A stretch of 400 miles of highway on my route from Mississippi to Georgia represents the seedbed of America’s epic civil rights journey.
This fact was reinforced to me upon the recent death of John Lewis, the Georgia congressman whose courage-filled life of 80 years began near Troy, Ala., and took him to the pinnacle of the nation’s civil rights chronicles.
One pathway begins at Fort Gaines, Ga., where I cross the Chattahoochee River into Alabama and proceed westward toward Troy, about 60 miles away, where Lewis was raised.
Along there is a roadside marker saying “Rosa Parks Lived Here.” Parks helped to start the Montgomery Bus Boycott in late 1955.
I continue from Troy northward to Montgomery, not only the site of the city bus boycott by Blacks but the destination of three Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches led by Lewis in 1965 — and where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his galvanizing “How Long, Not Long” speech at the Alabama Capitol.
When leaving Selma, Lewis and hundreds of civil rights activists were mauled by city police and Alabama troopers as they crossed the Alabama River aboard the monumental Edmund G. Pettus Bridge. Lewis was almost beaten to death in his quest for the freedom to vote.
A Detroit housewife who was motivated to come south and participate by news reports of the voting rights movement died on one of the marches.
Viola Liuzzo was 39 years old when she was shot and killed by four Klansmen along a hilly stretch of Highway 80 as she ferried marchers to an airport. She left five young children. A historical site along the road between Selma and Montgomery honors her sacrifice and is open to the public.
I guess I have crossed the Pettus Bridge myself more than a hundred times in the last half-century, always with some trepidation due to the structure’s grievous reputation. One cannot ride the Pettus without considering the plight of John Lewis and his fellow activists on the fateful day of “Bloody Sunday.”
Selma, like many of its brethren cities that cradled the civil rights era, still shows battleground scars. Its main business street coming off the bridge was once a prosperous and voluminous financial section, anchored by churches of myriad faiths and, later on, a serene orphanage operated by Alabama Methodists.
It seems deprived these days due to the perils of a lost cause and a lack of industriousness on many social and financial fronts.
Continuing across to the state line at Cuba (formerly the quickie-marriage center of the region), one arrives at Meridian, where the fatal trip of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner began in June 1964.
They had gone to nearby Neshoba County to check on a black church’s burning and were intercepted, killed and buried by a mob of Klansmen and law enforcement officers.
Meridian, unlike Selma, has had periods of financial slumps but has rejuvenated itself largely on the back of the cultural arts.
My trail of civil rights history from where we live in Georgia is completed at Jackson and McComb, two Mississippi cities that saw far more than their fair share of civil rights battles in the 1950s and ’60s.
Examples of dozens of violent acts committed by terrorist members of the Klan and other groups during their fruitless attempt to maintain segregation in both cities can readily be viewed at the new and preeminent Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.
The heroic and pivotal deeds of Lewis, Parks and Liuzzo on display at the shrine will give you pause about the state of humanity in this country — yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Mac Gordon is a part-time resident of McComb. He is a former reporter for The Clarion-Ledger. He can be reached at macmary email@example.com.