There’s a scene towards the end of Mississippi Burning when the FBI agents find that the Mayor has hung himself.
Agent Bird says to Agent Ward: I don’t understand why he did it. He wasn’t in on it. He wasn’t even Klan.
Ward: Mr. Bird, he was guilty. Anyone’s guilty who lets these things happens and pretends like it isn’t. No, he was guilty all right. Just as guilty as the fanatics who pulled the trigger. Maybe we all are.
Living in New Orleans, especially living in St. Bernard Parish presents me with lots of opportunities to reflect on issues of race. The parish I live in was a ‘white flight’ suburb; created in large part by whites fleeing the Lower Ninth ward as more African-Americans moved in and purchased homes. Pre-Katrina it was 93% white. It’s a community that post-Katrina tried to pass ‘blood relative law’for housing so that rentals could only be made to blood relatives.
Today is the 16th anniversary of my brother’s murder; a racist killing. I told the story last year so I won’t repeat it but it’s here for anyone who didn’t read it then. Watching Mississippi Burning tonight and thinking about the anniversary of Tyler’s death made me realize that I hadn’t written my reflection of my Civil Rights trip to Alabama in May with my students. I know some of them did but here are a few thoughts, mostly in pictures, from me.
It was one of the most profound experiences of my life.
It was my third trip to the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama; a town that’s mostly known for being the centre of so many civil rights actions. My first trip was with Pascal Murphy, my co-instructor, as we drove to New Orleans. On my second, he and I and most of our students did a day trip (5+ hours each way, not recommended). This year I took 11 students for an overnight trip. We did the Civil Rights Memorial, the Greyhound Bus Station where they had just opened the Freedom Riders Museum, Martin Luther King parsonage and church, and then drove from Montgomery to Selma; the reverse of the famous Civil Rights March. In Selma, we walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge; silently, two by two.
There is a scene in a movie we watched at the Selma to Montgomery Trail Interpretative Centre where one of the marchers talks about standing on a rock. The camera zooms in and shows a small pebble. Each of us took a pebble for ourselves, and a pebble for all the students who hadn’t come on the trip. Mine sits on top of my TV where I see it as I pass by everyday. It’s a vivid reminder of all that we experienced.
As I told my students these battles are not far over. The US Civil Rights Act was signed only a few years before I was born. As a queer woman – and indeed even as a woman – I have been harassed and discriminated against. My brother’s killing was only 16 years ago. Battles continue to be fought.
We need to figure out what our role is in the civil rights battle. If we do nothing, then indeed “maybe we all are”.