I am a total sucker for simple recipes with basic ingredients and outsized promises of greatness, so last month when I came across a NYT recipe for a biscuit that had Eric Kim, a NYT Cooking food writer, saying things like “this biscuit is such a new taste for me” and “very unique” and “so different from any other biscuit I’ve ever had” — and he’s from the South! — I knew I had to make it.
Friends, he is right. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but this biscuit is different from regular biscuits.
The butter-flour ratio reminds me of pie pastry. The sugar in the dough made me think they’d be similar to scones, yet they are definitely not scones and I have zero interest in smacking in some add-ins like fruit, nuts, or chocolate. The folding method is reminiscent of puff pastry, but in a craggy, this-is-not-that way. And the addition of buttermilk makes me feel like these really ought to be like ordinary biscuits, and yet they aren’t.
These are less bready, maybe, and more special — part ordinary food and part divine dessert. The inside is tender and the outside has a decidedly un-biscuit-like crunch.
Whatever the case, the salty-sweet ratio is spot on. Absolute perfection. Amen.
The whole family gobbles them up, and I save the leftovers for breakfast. Even three days out, I still wake up excited for my breakfast biscuit.
A few notes:
Use a sided baking sheet because sometimes some of the butter bakes out in the oven. (When this happens, the biscuit edges fry in the butter which turns them deliciously crispy, o happy day!)
The instructions call for grating the butter, freezing it for 10 minutes, and then tossing it with the dry ingredients. I’ve grated the butter on the big grater holes and the small ones (Eric says the small holes are better), and have found that the smaller butter shavings were so fine that they clumped back together and became lumps. I’m not convinced either way.
The cutting and stacking of the dry dough until it turns into a cohesive, many-layered block of buttery, flaky goodness is totally worth it. Also, it’s fun. Try it!
Shaping the dough into a 1½ inch-high square and then cutting it into 9 pieces is smart: it’s fast, and there are no scraps to reroll. (I actually skipped the rolling pin entirely and just used my hands.).
It never ceases to amaze me how the same ordinary ingredients can yield such vastly different results with only the smallest of tweaks. What thrills!
I used homemade butter, and I replaced the buttermilk with clabber. The amount of salt (I used non-iodized Kosher salt) is perfect; don’t skimp.
425 grams all-purpose flour 100 grams sugar 1 tablespoon baking powder 2½ teaspoons kosher salt 2 sticks (277 grams) butter, grated and frozen for only 10 minutes 300 grams buttermilk or clabber More melted butter and flaky Maldon salt, for finishing
Toss together the dry ingredients, and then add the lightly frozen, grated butter and toss to combine. Add the buttermilk/clabber in 2-3 additions, tossing after each addition. The dough will be quite dry and shaggy.
Turn the dough out onto a floured counter and, using your hands, shape it into a rough rectangle. Cut the dough in half and stack one half on top of the other. Press/roll the dough back into a rectangle. Repeat the cutting and stacking process 4-5 more times. By the end, the dough should be much smoother and hold together well.
Press the dough into a square that’s 1½ inches high. Cut the dough into 9 squares, place them on a parchment-lined, sided baking sheet, and bake at 375 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Brush the tops with butter and sprinkle with flaky salt.
Serve warm, with butter and jam. Leftover biscuits can be bagged and stored at room temperature (before heating, reheat for 15 seconds), or frozen.
Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. — L.R. Knost
It’s been two weeks since we returned, but I’m still putting the pieces together.
Just the other day my husband said, “Do you think it was intentional that they structured the EJI museum so you felt like you couldn’t escape?”
And only then did I catch on to the planners’ subtle brilliance: the place was actually designed to make guests feel trapped, just as our country has trapped Black people — from when they first arrived in chains on the slave ships to how they’re being chained in the jails today — and the museum staff scattered throughout the museum, pointing us toward the exit, mimicked the underground railroad.
I’ve never been sure what my place is when it comes to the Black experience. As a white person, how do I fit in? What is my role?
My uncertainty makes me feel feel awkward and uncomfortable. I worry I’ll do something wrong. I worry I’ll say something stupid or make a fool of myself. I worry I’ll hurt someone.
The not-knowing can be paralyzing.
Messy stories are hard to manage. Tidy stories with a villain and hero, a clear conflict, and a neat resolution are so much easier to package. But life isn’t like that. People aren’t like that.
