Sunday, March 23, 2014

On and Off the Blue Ridge Parkway

Liz on the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church
Leaving Selma, we stopped at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, AL, adjacent to the 16th Street Baptist Church that was bombed fifty years ago, taking the lives of four schoolgirls. Liz has memories of being deeply moved when she was a young teenager by Richard Farina’s great ballad, “Birmingham Sunday”. Here it is, sung by Joan Baez and accompanied by some interesting graphics by artist Matthew Schwartz.

After a brief shopping stop at Scottsboro’s Unclaimed Baggage Center (we HAD to see it) we crossed into Tennessee where we dropped in at Sequatchie Cove Farm.  This fabulous family endeavor produces cheese, meats and vegetables for an on-site farm store, local markets and the family-owned restaurant “Farmer’s Daughter” in Chattanooga. (This family, not coincidentally, are cousins to Ian Byington, a good friend from Friday Harbor.) We stocked up on meat and cheese at the farm and had a lovely meal at the restaurant.Check out the Facebook page to get a sense of the place.

In Chattanooga we met up with daughter Colleen, new son-in-law Albert, and grandson Luke, who drove down from Kentucky to spend a dew days with us. Then it was the luxury of a nice hotel with a saltwater pool, full course breakfasts, and free Wi-Fi. Liz and the boys toured the Tennessee Aquarium while Colleen and Janna walked, shopped, talked and had lunch outside, enjoying surprisingly warm spring weather. 

But it was winter again as we headed north to the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Cherokee, NC. It was our intention to travel the Parkway from the South to Washington DC, but we didn’t factor in the Winter That Will Not Quit. Southern states are still experiencing freezing temperatures and at higher elevations that means ice and road closures. The Parkway goes on for 469 miles, with stops to explore major Native American towns like Cherokee, incredible arts towns like Asheville, and connecting with other linkages like the Appalachian Trail where people walk all or part of the 2,180 mile foot path, and Virginia’s Crooked Road, an automobile route mapped out for those who wish to explore and experience traditional Appalachian and blue grass music. 

We decided to spend a few days in Asheville where we plugged in at the home of former Friday Harbor residents Bill Hamilton and Michael D’Abrosca. Michael works at the Biltmore Estate and graciously provided us with a tour through the mansion and conservatory. We loved Asheville, and after some good conversations and good meals, we headed north, stopping to see the fabulous Folk Art Center on our way out of town. 

Bustling historic downtown Mt Airy aka "Mayberry"
We left the Parkway at Mount Airy, NC, sometimes known as Mayberry, former home of Andy Griffith and present home to a great deal of Andy Griffith Show kitsch including Barney’s CafĂ© and Opie’s Candy Store. But Mount Airy has another claim to fame: the home of the famous “Siamese Twins” Chang and Eng Bunker who made their home on a farm just outside of town, now turned RV park, as we accidentally discovered when we pulled into this exceptionally nice campground. This also tweaked a childhood memory for Liz, who read about them in American Heritage, a hardbound journal that was published quarterly and gifted to her from her grandmother. She was eleven when she first read about the Bunker twins and being a sensitive child, she responded with wonder and compassion to the story of these two boys brought from Thailand (Siam) as teenage curiosities, but who later married, became farmers, and fathered a total of 21 children, all in spite of being joined at the stomach with a ligature the size of a wrist. They died here in 1894 and nearly two thousand descendants are alive today, many of whom show up in Mount Airy for an annual family reunion. 

Not able to stay on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we opted for the (the VERY) Crooked Trail and our next stop was Floyd, Virginia, where we took in the Friday Night Jamboree at the Country Store and slept in the parking lot of the Floyd County  Courthouse. On to another stop along the Crooked Road: the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum in Ferrum, where the gallery exhibits features information about blue grass, folk music and blues. 

Next time we will plan the dates a bit better to drive the entire Blue Ridge Parkway, touted as America's favorite drive. We loved our experience in November of the Natchez Trace, a similar parkway. But we have nothing like it in the Pacific Northwest: a seemingly wilderness road going on for over 400 miles with no businesses, no billboards and no commercial vehicles. Just leisurely driving, beautiful scenery, and time to reflect on days gone by.  

