Maybe We All Are Friday, Jul 8 2011 

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. 

Students celebrate as we pass into Mississippi.

Martin Luther King quote outside Civil Rights Memorial

The Memorial is designed so that you put your hand in the water and look to see your reflection as you trace the names of civil rights heroes and martyrs. The space, shown here, is left to represent all those battles and people not inscribed. The motto is "The March Continues..."

Words to live by. I often question "what would I have done" if I had been a teenager/young adult in the 1960s, especially if I was born in the United States.

Joining into the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March...

Students crossing Edmund Pettus Bridge, 2 by 2, silently. Only tears, no words, were shed.

After our check-in at the foot of the bridge, we all put our hands together - black, white and asian - and pledged to "Keep on Walking Forward, Never Turning Back"

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”.

Advertisements

NOLA, I will be back I promise! Tuesday, May 31 2011 

Civil Rights MemorialThe journey of a lifetime is now coming to an emotional ending. This was an opportunity that I can’t imagine could have gone any better. I really do not know how I will explain the things I have seen or learnt while down here in New Orleans. This city is captivating, it is magical and completely addictive. Walking around the French Quarter on our last day was enjoyable, but very sad. This reminded me of that wall in New Orleans that we saw on our very first day. The wall where people wrote down what they would do before they died. I know what is definite, before I die I will bring my loved ones back to New Orleans to let them see what I saw.

For me particularly the last two check in’s were the most emotional. What happened in Alabama should definitely not stay in Alabama. I will tell my story of what I learnt everywhere I go. Before last weekend I had a very slight knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement but after leaving Selma that sunny Saturday afternoon, I was well informed. To think that only 45 years ago such hate and oppression occurred sends chills down my spine. The Civil Rights Memorial is a wonderful and creative museum in Alabama that pays tribute to the heroes that died for their rights and for our rights. What struck me the hardest was that so many young people were the ones who died. Young girls praying in church one minute and the next their bodies torn apart by a bomb. A young black boy from Chicago visiting the south for a vacation happened to speak to a white woman, this costed him his life. I could really go on for days about how much I saw in Alabama, but I will leave it to all of you to discover it for yourselves. It is the most powerful when you see it first hand. We had the opportunity to walk under the Edmund Pettus  bridge, where the march took place on Bloody Sunday, March 7th, 1965. When we crossed we picked up pebbles. These pebbles were representative of those 2500 heroes who marched that Sunday, these were the stones they stepped on. During check in I let my friends hear my experience of Alabama. But I also shared my feelings about the pebble I collected in Selma. I told them the next time they feel feelings of hate, racism or segregation towards anyone or thing they should remember this pebble and the people that died for us on those rocks. The heroes were the freedom riders, those who marched and anyone who stood up for their right to vote. It is because of them we can be friends with people of any race and share our lives togethor today. We should remember these brave souls and be thankful for the times we live in and the rights we have been given.

I am so thankful for Alabama, for my educators and new friends. I really did not expect New Orleans to become such a big part of my life. This was truly a defining trip which I will never forget. I have learnt so much from the “fascinating” (Thanks Shannon) people on this trip. Each and every one of them are strong, inspiring and courageous people. The citizens of New Orleans are the ones that defined my visit to NOLA. They are some of the warmest and interesting people I have ever met. My role in New Orleans was defined by the looks on their faces when I started helping them heal with whatever help I could provide. NOLA still needs so much help and recovery. I know that I have truly made my mark there and will continue it at some point in the near future.

Much love New Orleans,

Iryna

One year ago… Thursday, Apr 28 2011 

A year ago today I woke up in Birmingham, Alabama and went to sleep in New Orleans; I had officially moved.

Today, several tornadoes have ripped through Alabama.   Several group two NOLA students (those arriving on May 14th) were planning to go on a Civil Rights field trip to Alabama. Some of the areas hit today were amongst those I planned for us to visit, or at least pass through.

I was going to post today about my experiences over the past year, but instead, my mind is caught up with the images and news coming out across the south. This has been a bad year for storms; a bad year for tornadoes. We have had several hit the Greater New Orleans area, including in St. Bernard Parish where I live.

A few weeks ago, this was my phone weather alert system going crazy:

The more I study disasters, the more news like this hits me hard. It is part of my PTSD for sure; it’s part of knowing more about the impact. And sometimes it is personal. My friends Jess and Fred are from Alabama. Their hometowns have been hard tonight. Jess has heard from all her family; Fred hasn’t. I was just talking with him today because he is arranging a sound system for the van I will be using for tours with the students. Statistically speaking, it is likely that Fred’s family is fine. But, dozens of people have been killed and thousands more affected. Regardless, my thoughts are with Jess and Fred tonight, and with all those who are waiting to hear from those whom they love.

I have never lost someone close to a disaster, but the suddenness with which they occur reminds me of the loss of my brother Tyler. That unpredictability, that instant loss; the way life changes within minutes.

I’m really just feeling quite sad tonight.

TMG

%d bloggers like this: