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SACRED PLACES Two required Living Democracy blog assignments connected students to sacred places in their respective communities. One asked them to attend a church service (other than a familiar one), and the other asked them to identify a sacred place that was symbolic to most or all of the community. Guiding prompts asked students to identify and talk with community partners about cherished and symbolic places prior to community placement. Both preliminary discussions and real world experiences created opportunities for reflection on what makes a place sacred and on how sacred places can unite and connect people on solid ground.
In these Alabama communities, our students easily discovered churches on every corner. But their search for the sacred often very directly connected to their search for how citizens engaged in powerful ways to protect and cherish such places. They also discovered the roots of civic action were often found in churches where religious leaders lead political and social action outside the doors of their churches in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr.’s faith-based action. In some communities, they came face to face with economic, social, and political challenges that seemed to threaten the very future of these rural communities. But the stories they captured showed the other side of the coin. The residents who are hanging on, fighting for the future, seemed held in place by a sacred anchor whether it was built on memory, family ties, or simply their desire to save a special place for future generations. And that was impressive to Living Democracy students coming from Atlanta or Birmingham suburbs linked by interstates with a symbol no more common than McDonald’s arches. The life-long citizens of Marion, Linden, Elba, or Valley often shared stories with our students that carried such sentiments, described by our students as “a heart for home”. Some noticed a special gleam in the eye that would come when citizens described a place in the community as “sacred.” Over two summers of work in the Living Democracy communities, Auburn students searched for lessons to be learned from sacred places. And they found plenty. While most Living Democracy students, whether at city hall or the local barber shop, understood the value of third spaces and
civic spaces and their connection to civic engagement, other, sometimes richer, experiences came from their discovery of “sacred spaces” in the community. As Sierra Lehnhoff noted in her 2013 Week Six reflection, “We’ve talked about places that are an asset to the community, written pieces on places where people gather, and shared about special areas in communities scattered all over the state.” Lehnhoff noted that such attention to place lead them to encounters with sites that held “deep, symbolic meaning to local citizens.” While definitions of sacred spaces are debated by scholars, Lehnhoff’s definition: “It’s not the place itself, but the meaning and the memories behind the location that hold value to the citizens and boost the importance of the place” is one that worked for students as they discovered and celebrated sacred places with local citizens. Certainly, most scholars seem to agree that burial grounds and churches can be sacred ground. Living Democracy students found that to be true in our seven communities. Our very first visit to Bayou La Batre with the 2012 Living Democracy students was highlighted by visits to local Cambodian and Vietnamese temples. These color-
ful yet simple temples were sacred places for Laotian, Vietnamese, and Cambodian refugees who arrived almost four decades ago. The Southeast Asian immigrants now make up a third of Bayou La Batre’s population. It was the clear that the temples represented both the dignity and diversity of these immigrants and their children and grandchildren. Even though the temples stand out, they don’t stand alone. As Laney Payne wrote in 2013, “In Bayou La Batre, one can find a vibrant Buddhist temple adorned with hand-painted dragons and strings of flowers just down the road from a Baptist church filled with women dressed in their Sunday best.
One common bond is meeting the need to reflect in a quiet place.” In Collinsville, Mary Beth Snow learned that the Hispanic Church of Christ, lead by minister Carlos Perez, was much more than “a Sunday morning only” church, serving all kinds of roles for Hispanic immigrants and their families throughout the week. In Selma, the historic Brown Chapel AME is a prime example, Taryn Wilson discovered, of a sacred place that honors its historic role in the Civil Rights movement yet actively reaches out to address needs in the community today.
