“We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This is a quote from Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech. It’s also the inspiration for a memorial located at the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Ala., a facility operated by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization in Alabama. Near the center’s front outside entrance is the memorial, a large, round stone structure that looks like some kind of large table at first glance. Upon closer inspection, the structure comes more into focus. It looks like a large round table with sitting on top of a small upside down cone. It’s covered in black granite. In the center, water flows up and ripples out over the sides. Carved on top are names that go around like spokes in a wheel. The names belong to blacks who were killed during the civil rights movement of the mid ’50s to late 1960s. The dates of their death are included.
There’s a beginning and an end date. The first is 1954, the date of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling against segregated schools. The last is April 4, 1968, the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Those two dates represent in the memorial the beginning and end of the civil rights movement. In between those dates are the names and dates of 39 blacks who were killed as the result of racism.
As the King’s quote suggests, these people were not left under water. They flow like running water, penetrating even the most solid of rock and piercing the most vivid of memories from America’s segregated past. The KIPP students — not really knowing what it was at first — gathered around the monument and placed their hands on top, letting the water flow through their fingers. They soon started reading the names. Later, they would learn more about monument and the lives it honors.
The students were going to listen to Ms. Ella Bell, who lived during the time represented in the dates on the monument. Bell, whose stellar career not includes serving on the Alabama State Board of Education, was going to talk to students by the monument. The center was closed and we were not scheduled to go inside. Before she arrived, Ms. Lecia Brooks, director of the center, who was on her way home after closing up the center spotted one of the students wearing a KIPP shirt. She asked a chaperone if they were indeed KIPP students. Brooks in turns out is an admirer of KIPP. The center has hosted previous KIPP schools, but not one from Chicago.
After talking with Sara Holloway, a KIPP Ascend teacher and trip leader, Brooks reopened the center and let the students and Ms. Bell, who had since arrived and was chatting with students, come inside. We sat in a small auditorium where a movie describing the memorial is played. We watched the short 11-minute film, and then heard from Ms. Bell.
She talked about growing up as a child of the segregated south. Ms. Bell talked about being an inquisitive child and wanting to know why she couldn’t go certain places, and why she couldn’t do things that “they” were doing.
Instead of telling her young daughter the painful truth, Ms. Bell’s mother put the focus off of the fact that they were denied their rights because they were black.
When an adolescent Bell asked to sit at the counter, her mother would say, “You don’t want to sit at that counter. Look at the lady behind the counter ?”look at her long finger nails. You don’t know what’s underneath those finger nails. You don’t want to eat from those filthy fingers.”
When Bell asked to drink from the white water fountain, he mother responded, “Oh no, that fountain is so filthy. You don’t want to drink that filthy water. There are so many germs on that fountain. If you drink from that fountain, your nose might fall off.”
“Well, after she told me that, do you think I was going to drink from that dirty fountain,” said Bell.
“I wasn’t, in a sense, a protected child, but I certainly didn’t know the horrors,” Bell said. “But I soon would know.”
Ms. Bell and Ms. Brooks talked to students for about a half hour. The memorial was designed by Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. We then took a quick tour of the walls in the center with more names of blacks and civil rights events. This hallway led to the Wall of Tolerance.
A large movie-like video screen covers one side of the room from the floor to the ceiling. Several computer stations just in front of it allows visitors to type in their name, which is then projected in different colors and sizes and scrolls up and down the screen. Students typed their names and watch them fade in onto to the screen. The chaperones typed their names. I added mine. Thousands of names are continuously displayed on the wall.
Like water, they flow like a might stream.