Meeting our friends in the USA – an extraordinary month
After weeks of trying to find him via museums, trade unions, historians and journalists, I found Mr Elmore Nickleberry and his wife Peggy in America’s Yellow Pages. With permission, I had researched their story of involvement with the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike for our travelling exhibition, but I had never met him. So the day I knocked on the door in Memphis and was welcomed into their home was momentous. Now in his late 80s (looking half that age), until December 2018 Elmore was still collecting bins five nights a week. In Memphis I was invited to speak about JtoJ to a local discussion group Food For Thought, at Jason’s Deli. And of course I made the pilgrimage to Aretha Franklin’s birthplace, now a shrine, hopefully soon to be a museum.
In New York I spent time with our wonderful patron Jean Stallings and family. Jean has been an anti-poverty activist since the 60s, now with ATD (All Together in Dignity) 4th World. In NYC I also had the great pleasure of meeting Walter Naegle the former partner of Bayard Rustin, one of Martin Luther King’s most brilliant organisers whose story we tell. Walter remains dedicated to working for peace with the Quaker movement. And I caught up with Bennett Singer, co-director of Brother Outsider a superb film about Bayard’s life.
In Birmingham, Alabama I spent a lovely evening with Janice Kelsey, now a teacher and who, as a teenager was part of the 1963 Birmingham Children’s ‘Crusade’ against the seething racism there. Her story is told in our exhibition too and you can read about her life in the book she wrote, I Woke Up With My Mind on Freedom.
JtoJ found Janice when we were creating the exhibition thanks to Ann Jimerson who coordinates ‘Kids in Birmingham ‘63’. She brings together Black and White adults who remember 1963 the ‘Year of Birmingham’ a turning point in America’s struggle for civil rights: http://kidsinbirmingham1963.org/ I met Ann on this trip for the first time, in Washington DC.
Finally, I travelled to Montgomery, Alabama, so infamous as a place where people were sold as slaves and for the 1955-56 bus boycott, the end of the 1965 Selma March and where MLK preached in Dexter Avenue Baptist Church 1954-60. I met Michelle Browder whose aunt Aurelia Browder was named as a plaintiff in the law case which ended the bus boycott. Hers is one of the ‘less told’ stories, of those who campaigned with Rosa Parks.
Bryan Stevenson, a barrister and human rights campaigner set up the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery. I met two of his staff whose work focuses on addressing the US’s most shameful history through education projects with members of the communities where thousands of lynchings happened. In 2018 he and his team opened the‘Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration’ and National Memorial for Peace and Justice which records every lynching in America – two of the most affecting places I have ever seen in 60 years.