One of the things Pastor Hugh told us is that if something appears simple, then you don’t know the whole story. I’ve been thinking about that a lot: how we tweak truth and ignore facts — sometimes willfully — simply because it’s easier.
I think the experience of the messiness was the biggest gift I got from that week. Time after time I was welcomed into the complicated mess. I was trusted with the stories and as I listened, I’d sometimes find myself crying, not because the story was heartbreaking but because I was being included.
I think it’s called grace.
A long time ago I came across a chart illustrating the appropriate channels of communication when relating to someone who is grieving: a series of circles with the grieving person in the center and everyone else radiating outward in ever larger circles, with the people more intimately connected to the central person in the inner rings and the people less connected in the outer rings.
The rules for communication are as follows: People can process their grief with other people in the same ring, or with people in the outer rings, but the reverse of this is not true.
In other words, it’s unhelpful and innappropriate for people in the outer rings to confide their pain to those in the inner rings. Why? Because people on the inside are already struggling enough. They do not need the additional burden of the grief of those in the outer rings.
I think of this “communication flow” whenever I’m dealing with situations that I don’t understand firsthand, like infertility, disability, divorce, etc. If I’m not in the inner circle — if the pain is not mine — then my job is to listen to those in the inner circles without attempting to troubleshoot or fix, or to console them by sharing my own sadness. Because when I’m with them, my pain isn’t the point.
It’s not a perfect tool, I realize, and the rings aren’t always obvious, but it’s a start.
I’ll take it.
Right before we left on our trip, I learned that our group was supposed to be in charge of our church’s worship service two Sundays after we got back.
I didn’t give it much thought at first, but just a couple days into the trip, I knew I wouldn’t be able to participate: there was no way I’d be able to wrap my head around what I was learning fast enough and well enough to share it in any meaningful sort of way, nor did I feel that it was even my place — at least not yet.
Instead, I needed to let go of any pressure to turn my experience and the information I was learning into a tidy little lesson for other people. For that week, I needed to simply be present. To listen to the people. To feel the weight of their stories. To let the pain wash over me and seep into my body.
To be uncomfortable and confused.
To be sad.
My daughter-in-law, the only person of color in our group, spoke that Sunday morning, though. She spoke masterfully, with piercing insight and vulnerability.
That morning in the sharing time, another member of our congregation shared about a friend of his who lives in our county and has a Black child, and who gets letters in his mailbox from someone who identifies as the Ku Klux Klan.
“So this is still in the communities that we occupy,” my friend said, his voice breaking, “but it’s hidden from most of us.”
And that’s when I realized that that, right there, was exactly the reason I’d decided to go on the tour in the first place: to learn to see the things that are usually hidden from me.
Postscript to the postscript: I took creative license with the quotes in this series. None of the statements — or almost none of them — were direct quotes, though the essence of them was, to the best of my memory, totally true. (I figured you knew that, but I thought I should say that out loud since real people are connected to the quotes.)
Day Seven For our last day, we toured Jackson with Pastor Hugh, a lifelong Southerner.
Hugh spoke slowly, rhythmically: sweeping stories bulked up with meaty facts. Thoughtful, meandering exposition punctuated with truth bombs. Roundabout answers that forced me to connect the dots myself. We’d only been with him for an hour or two before it occurred to me that it might be wise to take notes. So I did (thank goodness).
Hugh used a boarded-up building to explain Mississippi’s two deltas: there’s one at the southern part of the state, but when people mention the Mississippi Delta, they’re almost always referring to the river delta in the upper west corner of the state.
Here are some of my main takeaways from our day with Hugh:
People won’t give you the tools you need to overthrow them. At the fairgrounds, Hugh told us that back in the 60’s the 10-day event was divided into two fairs: nine days were for white people, and one was for Blacks. When the Blacks protested (and I think this happened for a couple years running), the protestors were rounded up and caged in the fairground’s cattle barns — within view of the capitol building. At that time Mississippi law said that a person had 40 days to post bail, so the protestors leveraged that against the system: they’d get arrested and then wait to appeal their case until the 39th day, effectively clogging up the jails.
Silence doesn’t mean peace. Hugh pointed out the old library where The Tougaloo Nine — students from Tougaloo College — held their read-in in 1961. It was a tiny event, but it effectively kickstarted the civil rights movement. At the time, Hugh explained, many white people didn’t even realize there was a race problem. “White culture confuses silence with peace, so the people who talk about the problem are assumed to cause the problem, when in reality the problem already existed.”
Heroes versus Movements We walked by the bus station where the Freedom Riders ended their journey. “You saw that wall of photos in the Civil Rights Museum yesterday, right? Of the 450 people that participated in the Freedom rides, did you notice that none — not one — of the people on that wall are famous? They were all just regular people who protested, did jail time, and then went back to doing whatever they were doing before — going to school or cooking food or farming.”
Hugh asked if we were familiar with David LaMotte. “If you aren’t, you should be,” he said, and then he explained told us what LaMotte says about heroes versus movements: Heroes are bigger than life, so if we always look for a hero to get the work done, then we won’t ever do anything — it feels too impossible. But a movement is made up of ordinary people; everyone gets to play a part.
The Banality of Evil Black southern homes often have photos on the wall of the same three men — Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy — “but let me tell you something about Kennedy,” Hugh said.
By the time the Freedom Riders were entering Mississippi, the whole world was watching, and the violence was making Kennedy look bad. So right before the bus entered Mississippi, Kennedy struck a deal with state authorities: in exchange for providing police protection for the riders, he wouldn’t intervene when state officials arrested and jailed the protestors. In other words, as long as the state made Kennedy look good on the news, they could do whatever they wanted in private.
Did this mean Kennedy was a horrible person? Not really, Hugh said. Governments are about compromise. Kennedy’s face-saving deal at the expense of the Freedom Riders didn’t necessarily mean Kennedy was a bad person, or even racist. “People make the best decisions they can at the time based on the opportunities they think they have,”
Evil isn’t just a few monsters doing all the terrible things, Hugh said. In fact, there might not be any monsters. Rather, evil is the accumulation of thousands of small compliances that enable evil to happen — and may make room for monsters to emerge. This, Hugh explained is called The Banality of Evil, and the converse, the Banality of Good, also exists: lots of small positive acts that enable great goodness.
History doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. Hugh led us down Farish street, the section of town that was the heart of Jackson’s Black community in the 1960s. He pointed out Peaches, the restaurant that MLK loved, and the Alamo Theater, and the building that at different points had housed the headquarters for everything that was anything: NAACP, SNCC, COFO, and a whole bunch of other things I can’t remember now.
Farish Street is now deserted — the unintended consequence of desegregation was the collapse of the black middle class, Hugh said, echoing the same theme we’d been hearing all week — but a few years back the city obtained funding to restore Farish street. They put in trees and redid the road and sidewalks, but then the money vanished, pocketed by investors and contractors, and now Farish Street is lost once again: a partially-revitalized ghost town, twice abandoned.
A movement is comprised of ordinary people doing small things. On Farish Street, Hugh pointed out the building that used to be the YWCA and told us about how when there’d been a children’s march and the police were rounding them up, a few of the kids ran into the building to hide. When the police tried to go in after them, the woman in charge, a large Black woman refused them entry — This building is for women, she said. Men aren’t allowed, and the police listened. “I’ve heard that story many times,” Hugh said, “and you know what? No one knows that woman’s name.”
The rest of our country needs a Mississippi to make it feel better about itself. We circled an enormous mall that was the hub of consumerism back in the 80s and is now completely abandoned, except for one little corner that, rather ironically, houses the Jackson City Water Offices. (The mall bore such an uncanny resemblance to parts of Station Eleven that I actually googled it to see if they’d filmed there — they hadn’t.) We drove through the fancy part of town and through a food desert. Twenty-five percent of Jackson’s population has an annual income of fifteen thousand dollars.
At one point, after a series of questions about what Jackson’s future might hold, the strain of living surrounded by such poverty and racial tensions, Hugh said, “Hang on a sec. Aren’t y’all from Virginia?”
And then my older daughter pointed out that we hadn’t seen hardly any Confederate flags on this trip but they’re everywhere in Virginia.
Goodness and evil, side-by-side At the home of Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist who was murdered in 1963, Hugh told us how Medgar had had the house built to his specification: a gravel roof so it’d be easier to put out the fires in case it’d be fire-bomed (which it was). A brick wall that rose a certain number of inches above the height of children’s beds so they’d be protected from gun fire while they were sleeping. A side door instead of a front door. A fridge on wheels positioned beside the kitchen door so it could double as a barricade.
Hugh pointed to the spot where the gunman had been standing when he shot Evers as he was unloading some things from the trunk of his car. The next door neighbor had come to Evers’ rescue, loaded him into the car, and rushed him to the hospital. But it was against hospital rules for Blacks to be treated by white staff. Evers’s wife had called their family doctor, a Black man, but when he arrived, he wasn’t allowed to use the hospital equipment. Eventually, the head doctor arrived and said he’d take responsibility for breaking the rules, but by then it was too late.
“And here’s the thing,” Hugh said. “Twenty-four hours earlier in that very same hospital, doctors had just successfully performed the first lung transplant. That evil and goodness coexisting side-by-side pretty much sums up Jackson.”
Broken bodies, breaking bread That evening we met back at the Open Door church for a catered feast of potato salad, pasta and chicken, green beans, cornbread, three kinds of cake, and sweet tea made by a 15-year-old girl, and then Hugh led us in a closing reflection.
He told us that when the protestors were caged in the cattle pens at the fairgrounds, the officers made the white and Black protestors sit on opposite sides of the pens. The guards fed the white protestors first, but the most amazing thing happened: Each person, without speaking, took their cup of milk and set it on the ground in front of them, placed their bologna sandwich on top, and waited. Then the Blacks were served, and they did the same. The two groups sat there silently, facing each other, and when everyone had been served, the whites and Blacks quietly, and as one body, ate together.
“This might be heretical,” Hugh said, “but I believe Jesus has already returned — and his body has been lynched and burned and broken again and again and again.”
And then he served us communion with sweet tea and cornbread left over from our dinner.
Day Five, continued After spending the majority of the day with Leroy, we drove to Nanih Waiya, a Choctaw Indian Mennonite Church, for a mid-afternoon lunch of “Indian Tacos” (fry bread with all the fixings — beans, ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream), sweet tea, pecan pie, and banana pudding.
In the meeting that followed, they told us about how their church was bombed three times during the civil rights movement, and a few of the older women talked about growing up as sharecroppers, and how the three groups — Blacks, whites, and Choctaw — didn’t like each other. I don’t know why, one of the women said. We just didn’t like each other. But now so many Choctaws are married to other races that eventually there might not even be a Choctaw race.
Afterward, we went to a restaurant for lunch — catfish, sweet potato fries, fried green tomatoes — with Pastor Horace, and then spent the afternoon at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
At first I wasn’t too excited (I was getting weary of absorbing information, and nothing quite compares to the EJI museum!), but then I started digging into the displays, sitting for the movies, actually reading the information and trying to connect it to the stories I’d already heard. After a week of being so focused on a theme, the bits of information were beginning to stack up, sort of like a Russian nesting doll of experiences. For example:
Inside the freedom schools were lots of Black families who hosted Black and white college students who’d come to the south to teach the children and get people to register to vote.
Inside the voter registration efforts were church bombings, murders (included the lynchings of the three civil rights workers), marches, protests, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the (1965) passage of the Voting Rights Act.
In the Emmett Till display, I listened to a recording of a person working with the Emmett Till Interpretive Center who had been involved in the installation of a commemoration marker at the murder site. He told about an interaction he’d had with a man who’d been angry about the marker.
“Why are you bringing this stuff up now?” The man had demanded. “That’s in the past!”
But the worker, instead of getting angry, asked the man if he had children, and explained how helpful it can be to a grieving community when they can publicly remember what they have lost.
The man walked off without saying much, but the next day he returned. “My wife is a seamstress in a fabric store,” he said. If you’re going to have an unveiling of a marker, then you need a good piece of fabric. We’d like to contribute that for the ceremony.”
“I could’ve called gotten upset and labeled that man a racist,” the person concluded, “but I didn’t and look what happened.”
Standing there, he talked about growing up on the Black side of the tracks in a safe, warm community, and never being afraid, and he told us how all 39 members of the police force were members of the Klan when he was growing up. No one mentioned the lynchings of the civil rights workers when he was a child— it was too painful for the adults, he said — so he learned about it on his own when he was in the 8th grade. One of his teachers recommended a book to him and, reading the story, he’d recognized his town and pieced things together.
photo credit: a group member
He talked about how, back in the early 2000s, Neshoba County had national record-high teen pregnancy numbers and how, through the formation of the youth coalition, they’ve dramatically slashed the numbers.
“But how?” we asked.
“We don’t talk about abstinence-only or safe sex or STDs or birth control, none of that,” Leroy said. “What we do do, is teach critical thinking skills: How’s it gonna feel when you have to tell your wife that half your paycheck goes to support another woman? What are you gonna do when you can’t get a job because you have a whole string of little ones to care for? Everyone makes mistakes, but the more mistakes you make, the harder they are to fix. But we tell our youth that if your mistake hasn’t killed you, then we can help fix it.”
