That got rid of disenfranchisement, preventing African Americans from voting, and enabled them to gain Black political empowerment. We can see how all that played out. But what we also can see now is that the service economy emerged full blown, that that transformation allowed for things like the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the medical school to expand and become the dominant employer in the city, bringing with it those dynamic jobs in the medical industries that employed people regardless of their race and still exploited labor. But did it through different means. It wasn't simply rooted in race, and that transfer information becomes more clear. And the economy then became in sync with really the national economy that had evolved by the time of the Second World War and was the case across the nation by the Sixties and and Seventies. The protest in Birmingham also brought to a head this clash between local and national interests. And one thing my book argues that some people agree with and others disagree with is the idea that the local movement led by Shuttlesworth did not appear to receive its objectives in the immediate outcome of the demonstration. And then, in fact, as the protests were playing out in May of 1963, it looked as if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC had been able to wrestle out of a snatch victory at the very last moment by convincing the federal government to intervene and therefore achieve desegregation. And Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement had been holding out for a wider transformation of the system. In some ways, that argument is rooted in the notion of the protests, really, in the even in the 1930s, when during the unionization drives the Great Depression, there were calls for what was known as industrial democracy, getting better jobs that paid living wages, economic change in the system with a redistribution of wealth. And yet, as things evolved by the 1950s and 60s, the economic issues have been pushed off the table, and reform has really kind of centered on the idea of civil rights, meaning an end to discrimination in the public sphere. Getting rid of the white and colored signs, having a seat at the lunch counter. But as Ella Baker would note, you know, if you don't have the money to buy the hamburger, it doesn't do you a lot of good to get the seat, right? And so Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement had been pushing for getting African Americans hired as policemen, getting them hired as clerks in the local stores, gaining economic change in addition to removing the signs. But it appeared in ‘63 that King was able to end the demonstrations with the promise that something was going to change. And so that feeling of shortcoming became very real. And the book’s epilogue points to this shortcoming in its persistence. And this is what we're hearing today. It's all about the failure of the movement to have addressed the fundamental issue of economic inequality. To be fair to the Movement, that wasn't always part of the effort. The local and national movements struggled because the national movement claimed the victory of change and left Birmingham, King did, and as it happens, he kind of left in charge people like AG Gaston or Lucius Pitts at Miles and certainly Arthur Shores, members of the Black elite and kind of left Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement out of that leadership, Black leadership that was working with the white one. And we'll see Attorney Shores then become the first African American on the city Council. And we see the Black elite having been able to work within the desegregated framework that emerges of political leadership in the city that's in the 19, latter Sixties and Seventies. But the issue of economic reforms became more ambiguous. And the epilogue of the book kind of points to that. When the logic of how the civil rights movement occurs, removing the signs, gaining equal access, desegregating the space, plays out at Shoal Creek, an exclusive white country club south of the city that not only didn't let black folk in, didn't let Jewish people in, wouldn't let you were me in or anybody else who's just white and happens to maybe you're a nice guy, but if you're not a millionaire, you can't join my club. Right. And the logic for the movement was, well, until you let some African American in and treat them as equal, then your not, of course, it's not an equal set up. It's a class thing. And it really pointed to instead, we have gross inequality in this nation. It persists. It existed back then, and the movement didn't really mobilize to tackle it like it might have. There had been an effort in the 1930s, but it had failed. Nevertheless, the changes that occurred in Birmingham in 1963 were of not only national significance but global significance, because those demonstrations, those nonviolent protests that kept going because of a handful of people committed for weeks and ultimately tipping the scale with the thousands of people who filled the streets and filled the jails. That transformation did bring about the end legal white supremacy in the nation through the implementation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that required desegregation of public space, the right to sit at a lunch counter or a restaurant, assuming you have the money, the right to vote and participate in the political system, of the right to go to the school that you want to go to. That change happened. And it happened because of Birmingham.
Ranger Kat: Thank you. And you brought up a lot of things that hopefully will have time to discuss later. But before we go into some of the details of the book, I want to ask you a personal question. I did some Googling and looked into you as a person. And I know you've been working and living in Georgia for a number of years as a College Professor and researcher and author, of course. And I'm curious if you're from the south, and just in general, what spurred this deep interest in looking so in depth at the story in Birmingham?
