I don’t have much experience with touring by bus. My only experience, really, is travel through Israel – and this is certainly a different experience.
Winding our way though the South, we’re making a pilgrimage to significant sites and markers on Freedom’s (often bloody) Road to civil rights for African Americans here in the U.S. Unlike virtually every site in Israel – which can astound you suddenly and cumulatively with the realization of just how far you are from home – every place we’ve seen on this trip is striking in its familiarity. The Atlanta birthplace and home church of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which has grown into the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, is in the heart of one of America’s busiest cities. The home of martyred Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers, nestled in the first middle-class African American neighborhood in Jackson (and probably all of), Mississippi could be, from outward appearances, the home of one of my parents growing up in St. Louis or Philadelphia – except for the lack of a front door and the children’s mattresses lying on the floor below window-level, both intentional decisions to protect against the very real and constant threat of gun shots from extremists.
But there’s one thing that reminds me very much of Israel: The street signs. In Israel, they read “Jabotinsky” and “Achad Ha-Am.” In Mississipi and Alabama, they’re “Carver” and “Evers” and, seemingly everywhere, “Martin Luther King, Jr.” – or just “King” or “MLK.” In both places, history is never further away than the green sign at the end of the road – and that street doesn’t have to be a major freeway, it could be the one you live on, everyday, just at the end of the driveway of your very own home.
But do we read the signs for history, just as we do for navigation? To figure out where we’ve been, to know how we’ve arrived here, and to see how we need to get where we need to go? Maybe we need to hand out maps to our students along with their text books. And remember that so many names have been lost to both.