“But lots of times girls find themselves in bad situations that they didn’t have much choice about in the first place,” someone pointed out. “How do you support girls who are dealing with things that are beyond their control?”
“Our motto is: once a member of the Neshoba Youth Coalition, always a member,” Leroy said, “and if someone wants to get out, we help them find a way. For girls who are in bad relationships, we ask them why they need that person? What are they getting from that relationship? Once they can think critically about their choices, they can begin to make changes.”
He drove us though the business district on the Black part of town, pointing out all the stairs leading up from the road to now-empty lots where houses once had been. He pointed out the last diner on that side of town — I think he said it’d just gone out of business a week earlier. At the end of the street was the newly-integrated elementary school he’d attended. One of the little girls he played with — he even went to her house to play, and was treated well there by her family, he said — was the daughter of one of the Klansmen involved in the boys’ lynching.
“I never knew anything about what had happened, so I didn’t know to be afraid at school,” Leroy said. “The teachers may have said things, but it just went right over my head.”
“But your parents,” I said, “weren’t they scared?”
“Yes, terrified, though I didn’t know it at the time. I remember they asked me so many questions. I know now they were checking to find out if I was being mistreated, but back then I just thought they wanted to hear about my day.”
photo credit: Rose Shenk
Standing in the shade of an abandoned gas station where I watched a four-wheeler speed down the street in front of us and run the stop sign, Leroy told us that years after the movement, civil rights workers returned to Philadelphia to apologize. “We made a mistake,” they said. “We asked for equality when what we should’ve asked for was equity.”
It struck me then (and at other times during the trip) how the civil rights movement was far from perfect. People didn’t know what they were doing. They messed up, misjudged, and asked for the wrong thing. Demanding change and making justice: these things are messy and imperfect. People betray each other and change their minds and give up. People lose their jobs, their homes, their lives. Looking back, the movement appears so linear and organized, almost like it was predestined, but it was anything but.
He told us the story of the reopened murder trial 40 years after the event. Leroy and one of his white friends had decided to plan a commemoration of the civil rights murders, so they called a town meeting. “How do we remember this together?” they asked the people gathered.
“How about we hold a march?” one of the Black people suggested, and all the Blacks in the room nodded along. And then one of the white people said, “Or we could sign a declaration saying that this will never happen again,” and the Black fell silent and the white people nodded along. No decision was made that night, and after the meeting, Lero went to his white co-leader and asked, “Why didn’t you white people like the idea of a march?”
“Do you know what a march means to white people?” his friend said. “It means y’all are mad and you’re coming for us and there’s gonna be riots and looting! And what was so bad about signing a declaration anyway?”
“Do you know what a declaration means to Black people?” Leroy countered. “Absolutely nothing! White people have been signing, and breaking, declarations since forever. Words on a piece of paper don’t mean anything to us!”
So they called a second meeting. This time, there was no commemoration-planning agenda. Rather, the goal was to let the townspeople, both Black and white, tell their stories of what it was like growing up in Philadelphia. As people talked, the whites began to learn that Blacks weren’t angry at them — they didn’t want to fight them or get back at them, and the Blacks had lots of stories of the white people who had helped them — and the Blacks began to learn all the ways in which the whites had also been terrorized by Klan.
The town meetings continued, the group eventually became The Philadelphia Coalition, and this group, along with some other events and key people, like the work of investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell, led to the reopening of the civil rights workers’ murder case. Forty-one years to the day after the lynchings, the Klansman who’d organized the murders was convicted. Leroy, who was very involved in that case, appears a number of times in the documentary (which we watched that evening as a group).
Leroy told us that Mr. Killen, the Klansman who’d organized the killings and then been convicted four decades later, had said he wanted the boys to be lynched right along the road close to his house so he could pass the place every day and remember it.
“We’ll go to that spot,” Leroy told us, “but we won’t stay long. I don’t like to tempt fate” — a statement which confused me until he explained that lots of Klansmen are from that area and live around there. (And then later our group leader shared that on one of her first tours with Leroy back in 2018 or so, Leroy had told the group, “If you see me start to run, run with me,” and only then did I begin to get an inkling of the risk he was taking.)
