Plaque marking the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan

Bolted into the side of a nondescript white brick building with red trim in the small town of Pulaski, TN, one block away from an exquisitely beautiful courthouse, is an aged bronze plaque. A modern sign on the door advertises a law firm within the small structure. But this building holds a secret: it was the building where in 1865 a group of five disenchanted Confederate war veterans sat in what was then the office of Judge Thomas M. Jones and decided to start the infamous group called the Ku Klux Klan. In 1917, United Daughters of the Confederacy attached a bronze plaque to the building with the inscription “Ku Klux Klan organized in this, the law office of Judge Thomas M. Jones, Dec. 24, 1865,” along with the names of the five men who were present on that fateful day. But if you visit the building now, you won’t be able to read those words, but you will still be able to see the plaque. pulaski tennessee kkk plaque
I read about this building several years ago and put it on my list of places to visit. Pulaski is only about 30 minutes from my home, but I hadn’t passed through the small town in well over 30 years. My only memory of Pulaski is driving through sometime in the 1970s on a family trip and noticing a sign that mentioned the KKK. I remember asking my mother what that meant, and she told me it was a group that only cared about hate. Since then, whenever I think of Pulaski, I only think of the KKK. But the town is really is much more than that.

Yesterday I was driving near Pulaski and decided to take a short detour to see the KKK plaque for myself. Because now, the plaque looks like this.

pulaski tennessee kkk plaqueIn the late 1980s, Pulaski lawyer Don Massey bought this little building for his law practice. By this point, nobody in town was very thrilled about being known as the birthplace of the KKK. The plaque’s message reminded everyone who saw it the legacy of hate not only in Pulaski, but in many areas throughout the post-war South. The town was unfortunately a destination for followers of messages of racial inequality and hatred, and that was not good for the town’s image. Many people probably wished the plaque would simply disappear. But would that draw even more attention from the KKK?

When Massey bought the building, he did something unexpected. Instead of just removing the plaque and throwing it away, he turned it around so nobody can read the words. He described why in an interview with the Seattle Times:

“I thought by turning the plaque around it would say the same thing as turning your back on racism and the negativism that goes with it and the complacency with the racial situation that we have today, and not just in the South,” Massey said.

When I learned about this reversed plaque, I loved the story. The people of Pulaski aren’t trying to ignore their history or their past, but they are moving past it. What Mr. Massey did is such an eloquent way to remind people of the past while at the same time completely disavowing the message written on that aging piece of bronze.

After visiting Pulaski, I will no longer only think about it as the birthplace of a hate group. It’s a lovely little town, and I will now think of the elegant courthouse building, the friendly people, and the lawyer who decided to make a statement against the most notorious hate group in the country.

If you want to visit: This is an actual business. The address is 205 W. Madison St., Pulaski, TN. The office is just one block away from the courthouse square. Just look for the one story white brick building with red trim. There is plenty of parking. If you stop by on a weekend in the summer months, you’ll like find a farmer’s market in full swing.

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Visiting historic Pulaski, Tennessee

Yesterday while driving around in the middle of nowhere Tennessee, I noticed I was close to the small town of Pulaski. Even though the town is only about 30 minutes from my home, I hadn’t visited it in over 30 years. The only time I remember going through Pulaski was on a family trip in the 1970s. While on that trip, I saw a sign noting that the town is the home of the Ku Klux Klan and I asked my mom what that was. She told me a group dedicated to hate.

Ever since then, whenever I thought about Pulaski, I thought about the KKK. And I really, really don’t like the KKK.

But times change, and towns change, and Pulaski had long been on my list of small towns in my area to visit, especially because of how one small business owner dealt with a very public monument to the founding of the KKK (read about how a sign noting the birthplace of the Klan was reversed to counteract its message without erasing its history).