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Report from Selma

As most of our readers know, our current trip in Lilypad is our second motor home trip. The first was In Lulu in 2003 and the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee (celebrating the 35th anniversary of  "Bloody Sunday") was the highlight of that trip, creating great memories and stories to tell and retell. This led us to wonder if our expectations might be too high when we returned this year for another Bridge Crossing Jubilee (now celebrating the 49th anniversary.)  But we were not disappointed.  In fact, we now hope to come back to celebrate the 50th anniversary next year, but wait, we are a little ahead of ourselves here.
Crossing the Bridge!

When we dropped by the Chamber of Commerce in 2003, we experienced stony silence after announcing we had come to attend the Jubilee. “We don’t like to think about those troubles,” we were told by the white staff person. This year when we stopped to pick up a city map, the young white Tourism Director invited us to attend the welcoming reception for the Jubilee, hosted by the City of Selma, where she was thanked and introduced along with the Mayor and other local dignitaries. Selma is Alabama's 29th largest city and 80% of the 20,000 folks that live there are of African-American descent. Throughout the next four days we were impressed with the theme of diversity and acceptance as we were welcomed warmly wherever we went. 

Following the reception, our first event was a student play about Jimmy Lee Jackson, a young black man who was killed in nearby Marion, Alabama in 1965. It was his death that helped lead to the original bridge crossing, so if you don’t know this story, check it out and put it into your brain filed under “important history that everyone should know.”  After the play we followed the crowd to the historic Tabernacle Baptist Church for a mass rally of songs and speeches. The featured speaker was Reverend William Barber from Raleigh, North Carolina, the President of the North Carolina NAACP, who is a leader in a new coalition of progressive students and old-timers in a series of rallies called Moral Mondays. One oft-repeated theme is the need for diversity and unity in the fight for social justice, and we felt welcomed and included by his words. Reverend Barber and others left Selma the day after the Jubilee for a bus trip to visit Southern capitals culminating with a rally in front of the Supreme Court Washington DC to demonstrate on the issue of the Voting Rights Act which was gutted by the Supreme Court last year.  These folks in Selma strongly disagreed with the opinion of the Supreme Court that racism in the south is a thing of the past and government intervention is no longer needed.
On Friday we enjoyed several movies at the Jubilee Film Festival. Two films we especially liked: Soul Food Junkies about the rise of urban farming and healthy food choices; and American Promise, about two black families that chose to send their sons to a private school, and documented it on film throughout their 12 years in school. That evening we packed into the Dallas County Courthouse to hear a mock trial of the family of Jimmy Lee Jackson suing George Wallace and the State of Alabama as culpable in his having been killed by an Alabama State Trooper. Local colorful activist, attorney and Jublilee organizer Rose Sanders (aka Faya Rose Toure) was hilarious in her defense of Governor  Wallace. Of course the jury, selected from the audience, found in favor of the plaintiff.
Union organizers in the Selma Jubilee Parade
Early on Saturday we lined up to watch the Jubilee Parade which featured marching bands, historic cars, local politicians, and many children’s groups. From there we walked through the Jubilee street fair and bought lunch before going back to watch a couple of HIV-AIDs films and an excellent documentary about Mumia Ab-Jamal, a revolutionary writer serving an unjust life term in prison.  We were very moved by the film and have put his books on our “must-read” list.
Sunday was all about the March re-enactment and started with a service and rally at the historic Brown Chapel  AME Church. Reverend Jesse Jackson was one of the first to show up, greeting folks and waving to the crowd, followed by Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, local hero Representative John Lewis and a host of Secret Service. Many groups were present including, a group organized to free the former governor of Alabama who has been wrongfully imprisoned….another interesting story we just learned here in Selma. The prayers, speeches and singing went on for three hours and then everyone poured into the streets for the re-enactment of the march over the bridge.
Lots of issues - lots of work to be done for a better world
We were downtown by then in a huge crowd of ordinary folks: students from the University of Michigan on “alternative break”, the Black Masons, the Alabama Coalition for Immigration Reform, local families and farmers, old-timers and many people in strollers, happily marching together over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. That evening, we concluded the four day event by attending a community dinner and dramatic presentation featuring Ayana Gregory, daughter of Dick Gregory. This is an inspiring production we strongly recommend, which communicates many aspects of female self-esteem, identity, and the significance of the civil rights struggle for all youth of today. Local communities can now book this amazing one-woman show (check out her website.

