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2005 Civil Rights Journey. Selma and Birmingham. Wednesday, July 13.
Mayor James Perkins, Jr., Selma, Ala.
"I personally feel privileged to have lived through the Jim Crow era," says James Perkins, Jr., the first black mayor of Selma, Ala.
The 61 of us on the journey are at City Hall, bright and early, listening to a man who has achieved a position that he could hardly dream about when he was growing up. When he was born, Selma's voting rolls had 100 white persons for every black person, even though the city had a slight black majority. Now James Perkins, Jr., is the mayor.
His assistant has rushed in to hurry him to his next appointment, but Mayor Perkins nods her off. He enjoys talking and he's just getting comfortable. He strides across the room and fields a question.
Someone in our group asks: "What do you mean when you say you felt 'privileged' to have lived through Jim Crow? I don't see how that can be."
The avuncular mayor settles in closer to explain. He witnessed firsthand the pain, the humiliation of that era. He witnessed the heroism of the actors of the civil rights movement, and feels strongly that he is one of many who has inherited the fruit of their sacrifice. He considers himself fortunate. He harbors no hostility, no hatred of obstructionists to civil rights. He's done fighting. "I may not be able to stop the fight, but I can stop fighting," he says. "I can only control myself, my own actions. And that's all I need to concern myself with."
The incumbent he defeated in 2000 was the mayor every year but one since 1964, a former segregationist who was considered unbeatable. Mayor Perkins had run against him twice before, in 1992 and 1996. He was tempted to give up. But he ran again. He kept running. For ten years he ran for office. He knew change didn't happen overnight; he knew the incumbent had a towering advantage. Taking a page from the book of his childhood heroes, he persevered and ultimately won . . . and won again. He was reelected in 2004.
His assistant appears again at a side door and gives him a look that says hurry up. The mayor looks like a child being called home for dinner. He grins, stands up and wishes us well. He has opened up to a busload of strangers who are ineligible to vote for him and are not likely to return to the city he has labored hard to improve. But his gains from this conversation are greater than the ordinary: the lessons from the civil rights movement need to be passed down, and he's proud to do so. All at once, we stand and give him an ovation that rocks the building. The mayor walks out waving through the side door like the star that he is.
We collect our breath and hurry down the stairs to the bus. One girl from Oklahoma beams and says what we all are thinking, "I wish he would run for president!"
Christopher and Maxine McNair, Birmingham, Ala.
That evening we dine in the company of two more individuals whose legacies began in the civil rights era.
Christopher and Maxine McNair lost their 11-year-old daughter, Denise, in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Denise was one of four little girls who died in the church basement. It took 10 years before the white supremacist in charge of the bombing was convicted; his co-conspirators have never faced charges.
At spacious Chris McNair Studios, the family prepares a homestyle dinner for us and then shows Spike Lee's "Four Little Girls," the only documentary the McNair family and the other parents have permitted to be made about the girls and their murder.
After the movie, Mr. and Mrs. McNair, a loving couple who have been through it all together, answer questions. They do this regularly, whenever they can, to pass along their witness to that era and to that signature tragedy.
They talk about their lives after the bombing -- Mr. McNair became one of the first African Americans to serve in the Alabama legislature. For 15 years, he was the Jefferson County commissioner. They went on to have two more daughters after Denise died. They pause before answering one question: "When and how did you tell your younger daughters that they had an older sister who was dead?"
The McNairs puzzle over this one. They don't remember exactly. They think some more. No, they don't recall when and how. "We told them. They knew. But we didn't wash their faces with it," says Mr. McNair. His wife nods her head in agreement.
Like Mayor Perkins, the McNairs reveal a nobility that eschews vengeneance and avoids dwelling on past wrongs. For some of us, this is initially hard to accept -- we've been affected by the images of hatred and violence we've seen in the museums and documentaries. There's something undeniable inside that wants to confront and battle. But if we felt that way this morning, it's been dispelled by the even-tempered words of these three exemplars who bear wounds from that era and forge ahead to pass on history and grace.