Dr. Eskew: Sure. Yes. I'm a native Southerner, although I was born in 1960, so these events happened when I was in diapers, and I was not aware of any of it when it was taking place. But I became fascinated with the idea of Southern history and the transformation of it. And so I wanted to explore that story. And my approach was to find somewhere that would allow me to consider how the south went from being the region of agricultural production of cotton, the old plantation, labored on by the enslaved. How did that change into the dynamic south that we saw in the 80s when I was in graduate school in a place like Atlanta, o,r as my major professor encouraged me, to look at Birmingham, and so I did. And looking at Birmingham was able to not only explore that transformation, because in many ways, Sloss furnaces, the Alice furnaces, and the housing near it on the south side, those were industrial plantations. This is not that different from what you would find in Dallas County, outside Selma or anywhere else in the Deep South. And indeed, the culture of industrial paternalism that developed in Birmingham was very similar to the culture of the plantation itself. And so finding that and then seeing how it was completely transformed by the 1980s was the challenge for me. And Atlanta offered a great contrast with Birmingham, because Birmingham was a company town and the big horse, not the only horse, but it was the main horse in town, was the United States Steel Corporation, locally, the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company. And as a result of that, it controlled town like any small Southern County seat that has a textile mill in it. The mill would control town. Here we find the industry being controlled by this entity, and it was externally owned. It was owned by shareholders in New York and in Pennsylvania and around the world. And that undue influence of external forces, this outside control, created its own dynamic of inferiority among the white elite in Birmingham who, you know, they didn't really control their destiny. They were trapped within it. Unlike in Atlanta, where Atlanta, you had this interesting mix. It had manufacturing. It also had service. It had transportation, and those elements were all in kind of balance. And so there wasn't a single economic structure or entity or industry or political economy that dominated Atlanta. The diversity allowed for a greater influence of local people and Atlanta had the good fortune of indigenous capital, that is, money generated in the region that was put in local banks and control by local people that could then benefit the local community. Unlike Birmingham, where the money was really externally brought in and then taken right back out with interest through profits.
Ranger Kat: I want to ask you a question about money and the role that money plays in racism. One of the things that I found incredibly well researched in your book was the economic disadvantage that's woven into racism. And you mentioned just a moment ago, it's one thing to take down signs that delineate where African Americans can go and where white people can go. It's another to be able to access a system that is financially just out of your league. You mentioned the quote by Ella Baker, and you know how she said, there's no use at gaining a seat at the table if you don't have any money to buy anything at the restaurant, which I think is an excellent quote. And you also mentioned, too, how obvious that disparity was if you look back at what salaries were like. And in your book, for example, in 1950, the average annual salary for a white man was $2274, and the average for a black man was $1,087. These are annual salaries. I'm wondering, why is it important to remind people that racism isn't about signs? It's not about name calling. It's about economic disenfranchisement. Why is that important? And why is that often not discussed?
Dr. Eskew: Oh, that's an excellent question and a hard one. And I'll begin by also emphasizing Ella Baker observation that it's bigger than a hamburger. Right? So it's more than just economic. These gains in the sense that civil rights reform and an end to racial discrimination, of course, has all kinds of implication for reflection of self-worth and value and just the whole notion of equality among people and freedom. True freedom. So I don't want to sound like it's simply a matter of economic issues or that it's simply a matter of spatial issues, of gaining actual space to something like being able to sit at the lunch counter. However, the reality is that political economies often use divisions for purposes of exploitation. One of the maximum principles of capitalism is you reduce cost and you can increase profits. And one of the easiest ways to reduce cost is to lower wages. And this could be, in the case we're looking at with the struggle in Birmingham it's over race, but it's also seen in gender, with gender discrimination in employment. We're still trying to get the Equal Rights Amendment past to pay women the same wage as men. And as we've seen in this pandemic, the gross inequalities in wages that women earn and the terrible situation in which they find themselves so vulnerable because of the pandemic as a result of the employment opportunities that they confront. So it could be written from the perspective of these industrialists, places like Pittsburgh were rife with ethnic discrimination. And you had had some of that in Birmingham with Italians who had been brought in to work in the iron and steel industry in the Birmingham district being discriminated kind of in between Asians, same way, in between Black and white. But the bigger crux in the bigger point is simply that economies often use tactics such as racism to divide workers. And I think it's no surprise that we can apply many of these lessons that I discovered, so clearly evident in the Birmingham of the 1950s and 60s to the recent past we've just experienced. ow racism is used to divide workers. I think we could even go so far as to see our nation currently confronting a declining old economy like the iron and steel one in in Birmingham, only today, it's the Petroleum based economy, which is not just the gas pump, mind you, it's the banks that finance all of that. It's the insurance companies that prop it all up. It's the plastic industries and then the use of plastics by consumers and manufacturers, all that's coming out of petroleum, all of that reflective of this economy that is no longer sustainable in our changing environmental situation. We see evidence of that being propped up. And yet we also see a new economy that's proposed that is transnational or global, if you like, that is driving a different kind of focus, that being one of renewable energies that creates its own dynamic for jobs and opportunities in progress. Those two political economies are currently at war. And the question is, in the end, which is going to win out. And we know deep down the petroleum one's going to die. We're going to run out of petroleum. Well, likewise, the use of race can be used in that old political economy. And I think that's why, in part, we've seen efforts to emphasize racial division and our recent political climate.