In Bayou La Batre, Laney Payne spent the first part of her 2013 summer living in a camper parked next the Hemley Road Church of Christ, closely watching Pastor Daphne German work “seven days a week to create an atmosphere of love” as she and volunteers distributed food, diapers, financial assistance and more to the needy. According to Payne, German came to Hemley Road after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region to volunteer and ended up never leaving, working alongside William “Billy” Paulding to repair the church that was buried by almost six feet of water. As part of her summer experience, Payne stayed busy working alongside volunteers and church members, regularly handing out food to the hungry at the church where there were almost three children to every adult member. She noted, “The true virtue of ‘come as you are’ is quickly appreciated as barefoot children scurry through the dirt in search of Mr. Billy’s famous biscuits and gravy.” She reflected on the role of the Hemley Road Church of Christ: “Against all odds, the small southern church, stitched together like a patchwork quilt from pieces of leftovers and donations, keeps their doors open to provide a place to worship. Staffed by hard-working volunteers, shrimpers, grandmothers, waitresses, and barefoot children leading worship from song books nearly twice their size, Hemley Road Church of Christ is a place of refuge, service, and support for the community.” To the north in Alabama’s Black Belt, 2013 Fellow Taryn Wilson had multiple choices when selecting a church service to attend in Selma. The 205 churches listed in or near the city limits, she
wrote, meant “almost 14 churches per square mile.” Many of Selma’s churches, from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, organized in 1838, to the Temple Mishkan Israel, a Jewish Synagogue dedicated in February 1900, Wilson learned, had a rich history worth exploring. But she finally settled on Brown Chapel CME Church where Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders organized protesters before the famous “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. Almost fifty years after this pivotal turning point, Wilson found herself attending Brown Chapel, which is now listed on the National Historic Register. She expected to find a museum-like atmosphere with velvet ropes around the pulpit where King and then Senator Barack Obama later preached.
But she found that no white gloves or velvet barricades were required at one of Selma’s most historic churches. Organized in 1867, Brown Chapel was the first AME church in Alabama. Nearly 100 years later, Wilson noted, the church made history again as a key location for mass meetings organized at the church despite injunctions against such gatherings. Today, Wilson wrote: “The pews and seating in the upper level remain the same. The organ pipes you see behind Dr. King in the classic photo of his fiery speech in 1965 are still used by the organist today.” In her 2013 visit, Wilson found that the church leaders and members were more focused on the present than the past. She wrote, “The church and its members understand the legacy that lives within the walls of the church, but they don’t let it hinder them from continuing to reach out to the community.” She noted the pride in the Rev. Leotis Strong’s voice as he announced that 84 children had attended Vacation Bible School, celebrated as “a huge achievement in an area where drugs and violence are too often a problem for the community.” She wrote: “In a time where the battle is not as much about racism and discrimination as it is drugs and violence, Brown Chapel has yet again taken a stand and pledged to make a change. I suppose the reason why no parts of the church are roped off or forbidden is because the members of Brown Chapel do not want to separate themselves from the history that has taken place within the walls of the church. And in a time where the fight to stop the violence is going on in full force, it seems this generation of Brown Chapel’s congregation is ready to take on this new battle.”
Selma, with multiple museums and sites commemorating Civil Rights era history within walking distance of the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge, is considered the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement. However, the nearby town of Marion claims the title as the birthplace of the Selma to Montgomery March. It all started there at a sacred place visited by Living Democracy student Catherine Tabor, the Zion United Methodist Church. It was at that small brick church on the night of February 18, 1965, where 500 gathered to sing before starting a peaceful protest march to the nearby Perry County Jail. Planning to continue singing hymns, the marchers walked to the jail to protest the imprisonment of young civil rights worker James Orange. Marion police, deputies, and Alabama state troopers confronted the marchers in front of the 5
jail. Violence erupted, and Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed. This became the spark that ignited plans for the Selma to Montgomery March known as “Bloody Sunday.” For both Wilson and Tabor, the church visits provided an opportunity to consider the role of churches in civic action and in building community both in the past and present. Beyond the sacred spaces of local churches, Living Democracy students began to ask if abandoned theaters or schools could be sacred places. Could the remains of a local school citizens worked to save be a symbol? Across the communities students discovered a common thread indicating some community icons were held sacred. What the abandoned textile mill buildings and empty theaters had in common was the passion expressed by local citizens devoted to saving these symbols because of the story they told of who the community was and continues to be. One such site was the Lincoln Normal School in Marion. Both Mary Afton Day and Tabor learned about this school that has inspired graduates near and far to find creative ways save the school. Coretta School King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., is among the accomplished men and women who graduated from Lincoln before it closed in the late 1960s. Since it closed, Lincoln alumni and others have banded together to find innovative uses for space at the school. Both Day and Tabor enjoyed spending time learning about quilting from members of West Perry Arts and Crafts Club, a group of women who now get together at Lincoln to sew
and socialize as they pass along their craft to the next generation. The quilters and others are determined to keep the doors open and memories of Lincoln alive. The school, open for more than 100 years, was one of the earliest institutions established for the education of African Americans after the Civil War. Graduates, now spread across the country from Chicago to New York, formed an alumni association that works together to honor the school and its impact on their lives, holding regular reunions. Mary Afton Day, in 2012, said she was honored to attend the 19th Biennial Lincoln School Reunion in Marion. She was able to meet alumni who traveled to the reunion from across the country. Janet Howard, a 1966 Lincoln graduate, shared her story of being at the march where Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot and about her participation in the subsequent Selma march. Howard, who spent three days in a hospital for injuries sustained in the march, told Day that she and other Lincoln graduates at the reunion are “blessed beyond measure” to be able to celebrate and preserve Lincoln Normal School’s role in history and remember their own participation in the push for civil rights. Two other educational institutions in Marion, a community that proudly claims the title of “College City”, Tabor suggested, also qualified as being sacred spaces. In the minds of local citizens. The historic colleges, Judson College and Marion Military Institute, stand in the heart of Marion. 6
Both Tabor and Day lived on the Judson campus, which dates back to 1838. Nearby, the Marion Military Institute, formed in 1842, claims an equally rich history. Judson, one of the few remaining all-female colleges in the nation, is home of the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame. MMI, ranked high on the U.S. list of top community colleges, houses the Alabama Military Hall of Honor. Tabor noted both institutions provide both pride and opportunity in the small rural community. Further to the southeast in Elba, Sierra Lehnhoff described another “sacred space” citizens rallied to save in her story about the Elba High School “monument”. After the school was destroyed by a Pea River flood that devastated the entire community, citizens rallied to preserve the front of the building and the front steps. Today, three double doors stand beneath tall Elba High School letters. Alumni gather on the stairs leading up to the doors, all that is left standing. According to Mart Gray, Living Democracy community partner in Elba, the school was “the central hub of community life for generations.” When Laurie
Chapman and other citizens in Elba got together to discuss construction of a new playground, all that remained of Elba High was slated for destruction. But then Chapman and others “decided that saving an important part of the old Elba High School would symbolize hope in the face of tragedy created by floods.” Lehnhoff observed: “After the school was damaged, the community banded together and made good happen. Chapman and the committee behind the play7
ground development were able to keep some of Elba’s history as well as bring a new asset to the area. These two things combined into one sacred place. They salvaged what they could to tell a story of a town that wasn’t going to give up.” Today, visitors at Elba’s Tiger Town Park can look through the rescued Elba High Doors to a modern playground that stands behind it. As Lehnhoff wrote, “The citizens can look through the doors of the past and see Elba’s future. They can see hope as they reminisce about the days they cherish.” Despite the positive outcome in Elba, Living Democracy students found that passion does not always come without controversy when it comes to “sacred places”. They encountered passionate battles between those who want to remove “ugly eyesores” in the name of progress and those who fight with all they have to save historic “treasures”. Kaleb Kirkpatrick observed this in Linden as members of the historical association fought to save old Marengo County Courthouse built in 1848. The courthouse gained national attention in 1890 when notorious train robber Rube Burrow was shot there. After a new courthouse was built in 1902, the old courthouse was left behind. Today some are determined to save the old structure on Cahaba Street. Kirkpatrick noted: “Discussions on the fate of the old courthouse can be contentious. Some people feel it is an eye sore and that it should be demolished. Others, especially the Marengo County Historical Society, see great value in the courthouse. They see it as an asset.”
But perhaps the most contentious battle connected to a sacred space was observed in the summer of 2013 by Taryn Wilson. History and passion collided in the peaceful setting of the town’s historic Old Live Oak Cemetery. A clash that rages on today, Wilson said, started over a monument in remembrance of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, honored by some as a great soldier of the Confederacy and seen by others as a known slaveholder and early leader of the KKK. A 7-foot-tall granite monument honoring Forrest was moved to the Live Oak Cemetery after
controversy erupted over its original placement in front of a downtown museum. The move did little to calm the protests from African Americans that the tribute to Forrest had no place on public property. On March 9, 2012, the bronze bust of Forrest disappeared, essentially decapitating the monument. In the summer of 2013, the bust had not yet been found despite a $40,000 reward offered on billboards and a sign near the monument. Wilson, writing in her “Glory in Graves” account, described how the controversy has disturbed the peace at the historic cemetery first set aside as a graveyard in 1829. She summarized the ongoing saga that many local leaders told her they wished would go away writing: “The presence of the bust in the park became a key fighting point between two groups in the community. One side of the argument, given by Civil Rights groups, suggests that the monument glorifies a racist leader and contradicts progress made in Selma and beyond. The other side, backed by Sons of Confederate Veterans and Friends of Forrest, suggest that the bust was a tribute to a successful Confederate general who led the push to protect Selma from Union forces during the Civil War.” At first, Wilson said, the controversy “seems just a little bit childish, like two kids fighting over a toy.” But in a deeper reflection, she wrote: “But to the people who live in Selma this is a matter of pride, even a matter of glory. Each side is fighting to protect and glorify what they believe in and those who fought for it. I don’t know that either side has a true advantage in the matter (except perhaps the individual who has the bust, of course), but I have a feeling that the city council and other local leaders are going to be mediating battles on this topic for some time to come. In a situation where opponents are at such polar opposites, I don’t know if a solution exists that would appease both sides, but I look forward to the day that a decision is made on the topic.”
Some of the most powerful people in Alabama, particularly from the Civil War period, are buried beneath the moss-draped trees at Old Live Oak Cemetery. These include historic figures such as John Tyler Morgan, a U.S. Senator, Brigadier General in the Confederate States Army and the father of the Panama Canal, and Edmund Winston Pettus, a U.S. Senator, Brigadier General in the Confederate States Army and namesake of Selma’s famous bridge over the Alabama River. The bridge that bears his name is certainly one of the most symbolic and sacred places in Selma today. Black and white images of the bridge are forever captured in film clips and photographs of the 1965 Bloody Sunday March. The span over the Alabama River leading into Selma is today both a blessing and a curse. Every spring, pilgrims and politicians come back to Selma to commemorate the “Bloody Sunday” March as a crucial turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. One argument goes that history, with the multiple museums and rich stories 9
associated with Selma’s history from the Civil War through the Civil Rights era, should be the town’s greatest asset. However, despite the civic tourism potential, other local leaders see the bridge as a symbol that anchors the town to a past that is long gone, serving as a negative image that makes it difficult to prove how far race relations have progressed and how eager Selma’s citizens are to build a better future. In her first week in Selma, Wilson reflected on the negative connotations associated with Selma and its historic bridge. She noted, “Selma is a beautiful place with beautiful people, but when people only mention it in reference to the racial turmoil that happened here nearly 50 years ago, the city and the people who live here today suffer.” Reflecting on a historic marker at the bridge commemorating the site as “The Beginning” of the Selma movement, Wilson predicted, “ I think there is going to be another Selma Movement, another beginning, in which the citizens of Selma are going to take the time to redefine themselves and the Black Belt area as a region that is not defined by its past, but defined by what it plans to do in the future.”
Certainly, Wilson’s Selma experience was shaped by visits to sacred spaces such as the Brown Chapel CME and the Old Live Oak Cemetery. But, for her personal journey, the Edmund Pettus Bridge became a meaningful symbol. In a post-summer interview, Wilson said, “I began my summer walking half way across the Edmund Pettus Bridge before turning back on the first day. On my last day in Selma, I completed the journey, walking all the way across. My summer taught me it’s all about crossing the bridge”.