Monday-Morning Moving: From Selma to Montgomery … A Different Kind Of Travel

Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge — travel that brings things into perspective. (All photos Molly Jensen.)

By Molly Jensen

During my junior year of college, I spent my spring break on a Civil Rights Pilgrimage – a coach-bus trip from Atlanta to Memphis with around 22 of my closest friends.

We went to a lot of museums – so many museums that we had dozens of conversations that went something like this:

“It was at that museum with the bus.”

“All the museums talked about the Freedom Riders.”

“No, no! This museum actually had a bus.”

“Oh! Was that the one with the flag mural? Or the one with all the mannequins?”

“I thought the one with the flag mural was the one with all the mannequins.”

Don’t get me wrong; museums are awesome. There are a lot of great museums out there full of interesting information, including some of the ones we went to on this trip. The problem is, I can’t tell you which museum had the bus or the flag mural. (All of them, probably.)

What I can tell you about is our visit to Selma, Ala., where we met  Joanne Bland.

Selma's civil-rights legacy is never far from the surface.
Selma’s civil-rights legacy is never far from the surface.

Ms. Bland, a spunky old black lady, gave us a tour of her town. In between pointing out the various landmarks, including the Brown Chapel AME Church and the Selma Voting Rights Mural, she took us down side streets to show us houses she liked.

“Which of these two yellow houses are better?” she shouted at one point.

Some shouted the one with more ornaments; others called out the simple house.

“You’re all wrong,” she said, “Neither of these houses are good. One has too much and the other has too little. I need something in the middle.”

She also needed a porch, so she could have a nice place to visit with whomever might stop by her house. She pointed out a lot of houses with nice porches.

This woman commenting on houses lived in Selma during the height of the civil-rights movement. By the age of 11 she was active in the fight for civil rights – so active that she had been arrested more times that she was years old. She’d been part of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches – the two that didn’t make it out of Selma, later called “Bloody Sunday” and “Turn Around Tuesday,” as well as the successful march that made it to Montgomery.

At one point during our day with her, she demonstrated how tightly she held on to her sister’s hand during the march, because she was scared of that march going as terribly as “Bloody Sunday” did.

One of Selma's contradictions: A cemetery full of Confederate war heroes -- and statues missing from their graves.
One of Selma’s contradictions: A cemetery full of Confederate war heroes — and statues missing from their graves.

One of our stops with Ms. Bland was Live Oak Cemetery, where there are monuments dedicated to Confederate soldiers. The monument of noted Confederate raider Nathan Bedford Forrest had been a hot topic in Selma, before and after someone had stolen his bust off the monument. Yard signs promising a reward for information about Forrest’s missing bust were scattered around the cemetery. Ms. Bland told us the bust had been gone for months, and though the reward amount kept going up, no one had heard anything about Forrest’s bust.

(The original bust was never found; instead, a replacement was bought last year.)

We left Ms. Bland at Edmund Pettus Bridge, where she had us line up and walk across the bridge, just as she and many, many others did years before we were even born.

We took photos as we started out, as tourists do, but then we all went quiet and reflected on what we knew about this bridge, both from history books and from listening to Ms. Bland. Dozens of people had been beaten on this bridge because they wanted to peacefully protest. Dozens of people came back to this bridge scared for their lives, but determined to walk from Selma to Montgomery. And here we were, privileged to walk across the bridge without any fear.

Traveling isn’t simply about the places you go. I remember seeing a particularly beautiful mural involving the American flag. I can’t remember what museum or city it was in, but it put me in Selma and I could find my way through the streets to the small-town grocery store Ms. Bland pulled some of us into to show us chicken feet that came complete with claws, skin, and all. I don’t remember any of the films we watched in the museums, but I remember Ms. Bland’s cackle as us Midwesterners screamed over those chicken feet.

Traveling is about going to a new place and learning about the people and culture that was there before you visited and will be there long after you’ve gone home.

I hope that since I’ve come home, Joanne Bland has gotten her porch.

Molly Jensen is a marketing specialist at Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection.