We were already 9 days into our Civil Rights road trip when we pulled into Selma, Alabama. My family had been pouring through a lot of information from books, museums, and movies. Actually, my kids were well read on the Civil Rights movement already. But, as with anything, the Civil Rights movement wasn’t just about information, it was about people.
“Dad, I think that lady is yelling at you.”
I turned around after my oldest son brought to my attention an elderly woman waving her hands in my direction. Had something fallen out of my stroller? Was she going to tell me I dropped something along the way? When I reached her, she asked, “You want to go into that museum?” referring to an African art museum we had walked by earlier. I had pressed my face into the window to get a look before I caught up with my family.
“No,” I answered. “We’re running behind on time and I don’t think we can fit it in.”
“I work there. We’re not open yet though. It’s nice. Too bad you don’t have time. Where are you from?”
“We’re from New York City.”
“I like New York City. I have friends there.”
“We’re on a Civil Rights road trip.”
“I was here on Bloody Sunday… My name is Annie Pearl Avery. You can Google me if you want. They say I’m a Civil Rights veteran. I was a foot soldier.”
After Googling her, “Well there you are Ms. Avery. I’ve pulled up some information on you. I’ve got you right here.”
“I don’t even know how to do that. They say you can find all my quotes in books, but I don’t even know what books I’m quoted in.”
“This is my family,” I said, and I introduced each family member. She shook all of their hands with a firm grip. Even the 4-year-old. “Ms. Avery was here on Bloody Sunday.”
Ms. Avery smiled and let out a tiny giggle, “Yes, they beat me pretty good. Got hit hard. We’d been protesting though. Lot of stuff had happened for a while. They arrested us many times. I was put in that jail over there (motioning to a car lot). That’s still part of the old jail. I don’t know how many times. (Laughs) I got arrested last year too. At the capital in Montgomery. (Laughs some more) Yeah, I was tired. They told us we couldn’t lie down. But I’m 72 and was tired. I was tired, so I lay down. So they arrested me. Let me go though. Wasn’t too bad.”
Now here’s the thing. Every time she mentioned that she had been arrested, she put out her hand for me to shake it. And I did. Because she had beyond earned it. In the short time that I had the pleasure of being in her presence, she discussed beatings, shouts of hatred, and standing up for justice. She was one of many that put it all on the line for equality.
As we talked, it was obvious to me that she really cared about my kids. She was more interested in talking to them than to me. She seemed to have a special place in her heart for my 4-year-old, who was tired and wasn’t behaving. As he slumped his little body against a fire hydrant, she spoke to him as though he was the most well-behaved boy in the world. She talked to my kids about the importance of standing up for equal rights and not letting anyone tell you that you can’t do something when it’s your right. And as we walked away, Ms. Avery shouted with all her 72-year-old might, “Stand up for Justice!”
Before we walked away, she mentioned that she had t-shirts for sale. I told her that I would be glad to buy a couple, and so I did. After we had walked a distance away from Ms. Avery, my son asked, “Why did you buy those shirts?” My wife answered, “We owe her a lot more than the price of a few shirts.”
Ms. Avery gave my kids what I had been hoping for on the trip. A face and voice of the movement. I had hoped we would run into a survivor of Bloody Sunday or one of the many other marches so my kids could get a personal understanding of what had occurred. I’m not saying that they can understand it, because I don’t think anyone can understand unless you actually lived through it. But they have a little better understanding of the cost. The kids were also surprised that there are still people alive who marched across the Edmund Pettis Bridge; in their minds, it was ancient history. But now they realize that the gains we’ve made are recent and the work is not done.
On this trip, we saw graphic videos of hatred. We heard evil words and tone. Now, we heard heroicism. We saw bravery. We learned from someone with 72 years of knowledge and experience, someone that continues to fight for equality.
And where did Ms. Avery say she was off to next? Mississippi. She’s got some unfinished business to do.
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