Monday, July 15, 2013

Missing Treyvon Martin and Rallying for Civil Rights in Birmingham, Alabama

In downtown Birmingham today, I had hoped to visit the Civil Rights Institute, which documents the struggles of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I discovered it is closed on Mondays, as is the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church, which the Ku Klux Klan bombed 50 years ago this September 15, killing four young girls.

So instead, I walked through Kelly Ingram Park, across from the institute and encountered some modern-day civil rights activists and had the privilege of talking to a woman who lived in the city when the church was bombed.

On a hot and humid day, hundreds people gathered in the park to voice their outrage over the not guilty verdict in shooting death of Treyvon Martin in Florida and to lobby to change Alabama's  “Castle Doctrine,” which allows a person to defend themselves with deadly force when they feel threatened with immediate bodily harm. On Saturday, a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Treyvon Martin, an unarmed teen who was walking home from a store. Zimmerman's lawyers successfully argued that Martin, not Zimmerman, had been the aggressor and that Zimmerman shot him in self-defense.

The setting of the rally moved me to tears. Kelly Ingram Park,  now a peaceful and beautifully landscaped four-acre park, holds an important place in American history. The park was a central launching site for massive civil rights demonstrations.  Birmingham police and fireman infamously confronted protesters with mass arrests, police dogs and fire hoses.

 Alabama State representative Marika Coleman-Evans urged the crowd to support her bill that would nullify stand-your-ground as a defense under certain circumstances. She shared that as she went door-to-door with her sons to have citizens sign petitions for the bill, some white residents told her that the presence of her sons, who are African-American, made them feel threatened. She said such an attitude makes it more likely that young black men could be victimized, as Trevyon Martin was by George Zimmerman.

"If my bill becomes law, if you decide that you want to profile somebody and you go behind them, and if a confrontation occurs because of you being the aggressor, he would not have the self defense that (George Zimmerman) was exonerated under," said Coleman-Evans. (Pictured, in center, in the photo below)

I wondered if any of the older protesters felt the work dismantling "Jim Crow" laws that mandated racial segregation had been fruitless, if the Trevyon Martin case made them feel as if the country had made no progress at all. I struck up a conversation with Mary Williams, who grew up in Birmingham and still lives here. Mrs. Williams said she, too, was in Sunday School the morning of the church bombing, at a church a few blocks from Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church.

The bombings, an act of domestic terrorism, shocked and saddened her. She had been at the same elementary school as one of the murdered girls. The outcome of the Trevyon Martin case upset her; the fact someone was found not guilty of murdering an unarmed teen is unacceptable, she said.

When I asked her if she felt the United States had made progress in race relations over the past half century, she said it certainly has. (Below is a picture of Mrs. Williams, with the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church in the background)

Later, I walked over to the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church. A sign outside the church "May Peace Be In Our Homes and Communities." That is my prayer.

"Lord Jesus, Carpenter and King, supreme Sovereign of all men, look with tender mercy upon the multitudes of our day who bear the indignities of injustice everywhere."

No comments:

Post a Comment