Sweet Home Alabama [read: seven days in the South]

It’s a comfort song but it’s also a little racist. Kinda like Alabama itself. So, it’s a great introduction to my Alternative Spring Break in Selma, Alabama for seven days this past week because it brings light and challenges to real issues that exist in the South like Civil War & Civil Rights history. Alternatively, it’s also a great film with Reese Witherspoon in her prime.

Naturally, I both listened to the song and watched the film in preparation for my Spring Break trip this year to Selma. We worked with Something New, previously known as the Freedom Foundation, for a week to provide community service in Selma and learn about the community (so, service-learning). Taking the T over to the airport on Saturday morning, I doubted this week would be what I needed just because I’ve been pretty exhausted this past month. However, I clearly had forgotten how rejuvenating it is to meet new people and help serve them.

The ASB squad and I took Selma by storm. I have to say that those kids we traveled with (and Bill & Alex, from the university) were the very best part of this trip. I didn’t realize how personable each one of them would be and the friendships I’d make. Yeah, you guessed it, I’m nostalgic already. So, here’s a breakdown:

Day 1: Flight to Selma. We flew into Atlanta, and then from Atlanta to Montgomery, and then drove from Montgomery to Selma. Long day. We were stationed in the Selma Community Church, so the first place we went was naturally their basement which has been turned into the Freedom Cafe. We ate every meal there, and met all of the wonderful kids that are involved with Something New, primarily through New Expressions. New Expressions is a program that encourages kids to find their own voices through expressive performing arts; I will probably never get the songs “Lift Me Up” and “Lean On” out of my head ever after learning the dances, but they bring a smile to my face.

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Gr-gr-groovy.
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I’d like to Pinterest that.

 

Day 2: 51st Anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Jubilee. This is what Selma is best known for. 51 years ago, protestors marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to gain the right to vote and were met on the other side with police brutality under Governor Wallace’s orders. {Referenced in “Sweet Home Alabama” with: “In Birmingham, they love the governor. Boo hoo hoo.”} We walked across the bridge with our organization early in the morning in a silent march and I had goosebumps the entire way. I can never imagine what the sight must have been like, and the sheer courage necessary to keep walking into a sea of blue uniforms and racist segregationists. We kept on with the day by going to Brown Chapel and listening to Congressman John Lewis speak; he led the original march 51 years ago. Absolutely a remarkable human being. Back at the ranch, we rallied and met the other schools visiting before getting home and passing out (a trend every night this week). We also had a reflection during the day that allowed me to compose my thoughts and get to know everyone better. The reflections were deep, and definitely my favorite part every day.

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I still have goosebumps.

 

Day 3: Let’s get serving! We came here to do service, and so at Hope Academy we were able to start on a project. We essentially went through a room (auditorium-size) filled with old textbooks to be sold for money to buy resources at the school. These books ranged from dictionaries published in 1968 (definitely don’t include the words ‘retweet’ or ‘swag’ so they’re not very relevant) to roughly 12,000 Algebra 1 books (proving math sucks). I never want to see an ISBN number again, as we read through every textbook combing for that one valuable identifier. We also freaked Joe out about the exposed ceiling probably containing asbestos – I do feel about that in hindsight. Then, we embarked on a historical tour of Selma from one end of the city to the other. We drove past Annie Lee Cooper’s home (portrayed by Oprah in the movie version), pre-Civil War era homes, magnolia-lined streets [read: swoon], and severe signs of segregation. As a city, Selma is still what it was in the 1960s in so many ways. The buildings on Broad St. (one of 3 main streets in Selma), are mostly facades because the economy is not conducive to having these buildings exist in the first place. But because of all that history, some of these buildings still remain. It’s a bit eerie, walking by living skeletons. We went back to the Freedom Cafe for dinner and late night karaoke (my first time taking the stage, thank you).

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Country roads, take me home.

