Thursday, November 22, 2018

Montgomery to Selma...and Then Some

After a lunch, Bruce, Martha, and I put the town of Selma into the GPS.  Our plan was to do the Voting Rights Trail backwards, driving from Montgomery to its starting place, the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma. The church is just a few blocks from Selma’s famous Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Even today the trip is largely rural.

Mid-trip, we stopped at the National Park Service’s Visitors’ Center. The enormous parking lot had so few cars in it, I wondered if the place were even open.

I wasn’t too familiar with the story of civil rights activists trying to walk from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, demanding equal access to the polls. Sure, I’d seen the famous film of the police dispersing marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge.

In a large swath of the U.S., from the end of the Civil War until the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the right to vote was pretty much limited to white folks. In 1960, eighty percent of the residents in Lowndes County, Alabama were African-American and not a single one was registered to vote. Not even one! However, 117% of the eligible white voters had registered. In the early 1960s, the right to vote became a focal point of the civil rights movement.

Marchers from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other groups endured tear gas, beatings from the police, and nasty police dogs as they exercised their right to protest non-violently. With protection from the Federal government, the marchers—whose numbers had swelled to 25,000— finally made it from Selma to Montgomery on the their third try.

As I checked out the exhibits, I became a little embarrassed that voting for me has never been a problem. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever waited in a line of more than three or four people to vote.  The whole process takes five or ten minutes. The idea that another American would have to march 54 miles just for a chance to have his or her voice heard via the ballot box is astonishing.

When we were finished at the visitors' center, we drove on to Selma. 

The Edmund Pettus Bridge still marks the entrance to Selma.

The passage of the Voting Rights Act is noted by a marker at the end of the bridge.

Brown Chapel AME Church isn't far from the bridge. 

We walked around Selma for a little bit.

Time seems to have passed the town by.

Time wasn't going to pass us by, we still had things to see!

From Selma, we continued on to Marbury to see its Confederate cemetery. The website for Confederate Memorial Park said that it closed at dusk. We figured we’d get there with a little time to spare.

We were almost to Marbury when we stopped for coffee at a modern looking gas station/convenience store. I'd already stopped at one that was right out of The Waltons and it had no coffee. Budweiser pounders yes, coffee no.

The clerk, a woman who should moonlight as a Loretta Lynn impersonator, had just started a fresh pot of java when I walked in. She assured me that it would just be a minute and I said I’d wait. It wasn’t as if those dead Confederates were going anywhere.

After two customers came in to buy lottery tickets, Loretta Lynn's doppelganger, not recognizing me from a wanted poster, came out from behind the counter to chat me up while the coffee brewed. Her accent was as thick as the bulletproof glass that protected her and her inventory of cigarettes and scratch-off tickets. I suggested that I could just stick my cup under the stream of coffee to get a head start on things. She wasn’t having any of it.

I knew not to argue; the thought had crossed my mind that the bulletproof glass might be there to protect me from her. I could see her going all Dirty Harry on someone who tried to hurry the Maxwell House along, as she urged caffeine-starved and jittery Yankees to go ahead and make her day.

At last, coffee stopped streaming into the pot, signaling that it was done. I carried Styrofoam cups for Martha and me over to the coffee maker.

That’s when I saw them.


I said, “Uh, you know, you have a few ants here?” trying to be as nonchalant as possible.

The understatement of the Deep South--the one that rebranded the Civil War as "The Recent Unpleasantness"--was rubbing off on me.

A New Yorker would have said, “Jesus H. Christ, what’s with the fucking ant farm?! They're all over the goddamned place!!”

There were at least a zillion ants walking around that coffee maker. Maybe even two zillion; I didn't want to count.

If this had been a cartoon, the ants would be carrying off the store's stash of Hostess Twinkies. No amount of bulletproof glass would stop them.

“Oh, they’re comin’ in again” she replied as if she were referring to cows coming back to the barn for their afternoon milking. Her tone said that it was perfectly normal for a convenience store to be overrun with ants.

I’d already paid for my coffee. Running out of the place without it would have been rude. In fact, it might have risen to the level of a microaggression, though this exact situation wasn’t covered in my recent diversity training.

While the ants were everywhere, they didn’t seem to be on the coffee maker itself. That’s what I chose to believe anyway.

I was desperate enough for my afternoon Joe that I decided to take my chances with a few ants in my coffee. I'm sure they're considered a delicacy someplace. Someplace I've never heard of, I mean.

Before I got into the car with the coffee, I shook myself the way a dog would shake after a dip in a farm pond. In theory this would have any shaken ants off me, but in reality, I only demonstrated that it was a good thing I didn't have my heart set on a career in dance.

It was close to dusk when we arrived at the Confederate Memorial Park, on the site of the former Alabama Confederate Soldiers Home. The home was built in 1902 for indigent Confederate veterans and their wives.  The last vet died in 1934, but the facility stayed open until 1939 when the last few widows moved to other locations.

The carving on the marble tombstones has long since become impossible to read. 

Fortunately, the State of Alabama had replaced each marker with an in-ground marker made of granite.

Lots of the tombstones had coins left on them. Snopes says that the stuff about coins on tombstones is hokum. They're just coins. In other words, finding a Kennedy half-dollar on a tombstone doesn’t mean that the person who left it there was with the deceased when they heard about JFK’s assassination and so on.

After we had wandered around it became too dark to take photos and it was time to drive back to Birmingham.

I drove up to the cemetery gates.

They were closed.

Holy crap!

And not only were they shut, they were padlocked.

With a really big, we-mean-business, sort of padlock.

Yes, We were locked inside a Confederate cemetery in East Jesus, night.

It wasn’t a good place to be for a Yankee, a Democrat, and a homo…not to mention for Bruce and Martha.

Martha tried to call the cemetery office, but she got a recording. No one works late at Confederate cemetery on a Friday night.

I considered calling 911. However, waiting for some sort of local cop to notice that we weren't from around there, were we, and then go on tell us that we were in a heap of trouble before asking if the movie Deliverance meant anything to me was not high on my list of things to do.

The cemetery was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and I hoped there might be a break in it. I walked along the fence to see if there might be another way out.

When I saw two fence posts smack dab next to each other, connected by a loop of wire, I let out a little yay. And then I thanked my father, may he rest in peace, for taking me hunting on a ranch in South Dakota when I was 12 years old. I never appreciated that trip at any time in the last 49 years the way I did in that very moment. Because of that trip, I knew what a gate in a wire fence looked like and how to open one. The gate could have been easily overlooked, especially by a city slicker of the Yankee, Democrat, and homo variety.

I squeezed the two fence posts closer together with my body and removed the loop of wire holding the posts together. I moved the barbed wire gate aside so that there was plenty of room for me to drive across the lawn, through the opening in the fence, and out of the cemetery.

I went back to the car, really, really, pleased with myself. In fact, in my entire life I’m not sure if I have ever been that pleased with myself. For at least 15 minutes (OK, maybe more) I was completely insufferable. It wasn’t my best moment ever. But I was the big hero (to myself at least) even if I'll always be the last kid picked last in gym class.

Final score:  Team Yankee-Democrat-Homo 1, Team Dead Confederacy 0.

In short order we were parked in a traffic jam on the Interstate 65 on the way back to Birmingham. We stopped, for no apparent reason, for more than an hour. Compared to the prospect of a night in a Confederate cemetery, an endless line of taillights looked pretty darned good. 

Next stop: The Barber Motorcycle Museum.

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