50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE MOVEMENT: An Asian American family visits the civil rights South

A BRIDGE TO CIVIL RIGHTS HISTORY — Andy Noguchi, Annie Kim Noguchi and Twila Tomita on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the site of the March 7, 1965 state trooper “Bloody Sunday” attack on peaceful voting rights marchers. photo courtesy of Andy Noguchi

A BRIDGE TO CIVIL RIGHTS HISTORY — Andy Noguchi, Annie Kim Noguchi and Twila Tomita on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the site of the March 7, 1965 state trooper “Bloody Sunday” attack on peaceful voting rights marchers.
photo courtesy of Andy Noguchi

“Why’d y’all come to Birmingham?” the white cashier at Niki’s Restaurant incredulously asked when we mentioned we’d come all the way from Sacramento, Calif. “We came to see the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute,” we replied. “Well, y’all be sure to tell folks in Sacramento to come visit us, you hear,” he said.

This was part of an awareness-raising vacation to Georgia and Alabama for my wife Twila Tomita, adult daughter Annie Kim Noguchi, and me this October. Our nine-day trip focused on the civil rights South, and we highly recommend it for anyone interested in this vital part of our country’s history.

The year 2013 was the 50th anniversary of the historic Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Sept. 15 dynamiting of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, which murdered four innocent African American girls.

Our family has been active in Asian and Pacific Islander American and other civil rights, some going back 40 years. But we didn’t fully understand the African American struggles in the South. These struggles forever changed the consciousness of America, making advances for APIAs possible including redress for Japanese Americans incarcerated in World War II concentration camps.

Our friend and Sacramento leader, Dr. Dorothy Enomoto, wife of APIA civil rights icon Jerry Enomoto, had generously shared her amazing stories of growing up in 1930s Georgia. Dorothy had witnessed much — from the sorrow of seeing black lynching victims to the joy of becoming the co-valedictorian of Booker T. Washington Senior High — with a young Martin Luther King Jr. Now we would travel there.

Every trip requires preparation. We were lucky to have Twila Tomita, vacation planner extraordinaire, plot out our route to Atlanta, Warm Springs, Plains, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, and back to Atlanta — a 550-mile route.

I researched the racial lay of the land. Blacks make up 60 percent of the people, whites 35 percent. Asians are only one to five percent. We knew we wouldn’t be in “Asian-haven” California any longer. Nevertheless, people we met were friendly, polite, and a bit curious about Asians.

When we flew into Atlanta, the first thing on the agenda was food, especially with “snack-queen” Annie. The first place we stopped was a dinner house, but the customers were all white. Better pass that one up.

The second spot was U.S. Café, a burger and chicken joint. The crowd was cordial and almost all black. “This is like being in Oakland!” remarked Oakland-based Annie. The sweet potato tots, BBQ wings and fried chicken sandwich were a big “thumbs up.”

While staying at the Montgomery Residence Inn, we got a culinary surprise. At breakfast, we found a rice cooker, dried seaweed, kimchi, and even Asians in the dining room! When I asked a hotel worker, she said the local Hyundai plant brings over Korean workers and requested foods to make people feel at home. We sure did.

Our first civil rights stop was Atlanta’s Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. Through films, exhibits and sculptures, it provided valuable civil rights context for Dr. King’s life.

An exhibit on lynchings shocked us. “Historians believe that more than 10,000 black Americans died this way between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement,” the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of The New York Public Library quoted. Unknown by many Americans, “racial terrorism” victimized blacks for 100 years after slavery.

In Montgomery, we visited the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, and were graciously guided by Ms. Glencile Greenlea. She shared how a young Dr. King, serving his first pastorate from 1954 untill 1960, developed his civil rights leadership. A tour highpoint was visiting the pulpit where Dr. King preached during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Just three-quarters of a mile away, we also visited Dr. King’s restored parsonage where he, his wife Coretta and two young children lived. We could still see the damaged concrete porch where racists dynamited his house on Jan. 30, 1956. Fortunately, no family members were injured.

Ms. Marguerite Foley, a retired teacher and a parishioner of Dr. King, guided us. She shared her remembrances on segregation: “Separate wasn’t equal!” To protest being forced to sit in the back of Montgomery buses, blacks endured the hardships of the year-long boycott, “they just managed; that’s what people did.”

Another tour highlight was visiting the Rosa Parks Museum for the courageous woman who sparked the successful 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. A full-size bus exhibit with windows overlaid by dramatic video of passengers vividly brought that Dec. 1, 1955 day to life.

Our tour guide Ricky Brown, a knowledgeable young man, and expert exhibits shared the broad social movement behind Rosa Parks. Black churches organized 350 car pools to shuttle people to jobs and stores!

Annie remarked that the museum explained how the community organized — lessons for today’s movements. It wasn’t just one person. The boycott distributed 50,000 flyers, organized huge twice a week rallies, and sought donations nationally.

The Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery was also well worth a visit. The dramatic black granite memorial and fountain to civil rights martyrs designed by artist Maya Lin, interactive exhibits, and personal stories of courage were inspiring.

Birmingham offered poignant civil rights accounts at Kelly Ingram Park, the site of the May 1963 “Children’s Crusade.” The Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a business boycott, and thousands of students marched against job discrimination and segregated stores.

Police Chief “Bull” Connor attacked students with high-pressure water hoses, vicious dogs, night sticks and more than 1,000 arrests, but to no avail. People’s direct action shut down the city, fired the police chief, exposed the brutality, and desegregated Birmingham.

The 16th Street Baptist Church, just across the street, presents an infamous site. On Sept. 15, 1963 bombers killed four innocent young black girls there. Coming just two weeks after the March on Washington, this atrocity fueled national outrage.

The huge Birmingham Civil Rights Institute next door tied together all the stories in a comprehensive picture. It illuminated how the Civil Rights movement spread.

The 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott inspired blacks in Birmingham, Mobile and Tallahassee. The Lunch Counter Sit-In by Greensboro college students spread widely. According to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, “in four months, more than 50,000 black students and white supporters held sit-ins in 78 cities.”

Some 50 miles from Montgomery is Selma, Ala., site of the March 7, 1965 “Bloody Sunday.” State troopers with night sticks, tear gas, and cattle prods attacked 600 peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge calling for the right to vote.

Two months later, 3,200 marchers successfully left Selma to join 25,000 in Montgomery calling for voting rights. The vicious attack on innocent people outraged Americans and helped lead to the 1965 Voter Rights Act.

Looking back on our journey, Twila shared that the “high point was seeing the places I’d read about and seen on the news in the 1950s and ‘60s and still recall vividly. I learned how brave and determined the black community was during the height of the civil rights era.”

I also appreciated the dramatic hallway in the civil rights center. Its vibrant murals highlighted today’s struggles for immigrants, farm workers, marriage equality, women and others. The photo of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Ariz. who was murdered in the 9/11 backlash against Muslim, Arab and South Asian Americans hit home.

Our vacation to the civil rights South was a great first-hand opportunity to walk in the footsteps of inspiring pioneers, learn important stories, and appreciate what this means for today. We’re glad we went.

Andy Noguchi is Florin JACL’s Civil Rights co-chair in Sacramento. He can be reached at AndyNoguchi@hotmail.com.

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