Today we went to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The story behind that space is slightly ironic. You could say it started with the help of the Klan, but you see, that’s how rumors get started.
In actuality, the building of the center was catalyzed by the lynching of Michael Donald in 1981. Donald’s mother sued the Klan, and an all-white jury awarded her $8 million, which put the United Klan out of business. As a result they had to turn over their headquarters to Donald’s mother, because although they are rich in hate, they were lacking in funds.
When she realized that people from younger generations were virtually ignorant of the history and the foot soldiers of the movement, she donated the funds to SPLC and the Civil Rights Memorial Center.
Water is the recurring theme for the memorial. They chose water because so many victims of violent crimes of the movement were dumped in the river, and in a lot of cases, their history was erased. But 40 people, from the South specifically, were not. The Southern Poverty Law Center memorializes their names and stories.
The thing that hurts the most is that some of the murder victims were my age or younger – some of them were kids. One of the girls was changing clothes. She was smoothing out her hair when the bomb exploded in her church. A lot of them were doing things that I do everyday when hate ended their lives. I can’t help but think that it seems like they died for absolutely no reason.
We watched a movie that told their stories and provided more background on the memorial and the conditions. All I could think is that this is not the way life is supposed to be. You are not supposed to have to fight to be recognized as a human.
I read a book once that said when Jesus said to turn the other cheek he wasn’t saying to sit there and let people beat you up, but rather he was saying to turn and look them in the eye and force them to recognize in you the same humanity, the same value that they are so proud of. But even that doesn’t seem right. Should recognizing value in other human beings be an instinctual reaction?
The second part of the memorial center is the Wall of Tolerance. Putting your name on the wall is a lifetime commitment to speaking out against injustice. I began to think about my life and my career as a student and as an artist. I’ve spoken out some, but I can do more; I should have done more. I think my life is starting to take a different sort of direction, and it is not what I originally planned, but I am excited about the future.
The final part is the memorial itself. There is a fountain with the name of the 40 Southern histories the water did not drown out. Of all five senses, touch is my favorite. I ran my fingers along the grooves made by the names, and it felt like I was touching the impression they made in history – but then I suppose every time I exhale, every time I hug or shake hands with someone, anyone, I’m touching their impact.
Later that day we went to the parsonage where Dr. King and his family stayed while he was Senior Pastor of Dexter Ave Baptist Church. The house is virtually the same as it was when the Kings stayed there.
One of my favorite moments of the trip was when we were in the King kitchen. Our tour guide, who was a member of the church when Dr. King was there, turned off the lights, and we re-created the scene that King talks about during his epiphany, and we listened to a reproduction of Dr. King giving the speech.
I love the fact that he has such an epiphany over a cup of coffee. Martin knew. His voice sounds like music, it’s melodic and visceral, and I promise you this, before my career is up I will have created a dance to it.
Outside of the house there is a reflection garden. There were six stones with the major themes to which Dr. King devoted his life: equality, peace, hope, understanding, unity and forgiveness. I sat on the bench marked with hope because it seemed to be the most appropriate description of how I was feeling. I am so blessed to find myself in this position, with these people, at this time. That is all that I can say, just blessed.