The year is 2008. Georgette drives the van from Montgomery to Selma on U.S. Route 80. As it leaves the city and heads through the country, the landscape surrounding the four lane highway opens up. Fields of cotton with big old trees lie on either side of us as Georgette grips the steering wheel.

“It’s quiet out here,” I say from the passenger seat. I’m used to the hustle and bustle of Montgomery.

“Yeah, it gets a little spooky out here sometimes,“ Georgette replies in her deep southern accent.

Spooky isn’t quite the word I would use, but I go with it. “I can imagine it gets kind of dark and lonely on this drive,” I say.

Georgette is uncharacteristically quiet. She is always sharing history and anecdotes with us when we take these daytrips. My classmates sit in rows in the back of the van talking about Wesleyan and classes, their jobs and their children.

I’m spending a week in Alabama as part of an intensive course called Marching in the Steps of the civil rights movement offered by my graduate program. I’ve studied the Civil Rights Movement extensively, but each time I get to stand in the places that I have studied for so many years, a chill runs through my body. I know the history, the significance of each of these places. I know about the beatings and the bloodshed, the children and elderly, the preachers and the leaders. And I know about their courage. But being here makes the history books come alive.

“I just get to thinkin’ when I’m drivin’ out here by myself sometimes,” Georgette continues. “You know, you look at these trees, you see some of these big trees out in the fields? Folk used to come and watch lynchings out in these fields. Ghost trees, I call them.”

Because I am white and come from the North, this hadn’t crossed my mind on the drive through Lowndes County, one of the most segregationist counties in the state. Georgette is in her mid-60s, a professor, director of the Rosa Parks Museum, and born and raised in Montgomery. Suddenly I am embarrassed by my naiveté.

“So, you mean they would come out and watch the lynchings in the middle of the fields?” I ask. “They didn’t hide it?”

“Oh, hell yes, honey. Folk would have a picnic. You see all these pictures with children and families smiling and clapping . . . it was like a party, you see?”

I wonder what I am supposed to say. The ghost trees seem to be closing in on us.

When we arrive in Selma, Georgette introduces us to a woman named Joanne, who takes us to the First Baptist Church at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. street and Jeff Davis avenue, a site of many of the planning meetings for Selma’s voting rights movement. While showing us around she tells us about the events of Bloody Sunday, when marchers attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge were met with vicious police brutality.

“I want you to know,” Joanne says quietly, “that they followed us back to the projects that night. The violence didn’t just happen on the bridge. It came back to our homes and the beatings continued through the night. I want you to know that so that you can go back and tell people.”

On our way back to the center of town, Joanne has us stop on a dusty patch of ground beside a playground in the projects.

“Okay, Wesleyan,” she says. “Bend down and pick up a rock. Go on, pick up a big one.”

We scramble around, picking up rocks and then gather around Joanne. She tells us that she had to fight with the town of Selma to keep this playground here. The town wanted to pour cement over the entire piece of land, but Joanne protested because this was where many organizers stood and planned their march from Selma to Montgomery.

“Open your hand, let me see that rock,” she says to Hilary. “That rock, that’s Viola Liuzzo.” She turns to Joel. “That rock there, that is John Lewis.” To Colin, “You’re holding Ralph Abernathy in your hand.” And to Gedney, “Ah, that one is my rock.”

Joanne looks at each of us in turn. “I want you to take your rocks home and put them somewhere safe. And whenever you hear of an injustice somewhere, you pick up that rock, you hold that history in your hands, and do something. Do something.”

After eating our usual lunch of southern soul food and sweet tea, it’s time to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On the other side I will find my classmates and our hosts waiting for me, not the wall of Alabama state troopers armed with attack dogs, tear gas and billy clubs that awaited the civil rights marchers.

Mimicking history, we partner in twos and walk side-by-side across the bridge. I walk with Dwayne, a tall, handsome and friendly student from Texas, who also happens to be black. I can’t ignore this, it adds to the experience, me a white woman walking beside a black man on this historical bridge. As we walk we are mostly silent until we reach the crest where John Lewis and Hosea Williams first saw the angry mob waiting for them. As we pause for a moment and look at the river below, Dwayne reminds me of what John Lewis said during this moment:

“Hosea said, ‘John, can you swim?’

‘No. Hosea, can you swim?’


‘Well, there’s too much water down there. We’re not going to jump. We’re not going back. We’re going forward.’”

Georgette greets us at the end of the bridge. “Well,” she says, “how was it?”

I want to cry. There aren’t words to express the magnitude of the things that we are experiencing.

“It felt good,” is all I can say.

Later on, while seated again in the van next to Georgette and headed back to our hotel in Montgomery, I close my eyes. It has been a long day and the van is quiet. We pass a monument on the side of Route 80 dedicated to Viola Liuzzo, a young white housewife from Detroit who came to help with the Selma to Montgomery march. After hearing Martin Luther King Jr.’s How Long? Not Long? speech from the steps of the capitol at the end of the march, she drove marchers back to Selma. As she headed back to Montgomery with a black teenager by her side, she was chased by a truck full of Klansmen. It has been said that she sang We Shall Overcome at the top of her lungs as a Klan member pointed a gun out of the window of the truck and shot her in the head.

There are ghosts all along this highway.

On this Martin Luther King Day, as I do every year, I will not only honor Dr. King, but also the thousands of members of the civil rights movement who risked their lives fighting for equality. I will remember Georgette and Joanne and the stories they shared. I will think about strength and faith and determination, and action.

In Alabama I learned that when faced with injustice, no matter what the risk, you must do something. Do something.