On Wednesday morning I got up early and walked to a nearby IHOP for breakfast rather than run the gauntlet of 40 hungry students scrambling for something to eat at the hotel. As I usually do I brought a book with me, which on this occasion was a book I picked up on the civil rights movement in Tuskegee, the day before. Within a few minutes three elderly white men sat at a table to my left. One gentleman noticed what I was reading and we struck up a conversation. I mentioned that I was with a group of students from Boston traveling from Atlanta to Memphis to visit civil rights sites. We chatted for a bit longer, but the last thing he said to me was, “Make sure you tell them we’re not all racists down here.”
The comment took me by surprise. I assured him that our students were working hard to understand the complexity of the history at the various sites visited along the way and that I personally had not heard any generalizations along the lines that this gentleman feared. In my mind the comment reflects the porous nature of the boundary between past and present.
What I did notice is that many of the students shifted between past and present as well. A number of students along the way expressed concern that their presence might be interpreted as a judgment against one sector of the population or the region as a whole. I told them to remember that they are here studying American history. As citizens of this nation it is their history and they have an obligation to know something about it. The powerful stories that they heard from participants in the struggle (both black and white) are central to the story of American freedom as is the case for the stories that visitors experience on the Freedom Trail in Boston. There is absolutely nothing to feel defensive about. I suggested that we should be inspired by the actions of so many Americans during this period. White and black Southerners today should be proud of their fellow citizens who sacrificed so much, including their lives, to expand the boundaries of freedom for future generations.
I told students that white and black Southerners should welcome with open arms visitors who feel strongly enough about the significance of this past to want to visit these sites. And if they don’t, that is their problem.