I drove to the small downtown district and the domed Giles County courthouse dominates the view. It’s exquisite. The architectural style of the building is French Renaissance, with a three-story rotunda with a vaulted skylight.

pulaski tennessee courthouseBuilt in 1857, this building survived the Civil War, even when Union troops occupied the town. According to a brochure I picked up on my visit, the Union forces threatened to burn down not only the courthouse, but the entire town, unless local citizens gave them $3,000–a huge amount of money during the Civil War. Thomas Martin, who founded the local Methodist college, paid the money and saved the town and its many beautiful structure.

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Selma 50th Anniversary Events

I will admit that until a decade ago, I really didn’t know much about the Civil Rights movement. That probably sounds weird because I grew up in Alabama, the state that played center stage in many of the pivotal events in the movement. But I was from the North and my parents were from the North, and we didn’t feel very connected to Alabama history when we arrived in Huntsville, AL in the mid 1970s. When I was in school, it seems like every year in history class, we’d run out of time near the end of the year and only gloss over events that happened after World War II. Korea? I vaguely knew about it. Vietnam? Ditto. So events like the Civil Rights movement became no more than a footnote in history classes, meriting not even a full class period to discuss. I don’t recall ever studying any key figures in the Civil Rights movement, nor learning about the Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer, Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Act, or anything else. By the time I got to school, civil rights was a done deal so evidently it was no longer worth mentioning. Even as a history student in college I don’t remember studying this period in history, maybe because my main interest then was the 1800s and ancient history.

Fast forward to 2008. I was a volunteer for a certain presidential primary candidate and I roamed around north Alabama with other volunteers trying to talk people into registering to vote and to head to the polls on primary day. One day I rode around with a black gentleman not a whole lot older than me–he was probably in his mid 50s. We talked about his job (an engineer at a nearby military base) and his life growing up in Alabama. He told me that he grew up in Selma and that his parents were very active in the Civil Rights movement. He told me about many of his memories of that period. Even though he was young in the 1960s, he remembered his house getting fire bombed more than once. He remembered his parents rushing him out the back door to escape the flames. He remembered his parents attending meetings and marches, and he remembered seeing indescribable violence. As I looked at him, this average looking man who spent his days working for the government, I realized that I simply could not believe that a man not too much older than me dealt with fire bombs and beatings to simply be treated as an equal citizen. I was  shocked that I knew so little about the period in history that created some of our best leaders and changed the course of our country.

I started to watch some documentaries about the Civil Rights movement. I started out with Eyes on the Prize. I read a few books about Civil Rights leaders. I gained a better understanding of the struggles for equality and what the people involved in the movement really dealt with. More recently I watched the excellent PBS documentaries about the Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer and was moved almost to tears by the bravery and idealism of all of those people, many of them so very young.

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Visiting the 16th Street Baptist Church, a historic Civil Rights landmark

16th Street Baptist Church in 1884
The 16th Street Baptist Church in 1884. Photographer not credited in original – Boothe, Charles Octavius (1895) Cyclopedia of the Colored Baptists of Alabama: Their Leaders and Their Work Birmingham: Alabama Publishing Co. Image found on Wikepedia Commons (Public Domain)

Imagine having to drink from a water fountain labeled “White” or “Colored.” Imagine not being able to go into a restaurant and order a meal because of your race. Imagine living in a city where segregation was the law. For many years, when I thought of the Civil Rights movement, those are the things I thought of. I thought of Martin Luther King Jr. and his epic speech I have a Dream. I pictured images of the men and women marching in Selma for equal rights. I knew that many people struggled for decades for the simple right to be equal, but until recently, I didn’t really understand what the Civil Rights movement was truly like. When I was in school, teachers glossed over the Civil Rights struggle, hitting the high points, but never making me truly understand what really happened in that era. I only had vague ideas of the violence and real, visceral struggles associated with gaining the simple right to cast a vote.

I really didn’t understand the Civil Rights movement, and how truly brave an dedicated the movement members were, until I watched a white man throw a fire bomb into a bus full of interracial CIvil Rights volunteers in the PBS documentary Freedom Riders. I didn’t understand what the movement really was fighting until I saw footage of the Civil Rights participants holed up in a church in Montgomery, AL while white residents outside set cars on fire and threw bricks into the church, with murder in their hearts.

