Lewis Thorley

The American South, 2011
Lewis Thorley

When applying for my travel scholarship, it was initially my intention that my travel experience would help me develop my knowledge of civil rights and ideas for my dissertation around this. However, as my travel date came closer, like most people, my idea for my dissertation topic had changed drastically to what I had first decided to write about and was now focused on violence during Reconstruction in the South. Luckily, the areas I was visiting were just as significant to this topic as they were to the civil rights movement. I was able to take advantage of local archives to help my research for my dissertation and get a taste of Southern culture which is so vital to understanding the values of the people who live in the region. Any further understanding of the civil rights movement I could gain would be valuable in my final year module on the movement.

The route I had planned saw me visit 6 states in the Deep South and my travelling was done using a Greyhound Discovery Pass which is where some of the money from the travel scholarship went towards paying. The money I received also went towards my flights to and from the United States and accomodation.

After landing in Atlanta, my trip began in Birmingham, Alabama. Seeing as this was my first real visit to the United States (barring a family trip to DisneyWorld), walking around Birmingham was a real shock. Having just completed a module on the American city, the effects of suburbanisation are clear leaving some of the streets of central Birmingham looking deserted. I was able to visit the Civil Rights Institute (much to the distaste of a local resident I had met) which had displays reconstructing key moments during the civil rights movement. 

Being in Alabama gave me the opportunity to take advantage of local archives and libraries, where I was able to look through microfilms that are not available in the UK, especially in the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery. I was able to make copies of newspaper articles from the 1870’s regarding violence during Reconstruction in Alabama. I spent two afternoons in this archive and it made me aware of the vast amount of materials available; encouraging me to narrow down ideas for my dissertation. With the help of the friendly staff, I was also able to look through documents from the 1870’s and notices from that time period, relating to violence in the region. The staff at the Department of Archives and History also gave me some good advice on key literature I needed to read for my dissertation topic. As Alabama became one of the most resourceful places to me on my trip for research, my dissertation ideas soon became shaped around the region.

I continued to use local resources to research violence during Reconstruction in this region but I also took the opportunity to stay with local residents using a ‘couchsurfing’ website. By occasionally being able to take advantage of the free accommodation of local residents I was able to gauge their views on issues such as race and equality, and it was clear that it is easy to find local residents who still believe in ethnic stereotypes and they often felt passionately about this. Although this has little research value in itself, it reinforced to me how traditional values that are held, do not easily, if it all, fade away. This helps me understand why, during Reconstruction, more than ten years after slavery was abolished, many attitudes towards African-Americans stayed the same. This also applies to attitudes held my many whites in the south when the civil rights movement was at its peak. Without being in America to experience these traditional values, it is harder to appreciate why they are so entrenched in southern society.

In Alabama, I also visited Selma which was the scene of voting rights march to Montgomery, but was violently halted on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I took the time to have a guided one-to-one tour around the National Voting Rights museum nearby and this museum in particular, helped put the struggle for civil rights into an international perspective, particularly with its final exhibition. 
After Alabama, my trip took me to New Orleans where I visited the Lower 9th Ward. After viewing a film screening on Hurricane Katrina and how devastating it was for local residents, I wanted to visit this area which was worst hit in person. Even 6 years on, the area is overgrown and looking desperately run down, with overgrown grass in plots where residents used to live. I carried on north into Mississippi and one of the places I visited was Vicksburg which hosts a large Civil War Memorial Park, clearly marking the lines where Union and Confederate forces stood. One of my previous modules had focused on how the civil war was remembered and commemorated by Americans and this park heavily focused on the battle aspect of the Civil War and there was little information or commentary on why the such significant battles were being fought. I also visited the riverfront mural in Vicksburg, which had artistic depictions of the historical moments in the region. This gave further insight into how the state would like its history to be remembered.

As I carried on northwards through the state of Mississippi, I took the opportunity to stay in some  former sharecropper accommodation, which had obviously been refurbished to make it more hospitable for the modern guest. Yet one could still appreciate how claustrophobic these shotgun shacks would have been, especially as they were in the shadow of a huge cotton factory next door.

Not far north from Clarksdale is the city of Memphis which was a city that was at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, particularly towards the end of Martin Luther King’s life. Here I was able to visit the Lorraine Motel where King was assassinated, which has now been developed into a huge museum dedicated to the civil rights movement.

For the last leg of my trip, I travelled west to Little Rock, Arkansas. The world’s media was focused on Little Rock High School when, despite the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the Arkansas national guard refused entry to African-American students. Next to this school there has been set up a museum dedicated to this moment in history and the wider story of desegregation of schools. Visiting a site of this importance again added to my understanding and wider knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement.

To me, there was nothing more rewarding than to visit places first hand, that I am studying as part of my degree. Being able to use the resources in Alabama gave me the opportunity to focus my ideas for my dissertation. I am about to begin writing my dissertation after carrying out further research over the summer and have now focused my ideas down to one county in Alabama which had come to my attention whilst I was in the United States. Although much of the latter half of my trip to the United States was more focused on the civil rights trail, I can use my experiences of the places I visit to better understand the module I am taking in my final year on the movement. Without the funding given to me by the travel scholarship fund, I would have had to rethink whether I would have gone to the United States at all. However, receiving the scholarship allowed me to plan a trip which spanned across 5 states and gave me more time in places of significance, particularly Alabama, to carry out research and give my dissertation some much needed direction.

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