A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement

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History-seeking travel in the South and elsewhere has been oriented towards older towns and cities, rural plantations, battlefields, and the sights that confirm a once-dominant view of Southern civilization.

Jim Carrier

Reviewed by Joe Lockard


History-seeking travel in the South and elsewhere has been oriented towards older towns and cities, rural plantations, battlefields, and the sights that confirm a once-dominant view of Southern civilization. Entire local and regional tourism industries have been built on the propagation of this historical viewpoint, one that narrates and celebrates a lost antebellum civilization. Yet to walk about an historic town in the South with a consciousness of its history is to resist an exercise in historical dissociation.

Since the Reconstruction ended, historical markers have related the stories of white supremacy and its heroes. Walking through Savannah's jewel-box district,' for example, one can encounter a marker complaining how the Union officers who commandeered an historic home drank the wine cellar dry during the 'occupation of the city. Its 1963 date and sponsorship by a local women's society identifies the marker as a white reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. It extends the tradition of a local park's towering nineteenth-century monument to the Confederate dead, also built by a women's society, made of Canadian granite that was shipped by sea so that it was not profaned by touching Northern soil. The city remains a monument to white supremacy in its entirety, built by black skilled craftspeople on profits the Georgia cotton-planter class obtained from enslaved black labor. Yet this is not the history that Savannah would prefer to remember; it disappears as tour bus operators give their house-by-house recitals. A more factual counter-history of the city's lovely architectural facades would be too gruesome to remember. Although Savannah's sit-ins and boycotts were in the early 1960s, the underlying racial conflict continued: a mail bomb murdered NAACP attorney Robert Robinson as late as 1989.

A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement emerges from the counter-history that has existed for centuries throughout the South, but had no place in official histories. In Savannah, there is now an African American monument, a civil rights museum, and tours in the historic First African Baptist church. While a guide such as this can indicate the emergence of the sites of this new history, what is much more difficult to describe is its acceptance and acknowledgement. Savannah tour operators will now mention the African American monument and its inscription composed by Maya Angelou, but little or nothing more of the city's pervasive black history. Local tourism industries can cater vigorously towards specific demographic markets with African American history trails and new recognition of diversity, but there is nothing about slavery and Jim Crow that makes for a cheerfully positive message.

If local tourism continues to negotiate bitter histories with difficulty, Carrier's approach towards the human and civil rights campaigns of the South has a more inspirational message. This guide negotiates centuries of history, a broad swath of geography, and an immense cast of characters. There would have to be many more such guides to tell the stories in fuller detail, and Carrier certainly had to leave out a great deal of material. The guide's tone is factual, informative, and compassionate. Since the physical remnants of the Civil Rights Movement frequently are barely indicative, the task becomes to bring imaginative life to historic scenes. Those Woolworth's stores are gone now, but you can visit a Woolworth's sit-down counter on exhibit at the Smithsonian. More than a few of the sites mentioned exist today only as signs or minor memorials: the site of the infamous Rosewood massacre in Florida, which claimed at least 23 lives in 1923 as whites rampaged and destroyed a black community, is marked only by a road sign, a remaining white-owned house, and a sign remembering five white men who aided their black neighbors.

Florida, as Carrier points out, has a civil rights history second to none, yet that lengthy history has been overlooked. When Florida was taken over as a US territory in 1821, it had a thriving mixed population for centuries. Whites were a tiny minority in Jackson-era Florida; even as the Civil War arrived, blacks still constituted over half the state's population. Florida's black and Hispanic histories were obscured as irrelevant to the state's new history, part of the writing-out of subordinated racial and ethnic groups that has characterized US historiography.

This practice has concealed the foundations of the state economy. The labor that created the infrastructure of Florida's modern tourism industry came from convict leasing, a form of neo-slavery. Black men were arrested and jailed under vagrancy laws that served as a legal convenience to suppress voting, property-owning, or other exhibitions of equal citizenship. As Carrier writes, beginning in the 1870s convict chain gangs 'built railroads, cut wood, made bricks, cleaned land for what would become Palm Beach and Miami -- a cost of twenty-six dollars a year per convict. It was at those same resorts that blacks began 'wade-ins' in the mid-1940s. White supremacists in Florida fought ferociously against the Civil Rights Movement, led by the notorious Johns Committee in the state senate. Confrontations with the all-white legislature in Florida were intense and characteristic of that state's Civil Rights Mmovement. The cumulative effects of black impoverishment and disenfranchisement echoed nationally, of course, in the 2000 presidential elections when a quarter of Florida's black men could not vote due to disqualification for felony convictions.

If the guide makes these connections successfully, perhaps the less publicly dramatic impact of Indian tribes on the map of civil rights in the twentieth-century South is one area where the guide might improve. Although mention is made of native history in various passages of the guide, native peoples of the Southeastern states do not appear here -- or most anywhere else -- as participants in the Civil Rights Movement. Yet Southeastern tribes were profoundly affected and energized by this movement, and the tribal sovereignty and recognition struggles have been allied social movements. As Alan Gallay demonstrates so powerfully in The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, these connections are deeply rooted in seventeenth and eighteenth-century history. That connection never disappeared, but was rather ignored. The modes of confrontation with color lines and understandings of equal citizenship were different, for as Wilma Mankiller observed 'In the seventies and the late sixties I had a great deal of trouble explaining to my friends who were working in the Civil Rights Movement that while they tried to help people gain entry into the system, we were fighting for the right to have our own system. A more complex mapping of a multi-ethnic civil rights movement including, for example, the deep tradition of Hispanic-black political cooperation in Texas, dating from the early twentieth century -- would make an even richer guide.

A lengthy tradition in US culture and literature demonizes the South. Learning the human complexities and social geography of the South is to learn both the historical origins of such demonization and its eventual narrowness. One message that this guide reinforces, perhaps less by design than cumulative impact, is that the Civil Rights Movement was conducted primarily local residents changing their own communities through prolonged political processes. Social resistances shaped these communities as much as racial repression.

Jim Carrier has written a near-unique and most useful guide to the geography of the civil rights movement, one that incorporates years of traveling and accumulated knowledge. Only Townsend Davis's Weary Feet, Rested Soul (W.W. Norton, 1999) provides a similar guide to the geography of the twentieth-century civil rights movement; likewise for the nineteenth century, only Bruce Chadwick and Charles Blockson have written notable guides for sites of the Underground Railroad. These constitute a sub-genre of travel guides that needs continued expansion, and Carrier has contributed greatly to that end.

A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement is published by Harcourt 

Joe Lockard is Assistant Professor of English at Arizona State University and a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team 

2004 by Joe Lockard
Copyright © 2004 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.
 

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