Before we went to the murder site, Leroy took us out into the country to Mt. Zion Baptist, the church that had been burned prior to the civil rights workers’ murders. Standing in the yard of the church, Leroy walked us through the series of events that led up to the murders.
photo credit: a group member
Because Schwerner, one the civil rights workers, had spent some time working at that church, the Klan was on the lookout for him. One evening, there was a church meeting and a neighboring Black man noticed a strange Black man walking back and forth outside the church and, assuming the strange man was a guard and that Schwerner was inside, he tipped off the Klan. (Schwerner wasn’t inside — he’d left the area — and the strange man was just an out-of-towner who’d come for his daughter’s birthday and was waiting for the meeting to wrap up inside.) The Klan assembled, put up road blocks, severely beat some of the church people, and burned the church. When Schwerner returned to Mississippi not long after, he went to visit the burned church, along with Chaney and Goodman, and on their way back to Meridian, they were apprehended and killed.
That’s the briefest of summaries, the best I can remember, but the version we got from Leroy was convoluted and nuanced. Like, for example, how the Black man who tipped off the Klan was a member of Mt. Zion Baptist, and how he remained an active member there for the rest of his life. Like, how certain details of the story came from children of Klansmen, and their memory of events. Like how the grandchildren of some of the Klansmen have married Black people.
The more Leroy talked, the more complicated the story became. There was nothing linear or clear-cut about this history, and listening to him, I felt the weight of that — heavy, unwieldy, and murky.
photo credit: a group member
Leroy then took us to the spot where the boys were murdered. We clustered on the edge of the country road while Leroy stood on the pine needles at the side of the road and recounted the details of the lynchings, details that were still being pieced together: The car chase. The shootings. The broken bones. The dismembering of one of the bodies. The last young man running and getting shot down, playing dead, and then being buried alive. The mundane details of coordinating a middle-of-the-night mass burial. The search for the bodies, and the discovery of more than a half dozen other lynched Black bodies in the process.
He gestured down the road to his left, telling of the Klansmen who lived back that way. “Killen’s brother lived down there,” he said, “and in the documentary you’re gonna watch, he’s the one sitting in a recliner with a rifle on the table beside him. He died in that same chair last year, and no one found him for so long that his body had begun to decompose.” Leroy paused, and then he said, almost gently, “He died alone. Such a terrible death.”
As we were leaving the site, my younger daughter asked about the blood. Wouldn’t that have been a giveaway?
“Killen came back the next morning,” Leroy said, “and cleaned up the area, as well as the chains and guns which he then returned to police headquarters.”
P.S. In a 2013 Hechinger Report interview, Leroy says, Our main focus wasn’t about prosecuting an 80-year-old man. It was about changing Neshoba County. It was about doing the right thing, about saying enough is enough, about speaking with one voice. This may sound crude, but some of these people will never change … it will take a few more funerals before we get to be where we need to be. There are still people who are determined that nothing will change in this city, state or country … they will go to the grave with their secrets and they will never tell, and a lot of it is out of fear. They don’t want to re-live those days. They have voluntary amnesia.
For Days One and Two, go here. For Day Three, go here.
We spent Day Four touring Montgomery, Alabama and then driving the route of the Voting Rights March, but in reverse — from Montgomery to Selma.
Our tour guide was Jake Williams. He knew everything — dates, names, stories: my head was spinning! — and he spoke with an enchanting poetic lyricism. I didn’t write anything down (I was too intent on listening to write), but I do remember that he said regarding an abandoned town: that it “got lost” — which perfectly encapsulated that sad-grief feeling I got when visiting those once-vibrant neighborhoods.
photo credit: Rose Shenk
Everything happened in Montgomery, it seemed. Mr. Williams pointed out the place where Rosa Parks got on the bus and, a couple blocks later, where she was told to give up her seat. “The theaters had just let out,” he said, indicating two old buildings on either side of the street, “and the buses were filling with movie goers.” Later when we drove through the campus of Alabama State College, he pointed to the building where the civil rights workers had used the college’s mimeograph machine to print 50,000 flyers alerting the Black community of the strike that very night.
photo credit: Arloa Bontrager
He took us through the wealthy part of Montgomery where fancy churches stretched for whole blocks. “We Alabamans love our churches,” he said. “We live with the Bible in one hand and a pistol in the other.” He showed us where the public pool was that the a city had closed for five years rather than integrate it, and he pointed out a park that used to be whites-only and told us about the Black boy had been murdered for taking a shortcut through it.