Ranger Kat: I'd like to ask you about the role of women, the LGBTQ+ community, differently-abled folks, in both the local and the national movement. I think, especially in the Birmingham campaign, where you have these really charismatic leaders like Shuttlesworth and Dr King, it's easy to focus the Movement and what they accomplished on their ability to lead. But through reading your book and understanding more of the movement, it really was this diverse movement of many. I mean, you mentioned the Children's Crusade and how that was sort of the tipping point, an inflection point in the Movement. How seeing these foot soldiers, some as young as six years old marching in the streets, really sort of shifted federal policy. But there were also folks like Ella Baker who we've quoted now a couple times, and students at Miles College who were really sort of encouraging this direct action campaign rather than the rhetoric that was more common among national leaders. And I'm wondering if you could maybe mention some women or some other diverse individuals who feel really contributed to the Movement that maybe we don't hear about, and maybe we should talk about more and hear about more.
Dr. Eskew: Well, Ranger Gardiner, you just pointed out the big flaw in the book, I'm afraid. I did not give women enough credit in the narrative and that I fully believe is a result of being attracted to the charisma of Reverend Shuttlesworth and other African American male leaders, particularly in the church, who are the typical ones we seem to think of in this period of the Movement. But Ella Baker was very familiar with Alabama, having for years worked with the NAACP, mobilizing chapters and running voter registration campaigns in the state. And I would really call out several names, number one, for the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, it's true success, it wasn't just Reverend Shuttlesworth in his charisma or his, quote, lieutenants like Bishop Calvin Woods and his brother Abraham or some of the other pastors. But it was Miss Lola Hendrix, an African American woman who helped keep the records and who ran the telephone tree that was integral to the Movement’s success. She would be tipped off by Reverend Shuttlesworth that he wanted to hold a meeting or that there would be someone at a mass meeting that he wanted the community to hear. And she would get on the phone and use that phone to contact other women who contacted other women who contacted other women. And everyone then materialized, at Shuttlesworth’s request, but it was a role of the women that accomplished that. And it's the women who are demonstrating as well as the men. Men might have led the March, but they're women participating in it. And I think of young women students during the Children's Crusade of 1963. Myra Carter Jackson was one of the great one of the great foot soldiers of this effort. And yet her family had gotten involved years before with the Alabama Christian Movement, before the Children's Crusade came about. And she had been participating in these mass meetings. And then when the children marched, she was right out there marching, as was Janice Wesley Kelsey. She, too, was a student who got recruited into the Children's Crusade and then demonstrated. And I have in the book there are a couple of white people, like Martha Turnipseed, a white woman who was a student at Birmingham-Southern who was interested in the idea of what's going on here with this civil rights protest. She attends a demonstration. Tommy Reeves, a seminarian, gets involved and just shows sympathy, and white Methodist authorities run him out of town. I think Turnipseed got expelled from Birmingham-Southern. So young people and women are really the key to the success. And in the end, it really is that crowd of young folk in the Children's Crusade that forces the change. But I would add, if it hadn't been for Reverend Shuttlesworth and that Alabama Christian Movement, that group of churches scattered around the Birmingham District that met on Monday nights, week after week after week in mass meetings since 1956, had he not kept that going, there never would have been a Birmingham demonstration to attract all those students and protesting in May of ‘63 to begin with. And I believe it was Andrew Young who, coming into Birmingham and confronting this really shocked that Dr King discovered when he got there in April, that not all of the Black ministerial leadership was behind Reverend Shuttlesworth, that the Black community was not united in support of the demonstrations, as had been the case in Montgomery with the bus boycott. Young would say that it was only about 10% of the churches, Black churches in Birmingham, that were actively in the movement, and that's the reality of it. But what that tells me and should tell everyone is it never will be everybody getting involved. It's always that committed core, that dedicated few who don't give up, who keep fighting, who make the change. And I think we see that time and again in history.
