My Blood Ran Cold

It was a balmy day on March 15, 2015. It was warm enough that my shirt was damp from exertion. Then, unexpectedly, my blood ran cold. I was frozen in place, transported through time and space to 50 years earlier. I was on the verge of a panic attack, something that has never happened when covering the most horrific scenes as a news photographer.

Let’s back up a bit.

Wife Lila is a quilter, so we made a side trip to Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective in 2008. I felt a sense of deja vu when we crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge leading over the Alabama River into Selma. I retraced that route with Road Warriorette Shari as a traveling companion in 2015.

About midway between Montgomery and Selma, we spotted a building with a bunch of tents pitched around it. It was the Lowndes Interpretive Center, which was hosting marchers re-enacting the Selma to Montgomery trek half a century earlier. (Click on any photo to make it larger.)

Bloody Sunday

Until 1965, only 2% of the black voters in Selma’s Dallas county were able to vote. In Lowndes county, the percentage was zero.

On March 7, shortly after a civil rights protestor had died after being shot, 600 non-violent protestors planned to march 54 miles from Brown A.M.E. Chapel in Selma to Montgomery to honor the martyr and to draw attention to voters’ rights.

Attacked by “lawmen”

Shortly after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were stopped by a line of state troopers, local lawmen and local volunteers. After being given less than two minutes to return to the church, the marchers were attacked with nightsticks and teargas. At least 50 protestors required hospital treatment.

John Lewis: “I thought I saw Death”

One of the protesters beaten on Bloody Sunday was Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, then a 25-year-old organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. I had a concussion at the bridge,” Lewis said. “My legs went out from under me. I felt like I was going to die. I thought I saw Death.”

The interpretive center had a profoundly moving video that gave the background of racial discrimination in the area and accounts of the three marches – or attempted marches – from Selma.

I was moved to tears by a woman who must have been very young on Bloody Sunday. She was speaking to a number of students and decrying the poor voting turnout in the country. She handed each student a pebble while saying, “I walked on these very rocks on that day. Now, I’m handing them on for you to carry.”

We found the march

Not far from the center, we ran into the marchers stopped at a convenience store. I managed to get in behind them and drove up the shoulder of the road until I ran into this trooper. He gave me a questioning look, but became friendly when I stepped out with my camera gear. “I thought you might have had some kind of emergency and needed to get by,” he said.

When I looked back at him protecting the marchers, I wondered if his father or grandfather had been in the group at the bottom of the bridge on Bloody Sunday.

A mixed group

The group was made up of a mixture of ages and races, ranging from a babe in arms to folks who were probably in their 70s. Sometimes singing would break out, other times the walkers were just plugging away.

“What mean these stones?

After we left the group (see more photos in the gallery), we stopped at the Bloody Sunday monument at the foot of the bridge going into Selma. I was surprised at the number of people who were there.

Inscribed on the rock are words from Joshua 4:21-22. “When your children shall ask you in time to come saying, ‘What mean these stones?’ then you shall tell them how you made it over.”

The words of the woman with the pebbles came flooding back to me.

A fairly steep climb

The bridge has a pretty steep grade to it. You can’t actually see it from the bottom on either side.

Picturesque, but run-down

When you approach the top, you get a pretty view of a picturesque, but somewhat battered town.

Business as usual

As I got to the top of the span, I was the normal detached photographer, thinking only of composition and exposure.

Then, something happened

I walked about halfway down the bridge, then turned back to head to the car. I hadn’t gone far, when suddenly I felt myself transported back half a century. I could hear the crowd behind me singing, talking, laughing. Spirits were high. They were marching for their freedom.

That’s when I took this frame and realized that here is where you would first see the line of lawmen waiting. I’ve covered my share of riots and protests, but there was generally some kind of restraint on both sides. Those men waiting down below weren’t there to enforce the law: they were there to mete out punishment.

I could feel the pressure of the crowds behind me. They hadn’t yet seen what I was seeing, and they were pushing me from behind. I couldn’t retreat, and I certainly didn’t want to go forward. I don’t know how long I was paralyzed there. If the spirits of the place could invoke that much terror, I can only imagine what it must have been like to live it.

We’re going to have to change the title

As soon as I regained my composure, I called Curator Jessica in Athens. In a choked voice, I told her we were going to have to change the title of an exhibit we were doing on the protest era at Ohio University. The working title was “The Sky Has Fallen.”

“A university closing is nowhere near what the freedom marchers in Alabama faced. We need to avoid hyperbole,” I argued.

Ms. Jessica explained the origin of the term: after a night of rioting two weeks after Kent State, the decision was made to close the university. The student newspaper, The OU Post, was on a hard deadline to get the story in print. Just before it hit the presses, someone said, “We don’t have a weather report for tomorrow.”

Editor Andy Alexander, a darned good journalist then and now, said, “Just write, ‘The sky has fallen.'”

I accepted that.

Gallery from Selma

Click on any photo to make it larger, then use your arrow keys to move through the gallery.

 

 

Paradise Lost

Big Muskie' dragline bucket 08-24-2014When Curator Jessica and I headed up to Kent, Ohio, in 2014, she insisted on a side trip to see Big Muskie’s bucket at the Miners’ Memorial Park. Click on the photo to make it large enough to see her IN the bucket.

John Prine’s Paradise

The youngster had never heard John Prine singing Paradise, an ode to a town hauled away by Mr. Peabody’s coal train and bought out by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

Now, she wanted me to carry her off to Paradise. The first OH-MO-OH trip was plagued by fog, drizzle and downpour, so we had to bail. The weather was OK on this one, but we were pushing darkness pretty hard, particularly since we were looking for something that wasn’t there.

