Brave? Me? Nah.
“So you’re traveling by yourself?” the woman asked me as we wrapped up a tour of Dexter Avenue King Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, this past April. When I answered yes, she said, “Wow, that’s brave.”
The woman — about my age, late forties — was part of a Friendship Force group of about a dozen Americans and Brits that had swelled the 12 p.m. tour now wrapping up. For the past hour our exuberant docent, Wanda, had led us around Dexter Baptist, discussing its significance in the civil rights movement.
In the basement, we’d seen the paneled office where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had worked during his tenure as pastor, 1954 to 1960. We’d all had our pictures snapped at the lectern from which King had delivered his “How long? Not long” speech at the state Capitol, one block away, after the 1965 march from Selma. We learned that the organist King hired, Althea Thomas, plays at the church to this day. Upstairs in the sanctuary, Wanda had us hold hands and sing “We Shall Overcome.” (It didn’t sound remotely like this, but for mostly middle-aged-and-up white people, we weren’t half bad.) Now, as sunlight streamed in through stained-glass windows, casting colorful rectangles on the floor, we milled around the pews and altar, snapping photos, chatting, absorbing the history that seeped from the walls.
The woman who approached me, one of the Americans in the group, meant her remark as a compliment, I’m sure. Still: brave? Did she see where we were standing? In a home base of the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott, which launched the career of a man gunned down for his commitment to peace and justice. Within a few blocks lay the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, Freedom Rides museum, and soon-to-open lynching monument, each testifying to countless acts of courage in the face of brutality and death. The day before, I’d spent five hours at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute without noticing the time passing. The next day I would drive to Selma and walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of Bloody Sunday. There is no way to engage with this history for even five minutes without being dumbstruck by the courage of ordinary people who had everything, absolutely everything against them and still stood up and demanded their rights.
“We may again with tear-drenched eyes have to stand before the bier of some courageous civil-rights worker whose life will be snuffed out by the dastardly acts of bloodthirsty mobs,” King said in August 1967. Still, “we must walk … with an audacious faith in the future.” You can hear fatigue in these lines— so many deaths, so much further to go, the constant threat to his own life — but “audacious faith” might describe the civil rights movement better than any two words.
Maids, barbers, teachers, tenant farmers, dentists, shop owners, students. These utterly ordinary people met fire hoses and mounted police officers and attack dogs with non-violence. I’ve never been that brave and doubt I ever could be.
For a second, I wanted to believe that the woman was right, to grant her the magical insight we often accord strangers to see the truth about ourselves. Why, yes, now that you mention it, I am brave. How lovely of you to point it out!
C’mon. The trip was a damn gift. Thanks to my lovely husband who stayed home with our kids, for four glorious days I did not one shred of work, professional or domestic. I had a rental car and open roads and open days to fill precisely as I wanted. I stayed in Victorian inns and hotels, immersing myself in civil rights history by day and eating southern food by night. (Did you know that in Alabama they sprinkle brown sugar on sweet potato fries? I nearly fainted from pleasure.) At no point was any courage required.
I get that traveling alone can be a daunting prospect. I wouldn’t necessarily do it all the time, or for just any type of trip. I’d wanted to visit civil rights sites for years (and, it turns out, trips like mine are kind of popular right now). My kids are good travelers, but I knew that a family trip wouldn’t allow me to spend the time I wanted to at these places. A solo trip made the most sense. My husband encouraged me to go, and I leapt at the chance.
They seemed like nice people, that Friendship Force group. I personally have never felt the need to book a tour to see my own country, but I’m not going to knock anyone’s mode of travel. If they enjoyed each other’s company and made friends, good. But it saddens me a little to think that the woman chose the tour at least in part out of fear. Of what, precisely? Everywhere I went I found stimulating history and friendly, interesting people. I wish I had said some of this to her, instead of the startled, inarticulate reply I stammered out. I wish I had encouraged her to think about the ways in which she’s brave. I wish I had told her, look around. We can all be so much braver than we know.