I didn’t really, truly understand until I looked again at a photo from my state in the 1950s of two black men hanging dead in a tree, nooses around their necks, surrounded by a mob of smiling white citizens. I didn’t understand how black men were subject to random acts of brutality for the crime of looking a white man in the eye or smiling at a white woman. I didn’t understand how much the movement fundamentally changed society, especially in the south, until I understood how fully and completely black people were sidelined in politics and culture for so many years.

Man drinking at a water cooler reserved for “Colored,” Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1939. Separate water fountains for blacks and whites, providing such basic a human need as water, highlighted how far-reaching racial discrimination was during the Jim Crow era. Source: Russell Lee, July 1939, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.

When I understood more, I wanted to know more. Why did the south hold on for so very long to trying to repress black citizens? Why was the reaction to the Civil Rights movement in Alabama, the beautiful state where I grew up, so violent in the 1960s? How did people who were participating in non-violent protests manage to overcome those fighting so very hard to repress equality, those using violence and fear? I’m in the process of researching a new book about historic travel destinations in Alabama and I knew that I needed to include a whole section on Civil Rights locations around the state. I decided to visit some of the most important sites of the Civil Rights movement, to stand in some of the same spots where some of the bravest people in recent history stood, where they rallied their friends and answered the call to stand up for freedom and equality. Yesterday I visited one of the places mentioned in every documentary I’ve ever seen about the Civil Rights movement, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.

16th STreet Baptist Church, Birimingham, AL
16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL

This church was the first black church in Birmingham and was first called the First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham. The first church building was a beautiful, Gothic structure with a towering steeple and intricate stonework. When I asked my tour guide at the church why that beautiful structure was demolished, she said it was because the city didn’t want a black church to have such a beautiful building. The city condemned the first church in 1908 and ordered the congregation to tear it down. Church officials hired a black architect to design and build a new church building, and the existing church was completed in 1911. The church became not only a place for worship services, but a center for the community. According to the church’s webpage,

W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson, and Ralph Bunche were among many noted black Americans who spoke at the church during its early years.  African-Americans from across the city and neighboring towns came to Sixteenth Street, then called “everybody’s church,” to take part in the special programs it hosted.

In the 1960s, when the Civil Rights movement was starting to gain momentum, Birmingham was a deeply segregated city, but also one of the most important locations for Civil Rights activism. City leaders had long enshrined segregation in the law to make it a crime for black and whites to intermingle in almost any way. It was even a crime for blacks and whites to play checkers together. The 16th Street Baptist Church served as a meeting place for many prominent leaders in the local black community and the Civil Rights movement, becoming the headquarters for many Civil Rights activities. Members of the community would meet in the church to plan marches, sit-ins, and other non-violent protests. They often would then stage large protests and marches across the street at Kelly Ingram Park. Because of the church’s importance to Civil Rights activities, it became a target for violence.

Kelly Ingram Park Birimingham, AL
Marker in Kelly Ingram Park that reads Place of Revolution and Reconciliation.

On Sunday, September 15, 1963, the congregation was gathered for church services, children were in their Sunday School rooms, and several young girls were getting ready for choir. They didn’t know that members of the Ku Klux Klan had planted a huge bundle of dynamite inside the wall of the building. At 10:22, the dynamite exploded, destroying part of the church, shattering windows, and killing four young girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson.

16th Street Baptist Church Birmingham AL
The side of the 16th Street Baptist Church Birmingham AL where the bomb was placed.

The bombing shocked the world and brought attention to the plight of black citizens in not only Birmingham, but the segregated south in general. Contributions to help repair the damaged church poured in from all over the world. Over $300,000 was raised, a huge sum in the 1960s. The people of Wales donated a new, gorgeous stained glass window to grace the sanctuary designed by Welsh artist John Petts. The window features an image of Christ with his arms stretched out. One hand is pushing away to represent oppresion. The other hand is reaching forward, representing forgiveness. At the bottom of the window are the words “You do it to me.” The church was repaired and reopened in June, 1964.