Ranger Kat: So I thought to ask you more in depth questions about that push and pull between the national and the local movement. But I think you did a really excellent job summarizing that initially, as well also as the ambiguity of the ending of the Birmingham campaign. But I'm wondering, there's a moment in the epilogue, which you titled Ambiguous Resolution, which I think kind of says it all, where you mention the story of the integration of Birmingham's Shoal Creek Country Club in 1990. I believe I'm calling it the right name, and you mentioned it briefly in your summary. But I'm wondering if you could go more into detail as to what happened and why, for you, that's kind of emblematic of the source of changes it actually took place in Birmingham and how, for the Black masses, a lot of those changes were more symbolic rather than material. So I'm wondering if you could explain that one case study and may be connect it to the larger story of what happened as a result of the movement in Birmingham.
Dr. Eskew: I'll try if I don't get it right, ask me again on another day, and I'll, I'll actually get through reading that epilogue again.
Ranger Kat: [laughter] Fair enough.
Dr. Eskew: And get to that. But Ambiguous Resolution, I think, points to why we're still having problems today. And for a lot of people, certainly in the white community, I believe their attitude has been, “we solved this already with the civil rights movement,” and the reality is the movement was successful. I don't want to suggest anything else in the sense that, as Congressman John Lewis was oft to say, “all you have to do is go back and look and see what it was like when we started and see what things are like today. And you'll see the change.” There has been dramatic change in the 50 years since the demonstration. We no longer have spaces that are demarcated white and colored. We no longer have laws that are designed to project onto society white supremacy. All of that was removed through the Civil Rights Act 1964, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and we received a great deal of support through Black political empowerment accomplished by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet what we've seen is the erosion of those rights in voting by new strategies of disfranchisement and voter suppression that are rampant today. And yet taking away the vote of someone is not the same thing as forcing them to sit on the back of a bus. Right? Those are separate things. Alright. So ambiguous resolution really points to the fact that the civil rights movement didn't address because, quite frankly, it was outside the purview of it economic inequalities, the persistence of that. It did try to resolve the problem of vested racism and white supremacy in institutions. And yet I would suggest your readers if they make it through the chapter on Bull’s Birmingham, and they discover how horrific police brutality was in Birmingham with the legal lynchings, they were called. The justifiable homicides of unarmed Black men by white policemen in 1950s Birmingham. How's that different than today? Right? This is nothing new. And of course, the violence is used just to really kind of prop up law and order. The law and order designed to protect private property and economic interests. Only today it's not denying someone access to the shopping mall. Everybody can go in the mall. Right? Doesn’t d you any good if you don't have any money. And so in the ambiguous resolution epilogue, I kind of point to, and in some ways it's unfair of me to, suggest that Abraham Woods and the local Black leadership is up in arms over the need to have an African American millionaire admitted to a private white country club on the outskirts of town as a symbolic gesture that yes, indeed, we are all equal. I understand why they did it. And I understand the logic that led them to that point, being the logic of the civil rights struggle, gaining equal access to the system. Now, to be fair, in the civil rights era, that meant the public sphere, things that were open to the public in general, private places were left out of the realm of this sphere. What you do in your private community is your business. If you want to be a Church that does not allow Black people in your Church because you believe in the Church of white supremacy. And somehow you can rationalize that with your, quote, Christianity. It's a private entity. Right? But it pointed to the hypocrisy that was the reason Kneel-Ins were held at white churches during the civil rights movement. How dare you express Christian belief and not extend the welcoming hand to your Black brothers and sisters? Well, Shoal Creek was a country club which still exists south of Birmingham, a beautiful space that had an outstanding golf course that was so impressive it had been able to attract the PGA, the international golfing competition. And this too points to the kind of the contradictions of the larger transformation. It pointed to Birmingham's success. The success of having weathered ‘63, undergone racial change, created a brand new dynamic service economy that was no longer rooted in the filthy, racist iron and steel industry, but now expressive of a dynamic medical industry and education and progress and thinking and the whole consumption and all of that stretch from 65 to 280 and in between that you can see south of town suggested that. Economic growth, progress, the change that the city had experienced and slap in the middle of it: Shoal Creek. And here it was hosting this international spotlight, and the founder of the country club, Hall Thompson, made the mistake of saying that, “well, we let everybody in here except the Blacks,” right? And consequently, the protests began and understandably so. And in the end, Shoal Creek desegregates by allowing an African American member, a member of the Black elite in Birmingham, to become a member of the Country Club. And through that, desegregation really provided a similar kind of resolution to what had occurred initially in ‘63. It didn't change the lives of any of the Black masses of folk trapped in the inner city of Birmingham in public housing that was increasingly being bull-dozed in slum areas with limited opportunities, in schools that were struggling to to educate the students, and in a new dynamic political economy that without an education, left you with limited job opportunities. And I would dare say that one could suggest we still confront these problems today.