We came away from the weekend physically exhausted and spiritually rejuvenated. The Jubilee today is now an annual educational and strategic moment when civil rights leaders and ordinary people gather to reflect on the significance of those events, analyze progress since those days, and attempt to create a vision of what lies ahead and what work needs to be done. It was also inspiring to see that the road from Selma to Montgomery has received National Scenic Byway designation and funding for three interpretive centers. One seldom finds an opportunity to learn so much. We do want to come back next year. We would love to have friends (yes you) come with us.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Alabama Bound

Dauphin Island Beach Bums

We reluctantly left the wonderful Gulf Coast NationalSeashore campground at Fort Pickens, Florida and headed into southern Alabama during the peak of the Mardi Gras celebrations. Being from the north we were quite amazed at the number of parades and other celebrations going on in every city and small town. Stores were decorated in a way that we Yankees only see at Christmas or Halloween. We joined up with Friday Harbor friends Teddy and Alice Deane near Mobile as they returned from a day of celebration laden with colorful strings of beads. 

Janna checks our Scout's perspective
Our next stop was Monroeville, the childhood home of two famous American authors: Truman Capote and Harper Lee. They were childhood friends and literary collaborators, and she, now in her 80’s, still lives in Monroeville. The historic courthouse operates as a museum to them both and as a playhouse for an annual dramatic production of To Kill a Mockingbird.  It is believed that the character Atticus Finch was a likeness of Harper Lee’s father who practiced law in this courtroom and it was exactly replicated in Hollywood for the set of the movie starring Gregory Peck. Being, again, the Yankees that we are, we admired the beautiful design of the building including the dual stair cases and balconies, and then quite suddenly realized it was built that way to accommodate the Southern culture of segregation and the Jim Crow laws that remained in effect until Federal civil rights legislation in the 1960’s.

Our next stop was the Black Belt Treasures Cultural Arts Center in Camden. This cooperative gallery supports craftspeople from the nineteen counties that make up rural Alabama’s fertile Blackbelt farming region, including the quilt makers from Gee’s Bend. We had originally intended to visit these ladies, but unfortunately the weather was miserably wet and cold and the ferry schedule didn't work for us (sound familiar?). The Gee’s Bend quilters were made famous in the 1990’s by a cultural archivist interested in African American fabrics. Quilters will remember the Smithsonian articles that chronicled the story, and the subsequent attention to the area.

While in this area, we stayed at Isaac Creek, an excellent Army Corps of Engineers campground nearby. These federal campgrounds are all over the country, usually near the major dams and earthworks the Corps has engineered. This one had a museum containing artifacts recovered from the site.

Then it was on to Montgomery, capital of Alabama, and site of many civil rights and confederate historical events.  The historic trolley tour was a good overview to the city, and a bargain as well at only two bucks. We visited the Rosa Parks Museum which has added a multimedia wing since we were last there in 2003. This addition gives some historic perspective to her story, but we had loved the stark simplicity of the earlier museum and it fell from the top of our favorite museum list. But it’s still a museum definitely worth seeing. 

That top place on the list was quickly filled when we went to the Civil Rights Memorial operated by the Southern Poverty Law Center. This small facility adjacent to their offices features Maya Lin’s fabulous water sculpture honoring 40 martyrs of the modern civil rights movement. Their individual stories are told in video and interactive displays. At the end of the tour visitors are invited to commit to working for justice by signing their names
on the Wall of Tolerance. Although it takes less than an hour to tour this museum, we found the experience very rewarding and an excellent orientation to the ongoing work for social justice. If you don’t know about the Southern Poverty Law Center, take time to read about the work they do monitoring hate groups all over the country. Their work is teaching tolerance and the eradication of every kind of discrimination. If you are a person of color, if you are a person with a disability, if you are GLBT, if you are poor, they are out there making the world safer for you.