Sunday, March 08, 2015

The LuLac Edition #2852, March 8th, 2015


Our "Interview" logo.

Saturday was the fiftieth anniversary of "Bloody Sunday", a day when Alabama State Troopers attacked 525 civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama as they attempt to march to the state capitol of Montgomery. The march was scheduled to garner more public support for The Voting Rights Act. Many of here in the north only saw these events unfold on TV. I always wondered what seeing those places, even in hindsight would be like. We're fortunate to speak to an individual who was in the Deep, formerly segregated South touring the towns that were at the epicenter of the struggle. One of them was Selma. Jim Gibson is our Interview for today.

1. First off, you were 9 when all of this was going on. What prompted you to go on this trip, how was it arranged and how did you find out about it?

That’s right. I don’t remember when it was happening. Later on in life, probably during my 20s, I read a book on the civil rights movement and found it fascinating. My wife, Bonnie, and I have continued to read about it and discuss it ever since. We both decided it was time to go visit these places in person.
Without the convenience of the Internet in those days, Bonnie spent hours calling the tourist bureaus in each state, compiling all the information and developing the itinerary. It is fair to say that “visiting” is the only thing I had to do.
For me, there was no moral ambiguity about this issue. It was not like should we have a tax cut or not or what can be done to prevent teen pregnancies. This was about ensuring Americans their very basic rights – rights that were being denied based on the color of their skin. It is a story about true Americans taking on others who were more than willing to blatantly violate the Constitution by “any means necessary,” to ironically quote Malcolm X. Most public issues are fascinating to me but this one had none of the moral ambiguity.

2. As you stated you went in 1996, what was your feel for what the attitude was there?

The attitude in Selma was laid-back, mixed with unpretentious Southern hospitality. The town is predominantly African American and that populace is pleased that tourists are interested in the history of the town and movement. It was a stark contrast to how Southern whites historically would refer so hostilely to “outsider” Northerners trying to change the “Southern way of life.”

3. Selma. Give me an overview of the town. You were born in New Jersey, grew up in Kingston, lived in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and now Denver. Describe the town, even in 1996.

At first glance, it looks like any other small town in that part of the country. By all appearances, one would never sense the magnitude of the history that took place there. As it turned out, what did take place there not only affected the South, but the rest of America and, for that matter, the world.

4. Did you engage in any conversations with the towns people. Did they view these tours as an intrusion, a changing of the times or just as commerce?

Chatting with local residents was great. They were very welcoming and happy that we and others care about what happened there.
Bonnie sparked a friendship with one of the museum directors in town. They “bonded” while discussing the despicable bigotry of Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark (the county which includes Selma).

5. Being a ball buster from birth, when you were talking to some people there, knowing that the bridge's namesake, Edmund Pettus was a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, did you ask anyone why they never changed the name of the bridge?

Honestly, I did not know about the history of Pettus and so that conversation about the bridge’s name never came up.
After all these years, I think you misunderstand the nature of my humor. I only “bust” those people who have an undue, inflated opinion of themselves. Present company excluded, of course.

6.Yeah, right. Did you walk over the bridge and when you did, were you alone and what vibes were you getting?

Bonnie and I did make a point of walking over the bridge and, knowing the history, found it very moving. You could feel the sacrifices that were made there and it literally brought tears to our eyes. The people who marched over that bridge on “Bloody Sunday” helped make America a much better place. After the walk, we hopped into the car and drove the rest of the route of the march to Montgomery.
At the time, I vowed that I would be “back” if the progress made down there was ever reversed. I was too young and unaware to help in 1965. Hopefully, it will not be necessary ever again and if it is, I will not be too old or gone by then.

7. There were many champions of the Civil Rights movement, both black and white. The people of color in the South you spoke to, other than Dr. King, who did they give the most credit to for their progress?

David, I am so glad you asked that question. As part of the same civil rights tour we took, Bonnie and I visited the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Dr. King was the pastor there at the start of the town’s famous boycott of the mass transit system (which effectively made King a leader of the movement), when Rosa Parks was arrested for not moving to the back of the bus. (By the way, as part of our travels around Montgomery, we arrived at the intersection of Jefferson Davis and Rosa Parks streets – only in the South!)
The church is still operating but the basement had been converted into a museum about the movement. As we walked in, I noticed a classic photo of President Kennedy prominently displayed on the wall.
I had to ask the tour guide why JFK and not President Lyndon Johnson, the president who did the most in U.S. history to expand the rights of all Americans, including the Voting Rights Act which was spurred by Selma march. As I recall, she did not have much of answer.
As part of that same tour of the South, we visited Mae Bertha Carter, the late civil rights leader in Drew, Mississippi. I read the book, Silver Rights, which details her fight and the sacrifices she made to make sure her children got a quality education which, at the time, were only provided in the “white” public schools. Subsequently, in 2000, President Clinton awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
We looked her up and asked if we could meet her. She was incredibly gracious, invited us to her home, told us fascinating stories and could not have been kinder.
Ms. Carter also had a portrait of JFK in her living room. My guess is that despite all of LBJ’s incredible work on civil rights legislation, the legacy of Vietnam may have forever tainted his reputation. Our memories about him are so ambiguous that it may be too difficult to treat him as a “hero.” I suppose, rightly or wrongly, our memories of JFK are much less so. In my view, the recent movie, Selma, also unfairly maligned LBJ’s role in civil rights.

8. Now in the rear view mirror of history, given the situations in places like The Supreme Court upending the Voting Rights Act, Ferguson, New York, Florida and now Wisconsin, are we making progress or sliding backwards?

I believe that the world is a much better place but with a lot more work still to be done. I used to believe that we would indeed arrive at the “promised land,” as MLK said, but I am starting to think that the issue of race and equality are battles that must be continually fought.
President Obama may have said it better in Selma on Saturday. “Just this week, I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country. But I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed. What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, it’s no longer sanctioned by law or by custom; and before the civil rights movement, it most surely was.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: James Gibson is a graduate of King's College, and Carnegie Mellon University. He has worked with the Pennsylvania State Senate, Mellon Bank, Pittsburgh, was head of the Colorado Democratic Leadership Council and currently teaches Government and Politics in Denver, Colorado.


At 9:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Interview is back. Yonk and Jillie Knopka never looked so good and the subject matter was wonderful.

At 11:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

very good insights. puts a lot in perspective.

At 8:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great interview bu beinga Pittston Resident (Mentally), I thought for sure you would have had something to say this weekend about the outstanding St Patrick's parade in Pittston. Sure am disappointed.

At 8:29 PM, Blogger David Yonki said...

Great interview bu beinga Pittston Resident (Mentally), I thought for sure you would have had something to say this weekend about the outstanding St Patrick's parade in Pittston. Sure am disappointed.
It was a great event, but I heard nothing from any of the organizers. Sorry you were disappointed. Can't do everything.
But I'll make an effort to include next year and do something in it on the actual day.


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