Ranger Kat: I think many would agree with that. So I wanted to ask you a question about the role of children in the Birmingham campaign and segue into a question about a message to young people today. And I think that your conversation around this ambiguous resolution is a good segue in that there's more work to do, there's more work to be done, and that's kind of how the book ends. When I finished the book, I'll admit I felt sad. I felt frustrated. I felt like I wasn't given the resolution that we’re often given and more simplistic narratives about the civil rights movement. And I both appreciated you for that and also felt, again, that sense of frustration and like, wow, what was it, what truly was accomplished materially, economically, because it still seemed in your appraisal that the financial political situation in Birmingham remained very fraught. So, something that is, I think, really inspiring about the Birmingham Campaign is the role that children played in the Children's Crusade predominantly. And today we're seeing another resurgence of young people who are incredibly involved in trying to make the world a better place, whether that's racial justice, climate change, etcetera. And I'm curious, based on your deep historic knowledge of social movements, specifically civil rights in the South, would you say that the involvement of young people is critical to that success. And then, given that there is obviously still work to be done, what is your message to young people today who want to make changes for the better?
Dr. Eskew: Young people hold the key. They're the ones who have the most to gain. If you consider the role of the youth in Birmingham, coming in at just the right moment, the crucial time with the Children's Crusade in May of ‘63, and they were brought in in part because of the leaders of the struggle, Dorothy Cotton, one of Dr. King's key staff members, James Bevel, Isaac Reynolds, Ike Reynolds. These folks worked with those young people, training them in nonviolence. But young folks are committed, and they're willing to work and put their necks out to gain change. And we see that in the Black Lives Matter effort today. It's young people who are driving the demand for change in race relations in America today, who are pushing to force reconciliation with the past, to come to terms with America's legacy as a white supremacy nation, and to address those inequalities that persist, recognizing how racism has functioned for so long, to hurt so many people. And if we look at the civil rights struggle as a whole, the real push at key moments that kept it moving forward was that of young people. We often think of the Brown versus Board of Education case with Linda Brown. It's her father who files the lawsuit. But I like to point to Moton High School in Virginia, which is also one of the five cases that made up the Brown decision. There we find the students themselves walking out of their school because of the inequality that they experienced in that facility, the failure of the local community, the white school board, to provide African American youth with educational facilities that would enable them to be prepared for the future. It's the Little Rock students who confront the violence and hostility of the white mob as they bravely continue to participate in the year-long process of desegregating Central High. And while after Montgomery, Dr. King and other civil rights leaders in local communities like Reverend Shuttlesworth and elsewhere across the south mobilized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It really kind of spun its wheels, this national movement, looking at replicating what the NAACP had been doing, holding voter registration drives, waiting to come to the aid of a demonstration or protest like Montgomery had been, something that erupted organically, in a sense, out of a local community. And it's the students who are the ones, the young people who create those opportunities. They do it with the sit-in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, when four black men from North Carolina A&T sit down at a Woolworths and refuse to leave, demanding equal access to service. It's young people like John Lewis, who is a seminarian in Nashville, volunteers to participate in the first Freedom Ride that it is civil rights organizations that mobilize it, CORE, Congress Of Racial Equality, but it's young people like John Lewis who volunteers and gets on that Freedom Ride and gets beat up on that Freedom Ride. And when the original ride is called off after Birmingham, it's young people from Nashville who had organized to sit-in movement led by Diane Nash and others, who come to Birmingham to continue the Freedom Ride and to maintain that dynamic. It's young people from around the nation who to join in Freedom Fides and get arrested, white and black, and be sent up to Parchment Prison in Mississippi, it’s young people that bring in that demand for change time and again. And it's the same story we see today. I think it's clear not just in Black Lives Matter, but Greta Thunberg and others who are pushing the demand for change on the environment. They're doing so because they know full well that world they're inheriting, and either it's going to be scorched or or it's going to be livable. And similarly, America has to come to grips with its history and address the wrongs of the past. That was really the final outgrowth of Dr. King's strategy of nonviolence. It wasn't just to have a demonstration and then to affect change at the local level. It was also to accomplish a reconciliation, to come to terms with the past and to create what he called the beloved community, a world in which we all can live. And humanity has lots of examples of the need to come together or confront annihilation. We used to hear more frequently about nuclear weapons and disarmament, and that's been pushed aside. But it's still very much a reality in our society, but it's been displaced by the greater needs of the need to address the environment. But we also have to address gross inequality, or we're going to see the masses of the people pushed to the limit and rise up and challenge the handful of one percenters out there who seem to be benefiting from the system.
