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Civil Rights Trip: Frey

“Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born, / With nowhere yet to rest my head…”-Stanzas From the Grande Chartreuse, Matthew Arnold

Charles Frey ’19 — Walls are decaying and caved in. Windows are busted out, shards of jagged glass cover the sidewalk, and the bars in front of what used to be a door are locked tight. The words “No Trespassing” is seen on the side of the building, next to some green graffiti.

Walk two blocks toward the square. A grassy field in front of a law building. Bright white, tall, and imposing. Surrounding it on all sides are equally impressive buildings. On the other side of the street are brick businesses, closed for the holiday.

These were the two sides of Meridian, Mississippi I saw while following the town’s Civil Rights Trail. Both formed an emotion I’ve felt elsewhere along the journey south. It’s a feeling hard to put my finger on, but one I can only describe as “time-locked.” I don’t want to say regressive because to be regressive would imply falling back. I can’t say progressive because, while there are many signs of moving forward, historic sites are fading into obscurity.

Meridian is time-locked, unsure of how to move forward yet determined to extinguish its past. Yes, information plaques mark sites with facts about people, dates, and events, but the locations in which these events happened are disappearing. And Meridian isn’t the only place.

In Selma, Alabama we walked from the Brown Chapel A.M.E Church to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and along the way I witnessed similar scenes of poverty combined with progress. An informational kiosk about Civil Rights leaders had been vandalized and just recently was replaced. Even with the new replacement, the informational canvas was already beginning to fray.

In Anniston, Alabama we walked a different Civil Rights Trail, one that held a focus on the Freedom Riders. While interacting with local security in the courthouse, we asked for directions to the nearest plaque, to which the white security guard paused and asked his partner, “Those information things we got last year?”

In Monteagle, Tennessee our bus stopped briefly at the site where the Highlander Folk School stood—a location that trained many of the Civil Rights Movement’s prolific leaders such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Because of the school’s involvement with the CRM, it closed its doors and moved to Knoxville in 1961. It’s original site? An abandoned shell of a building surrounded by rural homes.

Over the years, there hasn’t been enough action taken to maintain these historic sites. Despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, attitudes in the South have hardly changed regarding the preservation of African American heritage. Yes, the nation has propelled past segregation, but ignorance has halted the progress of select southern towns—progress that should have happened 50 years ago.