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.

 

 

Rerun: Telephone Talk

Telephone similar to ones in kitchen and basementIf you grew up in Cape, you were in the land of EDgewater. If you lived over in Jackson, you were a CIrcle person. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you are probably also going to be surprised to see that the telephone has a round thing instead of buttons.

Here’s where you can find out a little bit about EDgewater, CIrcle, RAmond, LOcust, TUlip and GRanite.

See, back in those days, the phone company, Ma Bell, was the only game in town. You leased the phone from them (and because of that, they made it so bulletproof that telephones and cockroaches were going to be the only thing left after The Big One was dropped). You didn’t have modular jacks: the phone was wired directly to the jack and the phone company was responsible if anything went wrong with it.

Like with the other rerun posts, click on the links to see more photos and get the full stories.

Extensions cost extra

You were charged by extension, and the phone company could tell by the voltage drop how many ringing phones you had connected, and they would periodically run tests to check for bootleg equipment.

One of my buddies had an illegal extension in his house. The phone rang and a Bell tech asked how many phones he had in his house. Fibbing, he said, “Just one,” and he ran to unplug the extra one.

The phone rang again. Same tech. “You just unplugged it, didn’t you?” he said.

I acquired a couple of spare phones over the years, but I hooked up toggle switches on the ringer so they (a) wouldn’t wake up the kids and (b) wouldn’t show up to that sneaky tech.

It’s all AM and FM

Malcolm Steinhoff w buttset 08-10-2008Most of you think I was always a photographer. I spent the last 13 or so years of my newspaper career as a telecommunications manger, a job I really liked, but was totally unqualified for to start out. I got it because I was a good project manager, understood construction, got along with other departments, knew how to live within a budget and, most importantly, had a staff who really knew what they were doing to keep the phones humming.

When I was invited to speak at a telecommunications manager conference, I said that most kids want to grow up to be firemen or rocket ship drivers or other dramatic things; very few proclaim, “Mom and Dad, I want to hang a butt set off my belt.” Most of us fell into the job like I had.

My first crisis

I had Mike, my No. 2 Guy, to ease me into the job and to kick me under the table when I’d start to say something dumb in a meeting. My first big crisis occurred when we had a planned building power outage that caused the whole place to go dark. We had one critical phone switch that suddenly decided that it LIKED taking a nap and didn’t want to wake up.

About four in the morning, two hours before the call centers were supposed to open, I asked Mike the question that all techs hate to hear: “Any idea what the problem is?” The obvious, unstated answer is, “No. If I knew how to fix it, we’d have all been in bed two hours ago.”

Mike, one of the best troubleshooters I’ve ever worked with, turned to me and calmly spelled out the facts of telephonic life. In fact they apply to every aspect of real life, too.

You’re going to have to follow this link to read his words of wisdom.

 Before cell phones

Boys talking on tin can telephonesI was more comfortable with this level of technology. I mean, how can you beat unlimited voice and data plans and no need for batteries?

Dropping a dime

Pay telephone booths near Scott Quadrangle c 1967We didn’t have phones in our dorm rooms when I first moved into Scott Quad my junior year. If we wanted to call home, we had to find a phone booth that worked, a real challenge because the phone company wasn’t diligent about emptying the money out of them. When they were full, they were full.

Like Buddy Jim Stone points out, we didn’t have helicopter parents back in those days because we weren’t connected 24/7. By the time you were able to call home, you had probably already worked out the problem yourself (or had forgotten it).

If you look at a closeup photo at this link, you can see that the price of a call had just gone up from a nickel to a dime.

Car phones coming to Cape

Achievement Edition Car phones 02-26-1966The big news in 1966 was that car phones were coming to Cape.

How times have changed (I hope)

1944 Cape Telephone Book P32 Restaurants - coloredThe 1944 Cape County Telephone Directory contains a jarring classification. Follow the link to see the not-colored restaurants in Cape.

Cheating Death to make phone ring

Lester Harris SW Bell repairman over the Diversion Channel 08-18-1965I’ve mentioned Lester Harris quite a few times in this blog. He was one of those dedicated Bell techs we all took for granted.

There was a telephone cable that spanned the Diversion Channel just east of I-55. From time to time, some nimrod couldn’t resist the temptation to take a shot at it. If he was halfway accurate, phones in Scott City and the airport would go dead.

Lester would walk the roadway until he found fresh shell casings that would give him a rough idea where he was going to find the break. Then, he’d strap on his tool belt, and climbing spikes to shinny up a pole to where he could hook his cable buggy over a wire cable that supported the phone wires.

Let’s put this in perspective. Phone wire is softer and more delicate than steel cable, but what is to say that some stray bullets haven’t nicked some of the wire strands that are holding Lester 60 feet above the Diversion Channel? In a perfect world, they would catch the shooter and send him out of the cable buggy to make sure it was safe before Lester got on it.

Lester was featured in the stock car racing post the other day.

Microwave towers

ATT microwave tower - Ridge Road - Jackson 08-09-2014The horizon used to be dotted with long-haul microwave towers like this one on Ridge Road in Jackson. Fiber optic cable has made them obsolete, and many have been torn down or repurposed as cell towers.

 

 

 

Restaurants (Colored)

I’ve spent most of this trip interviewing folks who lived in what we called South Cape. I’ve learned some things about that area that most of us “north of the hill” – Tollgate Hill – never knew.I'[ve heard tales of prejudice and discrimination in Cape – and the amazing lack of it in some other cases.

It’s going to take some time for me to boil it down and digest it. I need to talk with more folks, but it’s time for me to saddle up and head back to Florida.

Today was a wrapping-up day. The car had to go in for a minor repair; I was supposed to pick up some rubber stamps (not in); I roamed around shooting some quick topics to give me stuff to post while I’m on the road. One of my stops was to say goodbye to Friend Shari’s mother, LaFern.

(She thinks I’m a witch or a genius  – she said it was the latter, but the look in her eye let me know it was the former – because I brought her dead computer back to life just by pressing the ON button.) As a reward, she gave me a 1944 Cape County telephone directory. (You can click on the images to make them larger.)

Cape County Restaurants

Like most people, the first thing I did was check for family connections – I recognized some. Then I leafed through the classifieds to do a light-weight piece on businesses that had come and gone. When I got to Page 32, which covered Rental Agencies (see Real Estate) to Service Stations (see Filling Stations), I thought I had found an easy and popular topic: Restaurants.

“Restaurants (Colored)”

Then, I saw the heading that appeared BELOW Restaurants.

When did this become unacceptable?

I wrote about Brother Mark and me hitting a bunch of antique shops in 2008. I ran across this set of postcards for sale and said, in part, “I saw a reminder of just how far we’ve come in this country. One night this week we’re watching Barack Obama stumping to be President of the United States and a day later, we’re looking at a collection of black memorabilia of the most racially offensive nature I ever recall seeing.

There wasn’t a stereotype left untouched. Lil Black Sambo and Aunt Jemima were tame compared to this stuff.

I’m not knocking the antique shop for carrying it. It’s probably valuable to see how crap like this was acceptable at one time.”

“I’m not going to point any moral”

With apologies to The Beatles, “I read the news today, oh, boy.”

We’re going through a period of anger and angst about another group looking for its civil rights.

Pete Seeger said it better than I ever could in his song, “Waist Deep in The Big Muddy:”

Well, I’m not going to point any moral,
I’ll leave that for yourself