 

Day 4: More textbooks. More ISBNs for the morning. But we did meet some great educators and local professionals along the way who have been in the public school system for 30 years. That’s what kids need and it’s amazing to see their dedication. We also went to the Lowndes County Interpretive Center which gave more insight on the Civil Rights Movement. I respect the movement, and hope that someday the rest of the country will wake up and see that racism still exists and there is much to be done. The Selma school system is still segregated. It’s been nearly 50 years, we need to prove that Black Lives Matter. We went to New Expressions that night and learned the dances with the kids, some of whom are local to Selma and whose stories show that the community needs more. Later that night, my team also won free shirts through trivia. There was a “complete the lyrics” section in which I finished a Tangled song. No one is surprised. The other teams are still salty so we’ll leave it at that.

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Always jammin’.

 

Day 5: Service with kids! I was stationed in the 3-year-old classroom (lots of screaming, yes) with Frank and Chynna. The tagline of the day was “Dammit Frank!” because he consistently forgot to help kids on the swings and then managed to play basketball with Joe that would injure him later. I stuck with Joe until he went to Urgent Care, it’s just a sprained ankle, nothing to get too worried about. He was in crutches for the rest of the week, though. We also did our most meaningful service later that afternoon by clearing out a room in McRae (the school) and reorganizing it. I was the visionary [read: interior designer extraordinaire] and my vision was completed! Feeling accomplished, we returned to Freedom Cafe having made some difference. We found Mia Hamm-signed apparel that should draw in some revenue for this school and the sweet kids there.

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Bill and I really crushed the book sorting over the service days.

 

Day 6: Birmingham. I visited Birmingham in 2013 after graduating high school for Speech & Debate Nationals and went to the same sights this time around. They’re some of my favorite places in the world. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is hands-down the best museum in the world (in my opinion) because of how interactive and pertinent it is. The 16th Street Baptist Church is an amazing haven and sanctuary despite the 1963 bombings and the four girls who died that day. I read Gene Patterson’s editorial before going to Birmingham in 2013 and this time, and the weight of his statements will never lessen. We need to recognize what we have done, all of us. Silence is complicity.

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March on.

 

Day 7: Nonviolence training. We did the values activity (oh how I love learning my values, truthfully) and the principles of nonviolence. Growing up Hindu, I remembered just how much of it is already a part of my daily life. Jimmy Webb, a foot soldier in the movement, spoke to us that night and I can’t give it words. His story is moving, his struggle real, and his willingness to overcome a fear of death for the cause of racial equality is the essence of inspiration. Not to mention his swagged out fedora, that man is incredible. We also hung out for the last time around the Freedom Cafe and stayed up late writing letters to each other. Cue nostalgia. I will say that my ASB group was incredible. Bill and I were partners in crime; he’s the only professor I will ever say, “Bill, I don’t need your sass right now,” to ever. I really loved my roommates, and having shower conversations with Chynna. The week was heavy but always lightened by laughter and silly stories. Plus they all listened to me talk and still like me, so that’s indicative of lasting friendships. Being back down South helped too – there’s nothing like a glass of sweet tea in my hand, hair tangled, mind open, and singing along to some country song about a T-shirt.

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The attitude of New Expressions is on point.

 

On our last day, we went to the very cosmopolitan city of Montgomery, the state capitol, and completed our journey to Selma and then Montgomery, as the marchers sorta did 51 years ago. It’s chilling to think of standing in the same spot as Dr. King, and laughing along with the tour guide at the Dexter Baptist Church. I’ve never felt so connected to people I’ve never met, but here we are. I was wearing my shirt with Dr. King on it; it says “The Power to Dream.” I dream along with him. In fact, we are Dr. King’s dream. We just need to keep getting closer to that ideal someday.

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Marchers’ shoes, too big too fill, on the way to Montgomery.

Thank yous are in order then. Thank you, Selma, for welcoming us with open arms and letting us step into your world for a week. You are special, living history and I hope work can be done for the community of the future. Honor the past, build the future. Thank you, Something New, for being wonderful hosts. Thank you, ASB group, for being a quintessential squad and making me enjoy the scholarship program we’re in some more. I look up to all of you (even the freshmen like Frank and Rachel who serve as my personal pillow and armrest, respectively). Thank you, Scholars Program, for funding this trip. Thank you, the South, for some fried okra, lemon in tea, politeness and genuine care. I missed you more than I thought.

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A big thanks to Joe for taking most of the pictures featured here.

And a final thank you: to Alabama, thank you for growing and acknowledging that there is still room to grow. I believe in all of us. We’ll march together and get there.

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