Ranger Kat: I'd like to close on the question about World Heritage Sites, and I know that you've been working to add many civil rights sites to be a part of UNESCO's World Heritage Site roster. So I was looking into a little bit about what it takes to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site and what the mission statement is. So I'll read just the small portion. The mission statement of the World Heritage Sites is “to preserve and protect sites around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.” What is the value that the story of Birmingham and the sites in this region, what is the value that they bring to humanity? And why do you feel they deserve to be recognized on a global scale?
Dr. Eskew: Thank you for that question, too, because, yes, I've been hard at work with colleagues on developing a serial nomination of US civil rights movement sites to be proposed for potential inscription on the World Heritage list. And Birmingham, I think, and to go back just to say about young people again. Young people hold the key, but it does no good if they don't get involved. Whenever I meet with students and talk about what occurred in Birmingham during the civil rights era, I encourage them to get involved for change for the change that they believe in, to get registered, to be able to vote so they can vote change in with politicians. If you don't get involved, if the children hadn’t marched in the Children's Crusade, there would not have been the changes we see coming out of Birmingham. And it's that very change. It's that outgrowth of those young people, Black folk standing up against Bull Connor’s fire hoses in Kelly Ingram Park, those six year old little kids who marched down the street and then on to a city bus to go off to the Stockade at the state fair ground and be locked up. It’s those young people who were spun down the street like a tumble weed through the force of the water of the hoses or got bitten by the dogs. Those young people point to why Birmingham is globally significant. It's globally significant because it demonstrated the power of nonviolent protest to force a nation to address injustice. As a result of the demonstrations in Birmingham, the federal government, through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, required desegregation, required an end to legal white supremacy in American society. If you consider that within the framework of the world and you think about how around the globe there's always been discrimination, it might not be racial, might be ethnic, might be based in rooted in religion. It might be gender discrimination or sexuality might be against the aging or against people with issues of ability. There's so much evidence of discrimination written into and built into the fabric of societies. And here, for the first time, a federal government said, no longer. We're going to require the space be open to all people equally. Public space accessible all. And as it has come to be interpreted, well, initially, it was the issue of race. When the Civil Rights Act was being prepared in the Congress and debated, a slick legislator put in the word gender, thinking it would kill it, because who's going to give women the same spaces they give men? It got passed instead. And suddenly we see among the greatest beneficiaries of this are women. We since interpreted it to mean equality over sexuality issues for gays and lesbians, queer, transgendered people. It was applied to the needs of folks with disabilities so that they would have access to public space, too. We've seen it writ large across the board. Nowhere else in the world had that occurred. And it comes out of the demonstrations and protests that happened in Birmingham. It's a glorious story. It's one of which to be proud. And it's one to celebrate. That here, local people, young people mobilized, came together, demanded change. And through that demand ultimately forced the federal government power to answer. And it's the only way we're ever going to get change on any of these other issues is if people mobilize and demand it.
Ranger Kat: Thank you so much. This has been such an amazing conversation. I really appreciate not only your knowledge about the story, but the passion with which you speak about it. It will be a conversation I return to for many, many years to come, and hopefully we can have others, too.
Dr. Eskew: Well, thank you. It's wonderful to get to write about the brave people who made the difference. Certainly, it's driven by a desire to see us also deal with the problems in our own societies and accomplish the change we need for us all to be able to live together.
Ranger: This is We Will Rise: National Parks and Civil Rights. Thanks to the Psalters for use of their song, Turn Me Around. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our series. Until next time.
Last updated: April 21, 2022
Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument
1914 4th Street North