We found the TVA

Paradise KY area 05-22-2016The first clue that we might be close to the right place was when we spotted the mammoth cooling towers of the TVA’s Paradise Fossil Plant. An interesting website postulates that Mr. Peabody’s coal trains might have hauled Paradise away, but it was the power plant that was the nail in the coffin:

“The Paradise Fossil Plants were built and started raining ash and debris down upon the remaining citizens of Paradise. Concern arose for the health of the remaining residents of Paradise. Obviously having ash created during the factory process and pouring from the air like warm, toxic snow was not a positive influence for ones respiratory system. Most likely, to prevent an onslaught of environmental and residential poisoning lawsuits, the Tennessee Valley Authority stepped forward. TVA representatives convinced the remaining townsfolk to vacate and paid them minuscule amounts to abandon their once happy lives in Paradise.”

Power plant went online in 1963

Paradise KY area 05-22-2016The TVA website said Units 1 and 2 went online in 1963. They were the largest operating units in the world at the time. A third powered up in 1985. The two older units will be idled by the end of 2017, replaced by a $1 billion gas-fired plant under construction in the distance.

The hunt for the cemetery

Paradise KY area 05-22-2016One website we read said a cemetery was about all that was left of the original community. We poked around the power plant, wondering how long it would be before somebody from Homeland Security showed up to ask these flatland furiners with Florida tags why they were creeping around, occasionally taking photos. We took off down a promising road that kept getting progressively smaller and bumpier.

After passing a washtub-sized snapping turtle, a deer and a pair of amorous squirrels, I spotted a guy in his carport with a couple of kids around him. When I turned into his lane, my curator partner said, “This one is yours.”

I allowed as how Kentucky coal miners would probably be as friendly as Appalachian coal miners, but I mentally adjusted my dialect, taking a little Yankee out of my SE Ohio twang, and dialing some North Carolina into my Swampeast Missouri drawl. The gentleman couldn’t tell me exactly where we needed to go, but he gave us some hints, peppered with local landmarks of the “third dead skunk” variety.

You gotta be kidding

Paradise KY area 05-22-2016We headed back past the snapping turtle, past the power plant and back toward huge mounds of coal and the railroad cars that hauled it. Right about here, my navigator said, “Turn left.”

I did, taking us up a vertical gravel road that deadended at the top of a hill with a radio tower on it. While trying to figure out how to turn around, Navigator said, “That looks like a road going down the hill.”

I might have been able to go DOWN that hill, but there was no way we’d ever be able to drive back up it. Sometimes you have to disregard your navigator because I could hear Johnny Cash singing about what was going to happen if we went down that road that was Dark as a Dungeon:

And pray when I’m dead and the ages shall roll
That my body would blacken and turn into coal
Then I’ll look from the door of my heavenly home and pity the miner digging my bones

The McDougall Family

Paradise KY area 05-22-2016We headed back toward the power plant and found the road that led past the McDougall / Paradise Cemetery

The McDougalls, I assume of the family for which the cemetery was named, had plots surrounded by an intricate metal fence. They weren’t on the highest part of the burying grounds, nor were they in the mowed section, but the fence made up for it.

A grammatical error

Paradise KY area 05-22-2016John McDougall, born in Scotland in 1821, and who died in Muhlenberg county 60 years later, has been sleeping under a stone with a typo. Above the digit pointing to heaven, is the inscription, “THEIR IS REST.”

Eudoxia Smith Robertson

Paradise KY area 05-22-2016A significant number of the stones had birth and death dates in the 1800s. Eudoxia Smith, for example, was born in 1815, and married Alney McLean Robertson in 1837. She died two years later, after giving birth to two children.

Kneeknockers

Paradise KY area 05-22-2016The thigh-high grass hid lots of shin and knee-high gravestones. I found this one particularly attractive, probably because I saw it before I felt it.

Miz Jessica and I were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves chigger-free the next morning. I was afraid we’d pick up a bunch of ticks and itchy things wading through the high grass.

Peabody Wildlife Management Area

Paradise KY area 05-22-2016After you have, as John Prine sings, “come with the world’s largest shovel, tortured the timber and stripped all the land,” what do you do? Well, it appears that you smooth some of the bumps, plant some grass and call it the Peabody Wildlife Management Area.

Here’s a reason I’m cranky about strip mining.

Still a lot of scarring

Weir Cemetery in Google EarthIn fairness, on our hunt for the Weir Cemetery, we managed to see two herds of deer in about two minutes, so there IS wildlife. A Google Earth view of the area still shows an awful lot of scarring left behind.

After a couple false starts, we finally found our second cemetery.

Weir Cemetery

Paradise KY area 05-22-2016The Weir cemetery was well-maintained. It had a small parking lot nearby and there was evidence of recent landscaping. The FindAGrave website said the cemetery is known as both the Doug Weir and the Vanlandingham Cemetery. We saw some stones with that name on them.

That flag is one of the reasons I tweaked the Ohio Yankee out of my accent. This IS Kentucky.

Markers decorated with shells

Paradise KY area 05-22-2016This row of stones were interesting because the markers had small shells embedded in the concrete. I had to assume they were mussel shells from the nearby Green River (where Prine said “the air smelled like snakes”).

Starting to get dark

Paradise KY area 05-22-2016This little excursion had been fun, but the sun was sinking faster than I liked, and we still had another 170 miles to go to get to Cape.

It was time to put Paradise behind us.