A Journey of Discovery: Civil Rights tales of many cities

September 9, 2015

Sandra Starks McCollum
Contributing Writer

August 31, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

On a hot, humid morning on July 22, 2015, a crowd of about 200 school children and 20 adult chaperons gathered excitedly in New Orleans in anticipation of a historic laden adventure in civil rights which awaited them in the hours ahead. It portended to be an exceptional day.

Arnie Fielkow, president and CEO of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA), conceived the idea of the Civil Rights Tour as an informative and motivating community outreach initiative when he was president of the New Orleans City Council. It is the sixth Annual Civil Rights History Tour led by Arnie Fielkow, and the second sponsored by the NBRPA. Mr. Fielkow has a special affinity for New Orleans, his former home, as when he lived there he served as City Council President and Executive Vice President of the New Orleans Saints.

The NBRPA is the only alumni association comprised of former NBA, ABA, Harlem Globetrotters and WNBA players. It partnered with Jones Walker Law Firm, First NBC Bank, Entergy New Orleans, Friends of King Schools, WBOK Radio, Ronnie Burns and the NORD Foundation to take underserved New Orleans youth on this interactive educational and fun Civil Rights History tour.

Not only were these young school children in grades 5-11 interested in walking in the path of civil rights giants, they saw themselves as potential history makers, gathering the knowledge of the elders and using this wisdom to make life better for themselves and future generations.

They were further motivated by the presence of NBRPA board member Eldridge Recasner who joined the tour as a chaperone. Mr. Recasner grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and presently lives in Seattle, Washington. He was an NBA player for eight years following a Hall of Fame collegiate sojourn at the University of Washington.

The first momentous stop of the day was in Selma, Alabama at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. You could hear the murmurs of the children talking excitedly about having seen the recent film Selma, and recognizing the significance of their journey to view the very spot where violence against non-violent civil rights protestors helped to rally national support for the movement. They spoke to each other about watching the movie depiction of state and local lawmen attacking the marchers and driving them back across the bridge toward Selma.

It was so incredibly hot that a more perfect appreciation for the bravery of those who challenged unjust voting laws, by walking in protest across the Pettus Bridge, was a palpable emotion. The heat rose in visible serrated waves from the ground as the students snapped pictures and enthusiastically read every plaque and monument visible, impervious to the baking sun.

After lunch, we were off to Birmingham, Alabama, where in June of 2015, the Governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley ordered the removal of four Confederate flags from the grounds of the state capitol, the last vestiges of its symbols of political separateness from our union. He was quoted as saying that “it was the right thing to do.” This irony did not escape unnoticed, as almost 55 years earlier, on June 11, 1963, Governor George Wallace, in a symbolic attempt to thwart desegregation stood in the school house doorway to block the integration of the University of Alabama. He eventually moved after giving a wrathful speech and being ordered to step aside by General Henry Graham, under orders of the then President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.

The city of Birmingham was born in 1871 after the Civil War. Plots of land were sold by railroad and banking entrepreneurs, cotton planters, and other white industrialists. It was the only place on earth where significant amounts of iron, coal and limestone could be found in such close proximity. It developed at an explosive growth rate. European immigrants and Negroes arrived in large numbers seeking work. White industrialist prospered. It was a magnificent industrialized city unusual because of its southern location. Abundant wealth and the good life it offered led it to be known as “The Magic City.” It was also a stronghold of white supremacy.

Our first stop was to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the largest museum in the country dedicated to the civil rights movement.

Several of the exhibits displayed historic events related to national and local participation in the Civil Rights Movement. The “Confrontation Gallery,” tells the story of Brown vs. Board of Education decision which called for an end to segregation in U.S. schools. Reactive episodes of violent resistance followed. “The Movement Gallery” depicts the inception and organization of the Civil Rights Movement. Included in this section were “Bus Rides to Freedom,” incidences of Freedom Rides throughout the south, “Give Us A Vote,” documenting voting rights abuses, “The World Is Watching,” reshowing violent news footage, and a cell door from behind which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his most erudite Letter From A Birmingham Jail.

The tour guide reflected on the bombing of Black homes and businesses which earned the city a new soubriquet, “Bombingham.” Though infrequently noted, the Black community in Birmingham had been plagued by about 50 bombings following World War II. The jailing of school children and the visible violence perpetrated against Black people was televised around the world. It was only after Japan rejected offers to come to Birmingham to start a business previously considered that the city reexamined its segregation policies.

The city leaders met with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Black leaders to address concrete methods to include all of its citizens in equal access to schools, employment and ordinary conveniences. For the first time, Black people were allowed to ride elevators in department stores and public buildings. They previously were prevented from sharing elevators with whites forcing them to climb stairs to their destination no matter how far up the climb.

After viewing a replica of a burned-out commercial bus used by Freedom Riders, and artifacts and remembrances of the Civil Rights Movement, we walked across the street to the Historic 16th Street Baptist Church. This famous African-American church continues to be one of our aide-memoires of man’s greatest acts of inhumanity; the killing of children in acts of hatred.

As the sun set that day, the students remained subdued by their lessons and observations of history and of Birmingham, Alabama’s part in bending the arc of the moral universe, and the subsequent positive transformation in the hearts and minds of its citizens.

The NBRPA Civil Rights Tour was truly a reflection on what it means to be human. Through the continued dedication and community outreach efforts of the NBRPA, it is hopeful that these adventures in history will allow these young people to view the world with a grateful heart and to do their part to make it a better place in which to live.

The day had ended but the tour still had another impactful visit to make.

Next week, Part Two of this notable journey.

Read Here in The Louisiana Weekly Newspaper