Learning From a Road Trip: Our Civil Rights Odyssey

By: simplysm

Cooped up in and around greater Sarasota Florida for what seemed like a covid-dictated eternity and with a brand new Genesis G-70 sitting in the garage, it finally seemed like the right time for us to take a fun road trip. Besides, we really needed to explore some new (to us) places as research for future Simply Smart Travel columns.

As we put the proverbial hammer down right after the Fourth of July and headed north by northwest, we thought what lay ahead would be our usual road-trip-combination of fun, good food and drink, and fascinating destinations. It was all of that and more…a whole lot more. It turned out to be an odyssey into the past, present and future of race in America.

Our first stop was to visit Ginny’s friend since elementary school in Cedartown Georgia, This small Southern town is, well, a typical small Southern town. See our 2018 column https://simplysmarttravel.com/fleeing-hurricane-irma-an-unexpected-find/ for more on Cedartown.   

From northwest Georgia, it was a relatively short hop to our first “professional” destination of Birmingham, Alabama. It is a town we had passed through but never explored and we wanted to test whether its slogan of “Dinner Table of the South” is deserved. It is. We enjoyed several good meals there and the highlight was the weirdly-named Hot and Hot Fish Club, presided over by James Beard Award-winning Chef Chris Hastings. Simply put, it is one of the best restaurants we have ever experienced anywhere. The Black-owned Six Sixteen in the Tutwiler Hotel also provided memorable cuisine.

But the real and unexpected impact Birmingham had on us was not the food or the many trains running though Railroad Park, pleasing rail-enthusiast Jeff immensely. It was the city’s ongoing recognition and honesty about its sordid racial history in the Bull Connor era. We toured the Birmingham Civil Right District National Monument with historian Barry McNealy and later met with Rev. Thomas Wilder, the pastor of the thrice-bombed Bethel Street Baptist Church and Rev. Dr. Martha Bouyer. Collectively, these experiences exploded like a bomb in our heads.

It has been over 60 years since the KKK and Bull Connor’s cops, dogs and firehoses victimized those brave people like Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth who dared to demand what the post-civil-war constitution has “guaranteed” to them a century earlier, before the prolonged flight of Jim Crow made a mockery of those battles and amendments.

As we hit the road to our next destination, Springfield, Illinois, home of Abraham Lincoln, we talked not only about the tourist side of Birmingham (which is really worthy of exploration) but also about the impact the Civil Rights District and the people who struggled there…and still struggle there…to claim their rights as citizens had on us, two privileged middle-class white people in contemporary America. To paraphrase Rev. Wilder’s remarks during our conversation, having the white privilege that American culture inevitably bestowed upon folks like us is neither right nor wrong, per se. Rather, it is afforded positive or negative moral significance depending on what we, its reluctant possessors, choose to do with it. We vowed that we would try to do something positive with it.

As the long day of driving wore on, it occurred to us that our destination of Springfield allowed us to travel back a century and explore the Illinois’ capital not only as a delightful destination for Simply Smart Travelers, but as a caldron of history of Lincoln’s times, attitudes and racial goals. Our visit to the Lincoln Museum and Presidential Library, the narrated Lincoln walk we undertook with a knowledgeable guide, our tour of the visitor’s center and grounds of the national park surrounding Lincoln’s home was colored, even dominated, by our newly-rekindled interest in race relations in America, past, present and future. Yes, we enjoyed the food and sights of Springfield (a very nice town worth visiting!) but we were also hooked into an intellectual journey into America’s racial past, present and future. As we wrapped up our road trip with visits to St. Louis, Evansville, Indiana and Crystal River, Florida, all subjects of future Simply Smart Travel columns, race and history were never far from our thoughts.

What we plan on doing with our now roaring re-ignition of interest in the topic (Jeff was a history minor in grad school and Ginny came from a segregated small town in Indiana and always wondered why it was segregated) remains to be seen. It may culminate in some future essays, lots of conversation, maybe an eventual book and some activism, but it will not go away.

So what is the lesson we (re)learned? Travel is rewarding in so many ways and one its greatest rewards is that it has an amazing ability to bring some new thoughts and perspectives to some old road warriors like us.