Living History

5 Apr

In the months leading up to a tour titled “On the Road to Freedom: Understanding the Civil Rights Movement,” I was on the fence. Despite the waning Covid infection numbers, the easing of mask mandates and the fact that my fellow travelers would all be fully vaccinated and boostered, I wasn’t sure. After all, we were traveling by bus through Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, states with lower vaccination rates than California. I’d managed to dodge the Covid bullet for two years. Was I ready to let my guard down?

I like to think of myself as an intrepid traveler, but the thought of navigating airports and ground transportation, all in an N 95 mask, gave me pause. Still, I was intrigued by the idea of a trip to U.S. historical sites I’d only read about.

In the end, I decided to go for it. After all, I told myself, you’re not getting any younger.

What occurred to me once the trip began, was that the people we would meet, foot soldiers who had been on the front lines of the movement, weren’t getting any younger either. As I note in my op-ed, “What Happens to Rage Repressed?” published in The Boston Globe on April 1, I got to meet Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine. But she was just one of the treasures who shared their time and wisdom with us.

Elizabeth Eckford

There was Hezekiah Watkins, who describes himself as Mississippi’s youngest Freedom Rider. His first arrest and incarceration at 13 years old is a harrowing tale.

Hezekiah Watkins

We spent several hours with Rev. Carolyn McKinstry as she recounted how at 15 years old she was handling Sunday School paperwork at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, when the Ku Klux Klan set off the blast that killed four of her friends, injured others and terrorized the Black community.

Rev. Carolyn McKinstry

We visited the Montgomery, Alabama, home of Dr. Valda Harris Montgomery, which was down the block from the parsonage of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. served as pastor from 1954 to 1960. Dr. Harris told heartwarming stories of the two families socializing in each other’s homes and how her own home was a sanctuary and a strategizing space for civil rights activists.

Dr. Valda Harris Montgomery

The tour, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club of California, included time to take in good music and enjoy delicious food. The state-of-the-art interactive museums that document the history of the African diaspora alone were worth the trip. Still, it was the living monuments to this history that I will remember the most.

3 Responses to “Living History”

  1. Yvonne Daley April 6, 2022 at 7:06 am #

    Elaine, I read this holding my breath. It is so powerful and humbling. I felt what I thought might be a sense of catharsis getting it out, saying what needs to be said again and again. Here I am in this white state, somewhat isolated from the challenges of so many. I kind of defended the slap, not that I condone violence, but the joke wasn’t funny; it was mean and unnecessary, hurtful. The bigger picture you address here is the conundrum of how to truly move forward in American race relationships. So much progress unbalanced by so much intransigence. A very sobering and important read this morning. Thank you, dear woman. I sure would love to see your beautiful face and be with your courage and consistency some day. My health is iffy as I have a bone marrow cancer and get weekly treatments but I am persevering and hope to be on the planet for some time to come. If you travel east, please come and stay with us. YOU are a treasure.

    Love, Yvonne



  2. Samuel W. Black April 6, 2022 at 5:45 am #

    How deep does your genealogy go?



    • Elaine Ray April 6, 2022 at 8:47 am #

      Hi, Sam. Great to hear from you. I hope you are well. While I have been able to trace my mother’s family back to her grandparents. But as for my father’s roots back in Barbados, I haven’t gotten any deeper than his mother. Any suggestions?


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