Stained glass window in the 16th Street Baptist Church donated by the people of Wales.
Stained glass window in the 16th Street Baptist Church donated by the people of Wales.

The bombing, which shattered so many lives in Birmingham, did bring greater attention to the Civil Rights movement and helped to spur momentum towards passage of the Civil Rights Act. Today, the church is a registered national historic landmark and is still a center of the Birmingham community. Visitors can tour the church to learn more of its fascinating history. That’s what I did this week. I arrived at the church when another group was just starting to watch a short documentary about the church’s history and the bombing. We watched the video in silence, then a church volunteer took us on a tour of the church and the actual location where the bomb was placed and the four girls died. We gazed at the mesmerizing stained glass window, and I thought about the people from Wales who were so moved by the events in far-away Alabama that they donated such a meaningful piece of art. I asked the tour guide how long she’d been a member of the church, and she said all of her life. The day of the bombing, she was six years old, but she wasn’t at the church that day. As I stood in the church sanctuary, on a balcony overlooking the pulpit, I pictured what it had been like in the 1960s during the height of the Civil Rights struggle. I imagined the church completely full of people planning the next non-violent protest. I wondered what those people were thinking, knowing they were going out into a situation where they would likely be arrested, brutalized by the local police, and potentially killed. As I thought of those men and women, and even children who participated in the movement, my admiration grew. They were normal people who were willing to give their lives for freedom. After I toured the church, I wandered across the street to Kelly Ingram Park, which is now a nice memorial to all of the people who participated in the Civil Rights struggles in Birmingham. Markers explain what life was like during Jim Crow laws and segregation and how people planned protests in this expansive park. A statue memorializes the four young girls killed in the bombing. Other statutes try to make visitors see and feel what it was like for the protesters, facing jail, beatings, snarling dogs, and powerful water hoses.

Memorial statue in Kelly Ingram Park
Portion of the memorial statue in Kelly Ingram Park
Kelly Ingram Park
Children were actually assaulted and arrested during Civil Rights era protest.

 

Walk between snarling dogs in Kelly Ingram Park
Walk between snarling dogs in Kelly Ingram Park
Kelly Ingram Park
Kelly Ingram Park now features many historic landmarks to guide visitors through the struggles of the Civil Rights movement.

As a white woman born in 1969, the Civil Rights movement has always seemed very distant and foreign to me. I simply could not imagine a world where people treated each other so horribly simply because of skin color. I couldn’t conceive of the discrimination and violence blacks in the south had to content with in their daily lives. My trip to the 16th Street Baptist Church, as well as the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (I’ll write about that next), helped me visualize, feel, experience, and understand life in those turbulent times. I think it’s important for all of us to understand the history of the Civil Rights movement and to understand what life was like before brave citizens across the country banded together to fight injustice. For anyone interested in the Civil Rights era, visit this church and park. It’s a powerful place that will help you understand the dedication of devotion of so many average people who struggled so hard for equality and justice in the 1960s. I will visit again. More Information: Church Webpage: http://www.16thstreetbaptist.org/ Address: 1530 6th Ave North, Birmingham, AL 35203 How to visit: Call the church at 205-251-9402 and inquire about tours. The church is open for tours Tuesday through Saturday, but you need to make an appointment to ensure a volunteer guide is available. Parking: Free parking is easy to find in front of the church. Just park in front of Kelly Ingram Park, visit the church, then head back across the street to tour the park. Social Media: the church is active on several social media sites. Check their web page for links. More Resources: Of course, you can find HUGE amounts of information online about the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights movement. However, if you’d like to get a really powerful feel for what that time was like in the south, I highly recommend two recent documentaries available for free online via PBS American Experience. These are the documentaries that got me interested in learning more about the Civil Rights era in the south. Freedom Riders (watch the entire documentary here)   Freedom Summer (I can’t find the entire documentary online, but you can watch the first chapter here):