Court Square, Montgomery: where the slave auctions were held photo credit: Rose Shenk
At the Southern Poverty Law Center, he pointed to the lone guard standing out front. “It looks like no one’s guarding the place,” he said, “but let me assure you, there’s a whole lotta more protection than just that one guard.” And at the capitol building, as he parked the van along the curb for his lecture, he said, “You’ll notice no police are in sight, but they are watching me right this very minute. If I so much as go up and touch that Jefferson statue” — alluding to the recent attempts to remove it — “they will be everywhere.”
The baby of sixteen children, Mr. Williams was born and raised in Lowndes County, the county between Montgomery and Selma and home of the Black Panther Movement. When the march took place, there were no registered Black voters in Lowndes. A twelve-year-old at the time, Mr. Williams joined the march for one day. As we drove along Route 80 heading for Selma, he kept pointing out which lane of road was the original and which one wasn’t (they’d switch back and forth), and the place where the road had narrowed to a single lane and the marchers had to downsize their count to 300, as per the agreed-upon number for that stretch.
He showed us the spot where he saw Martin Luther King, pointed out the sprawling ranch house set back from the road where his mother had been the housekeeper (“She had to arrive at work early so she could have breakfast on the table when the family woke up”), and he showed us the campsites where marchers slept, and explained what happened to the landowners that allowed the marchers to use their land (one was unable to purchase stock for her store, another had their bank account frozen, and I can’t remember what happened to the third), as well as the stories of the three murders that resulted because of the march.
“Five days, fifty-four miles, four campsites, three murders, and three repercussions,” he said as we neared Selma. “That’s how I describe the march. You ready for the test?”
We briefly drove around Selma (lots of churches, and lots of damage from the recent tornado), and then he parked so we could walk across the bridge on the same path the marchers took.
That afternoon we drove to Mississippi and that night we stayed at Pine Lake Camp, which is ridiculously gorgeous and packed with wonderful places to play and explore.
As soon as we parked, the kids raced down to the water and took off peddaling, paddling, and rowing. After so many days of driving and listening, we were all in desperate need of fresh air and open spaces.
It was just the thing.
P.S. After writing this post, I discovered a YouTube video of — get this — Mr. Williams giving a tour! I haven’t watched all of it yet, but I highly recommend you do (and then report back when you find my mistakes). He’s wonderful.
Day Three At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, aka the Lynching Memorial, in Montgomery, I was struck by its simplicity.
The architecture looked industrial with its straight lines and drab colors — boring, almost. Just an outdoor pavilion with a maze of vertical, rusty-colored rectangles with the names of counties and states at the top of each, followed by the list of the names of the people who’d been lynched and the date they died.
We meandered through the columns reading the dates and catching hints of stories: the clusters of people lynched on the same day, the family groups, the women. And then we turned the corner and the floor began to slope downward and the boxes began to rise up.
By the time we got to the bottom and turned the corner again, the boxes were hanging high overhead, the engraven names hard to decipher, the names of the counties now on the bottom.
My son wondered to me if they were modeling the design after the African American History museum in Washington DC, in the sense that the space was changing in such a way as to make you feel the story — and he was exactly right: the boxes lifting up, all those people gone, leaving us behind with our heads thrown back looking up after them. Hanging boxes; hanging bodies. Talking about it to my husband later, I found myself crying.
In the courtyard was a mound, and atop it a simple square of wood to symbolize the very public ways in which the enslaved people were humiliated and lynched. In the yard surrounding the memorial were the boxes again, this time in long rows on the ground, like caskets.
They went on for forever.
There was also a section with plaques of the community remembrance project — markers honoring communities that have done the hard work of truth telling through the Equal Justice Initiative.
The way the museum was structured, visitors enter at one end and wind around through enormous rooms, everyone moving in the same direction and with no outside light to indicate where you are, what time it is, or how much more ground you need to cover. In other words, one must go through it to go through it; no skipping around.
The material in the museum was so interactive and immersive that I kind of got lost in it. At one point when I noticed I was getting hungry and was debating whether to wait until I finished to go eat, I approached a guard to ask where we were in the museum. About a third of the way through, she said. Needless to say, we broke for lunch (which meant leap frogging from guard to guard until we reached the end, got a wristband from the last guard, went to eat our lunch, and then reentered back at the beginning).
Things that stood out to me: The sound of water. Walking down a corridor lined with head sculptures of the enslaved people by Ghanian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo*. The columns of ads of people for sale. The wall filled with lynching stories, and the wall filled with shelves of gallon jars — each jar filled with soil from a different lynching site. Watching Fannie Lou Hamer’s full (I think) testimony. The sound of gunshots, unrelenting. Picking up the phone and listening to prisoner after modern-day prisoner tell their story. Gordon Parks’ Doll Test Photo.
I kept thinking about how this museum compared to the African American museum in DC. They both covered a lot of the same material, and this one was a lot smaller in size, yet somehow this one felt much more intense, perhaps because the focus was on the fallout from slavery: its legacy. Yet somehow, even though the information was deeply disturbing and heavy, I didn’t feel traumatized. Drained and fragile, yes, but not battered. It was one of the most engrossing, intense, and informative museum experiences I’ve ever had, period.
The Legacy Museum is an important place — for all of us. If you get a chance to visit, do it.
*This 15-minute video tells the origin story of the head sculptures, and here is a video about the making of the sculptures from the first photo:
Last fall when our church arranged a civil rights learning tour through Mennonite Mission Network, our family talked about going — just the four of us living at home — but my older daughter who was living in Massachusetts at the time said she wanted to come, too, so we decided to wait until spring when a second trip was scheduled. Then, with the departure date fast approaching, my husband and I realized it was too complicated for both of us to go, so he decided to stay home to milk the cows and earn money (so I could spend it). And then, since there was a vacant space, my daughter-in-law decided to come along, too.
So there we were: most of my family, five other people from our church, and three people from MMN headquarters: a driver, the leader, and another MMN employee who was along for the ride (and the learning).
Day One The first night we had supper at Casa Alterna, a home where asylum seekers and US citizens live together. Two of the residents, a young couple who met and married on their way to the US, prepared our dinner of baleadas and rosa de jamaica tea, and then told us a bit about their story. (The young woman was from Honduras, close to the place where fish fall from the sky — seriously. It’s a thing!)
Day Two At the Friends Meeting House that serves as a worship space, short-term sanctuary for immigrants, and preschool, Anton, the friend in residence, pulled out a pin-filled world map showing where the people they serve come from.
He took us on a tour of the building and showed us where the immigrants sleep, and the room full of second-hand clothing for them to choose from, and he filled us in on some of the history of Atlanta, including the ways in which gentrification has impacted the city — at which point my younger son asked what gentrification was. I’ve always been unclear about gentrification, and I’m still fuzzy about the practicalities of it, but Anton’s comprehensive explanation, combined with all the driving tours and history lectures (both in Atlanta and in the other places we visited), painted a much fuller, more nuanced picture.
Here is a video of Anton talking about the work they do, if you’d like to know more:
In downtown Atlanta, we walked by ICE headquarters where a long line of asylum seekers were waiting outside. “Rain or shine, there is always a crowd here,” Anton said. He kept breaking away from us to introduce himself to the people, shaking hands, asking their names, jotting down phone numbers for them to contact. It’s very hard to get asylum in Georgia, he explained. Only ten percent of all requests in Georgia are ever granted. (Other states, like Maryland and New Jersey, are much more accessible to immigrants.)
Outside the state capitol, he explained how Georgia law requires a social security number in order to get a driver’s license, and walked us through what happens if an unlicensed person is caught driving — crippling fines, jail time, and, on the third offense, a felony charge — as well the risks and challenges of attempting to get basic medical care without a license.
(The university has got some pretty cool merch, wink-wink, and you can see Junot Dias, board member for the university being interviewed on the Colbert show here.)
At the Ebenezer Baptist Church, we took a few minutes to sit in the pews and listen to the recordings of MLK’s speeches that were playing over the sound system.
Being in that church was like stepping back in time.
The space felt familiar, thanks to the photos and footage I’ve seen, and I could almost feel the energy of all those people who’d been there before me, yet it was so quiet, almost other-worldly.
I got that same melancholy ache more than once during the trip: Driving through abandoned Black middle class neighborhoods and commercial districts. Standing at the spot where the Freedom buses unloaded. Facing a water fountain in the middle of a court square where slave and cattle auctions had once been held. The weight of all those people, all that history, so heavy it was almost palpable.
We visited the MLK memorial then, and Anton got yelled at by a guard for (unknowingly) entering a taped-off area and looking under a tarp-wrapped thingy that was under construction.
(Apparently he got yelled at when they’d visited during the fall trip, too, but that time it was for baptizing people with water from the MLK reflecting pool. “But there’s no sign that says you can’t baptize people,” he pointed out, eyes twinkling.)