One Family’s Trip Through the History of U.S. Racism

Nietzsche wrote that he always trusted thoughts that came while walking; I chose to revise this form of mobility to a road trip this summer to the Deep South with my family.

I am, or shall I say I was, a high school history teacher. Why I became one is a bit of a long story, but I took the advice of a mentor who said: if you want to make a difference in the world, working in a soup kitchen is okay, but you really should teach high school—get them when they’re young. After years of teaching at the college level, I made the move in 2012. My mostly affluent, predominantly white students loved hearing about the civil rights battles of the 1950’s and 1960’s, but had little or no exposure to this grass roots movement—a wellspring of most reform movements in this country. They wanted more, especially a readable account of the civil rights movement. There were always questions and a desire to learn more about the women of the civil rights movement who stood in the shadows of the male triumvirate—Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers.

This spring I had an ah-ha moment: I would write that book. It took me some time to come up with a recipe to bring this history alive, and then I thought on one of my favorite pastimes, the road trip. This one would take me and my son, Augie, home from Beloit College and my 12-year-old daughter, Gemma to the seat of the Old Confederacy.

It made perfect sense. I turn 60 this fall, which coincides with the 60th anniversary of the day when the Little Rock Nine walked up the steps of an all-white high school in Arkansas. Emulating the powerful Civil Rights monument granite table in Montgomery, we would drive in a circle—we would begin at our home base of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and then go to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and back again.

Little did I know when we set out on the trip that the scab of racial hatred would be torn off once again this summer over Confederate statues. Uncannily, we found ourselves in southern locales that frighteningly mirror the past with events of the present: We were in Pulaski, TN—the birthplace of the KKK—on Friday, August 12th, the precise evening of the intimidating torchlit parade in Charlottesville. The next day, we were in Memphis, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead at the Lorraine Motel—and where we heard the news of the subsequent acts of terror in Charlottesville that led to the death of Heather Heyer and the injuries of dozens more.

For our Friday evening trip to Pulaski, TN, we learned that it was another evening, Christmas Eve of 1865, when six Confederate veterans met there to form the Ku Klux Klan. In 1917, a bronze plaque was nailed to the building that read: “Ku Klux Klan organized in this, the law office of Judge Thomas M. Jones, December 24, 1865.” KKK supporters in Pulaski wanted the plaque because they felt that the town had been overlooked in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a 1915 film that championed the Klan.

Things stayed that way until 1986. That’s when the KKK started returning to Pulaski every January to parade by the plaque as a way to spite the new Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday. As if it was a sacred relic, KKK members would walk up to the plaque and kiss it. This angered a civil rights hero, Marguerite Massey, who owned the building that held up the plaque. In August 1989, Marguerite unbolted the plaque, flipped it to face the wall, screwed the bolts back in and then welded them in place. The words commemorating the Klan were hidden. All that can be seen is the plaque’s blank back side.

“This,” she said, “was better than simply throwing the plaque away.” It showed that she and Pulaski had turned their backs on the KKK.

President Trump would not agree with Marguerite’s gesture, but Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans would be the first to applaud her. President Trump and others see the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville as a part of our history. The KKK placard in Pulaski, Tennessee is also a part of our history—and men like Trump would likely say it should not have been turned around. But we know that this placard was like a perverse icon, to be kissed and cherished by the KKK instead of seen in solemn mourning for a darker time.

We should not, the president says, “change history.” Instead, we must see it more clearly. We must confront it. And we must overcome it.

This brings me to a more sensible view of history as expressed by Mayor Landrieu of New Orleans: “The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered.”

Indeed, earlier on our trip, when dusk was settling in on New Orleans, Gemma, Augie and I were on a trolley after we visited the William Frantz School, and the facade that remains to remember and honor the heroics of six-year-old Ruby Bridges, who was escorted up those school steps in November 1960 by federal agents through a gauntlet of screaming white mothers. The conductor later that afternoon announced the next stop: “Lee Circle!” We looked toward the setting sun that glowed atop the column; the sun, not statue a of Robert E. Lee, became the pinnacle of the pedestal.

Mayor Landrieu did not change the name of Lee Circle. He did not demolish the site. He kept the name and the column to confront history—but the column pedestal is now an homage to the sun and stars, a literal a shining beacon of racial healing.

After our haunting visit to Pulaski, we went to Memphis. That morning, before the distressing news out of Virginia, Augie, Gemma and I headed for the Lorraine Motel—where Martin Luther King, Jr. drew his final breath before being shot on its balcony on April 4, 1968. Our hope was to revisit that sorrowful day, as we did at the home of Myrlie and Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, where a bullet from a white KKK member was put into his heart in their driveway on June 12, 1963.

But as we walked up to the Lorraine Motel, we ran into Jacqueline Smith.

For 29 years and 198 days!—through rain and snow, cold and heat, night and day—this unrecognized African-American heroine has staged a one-woman protest against the new owners of the Lorraine Motel—the National Civil Rights Museum and, as she infers, its largely corporate board. She lived at the Lorraine Motel from the time she was a young girl until 1988, when the police forcibly removed her and her belongings to the street to construct the museum. The incident drew national attention. She has since then been camped out all these years in front of the museum with all of her measly worldly possessions, wishing all visitors to boycott a commercialization of the slain civil rights leader.

Jacqueline Smith believes strongly that this enterprise undermines the ideals of Martin Luther King, Jr. Like a mantra, she quotes Dr. King: “Spend the necessary money, to get rid of slums, to eradicate poverty.” As she says to people who pass by, “rather than standing in the museum’s shoe prints of the alleged assassin, James Earl Ray, do something good today for society.”

After showing us photographs of people who have listened to and supported her, including Cindy Lauper and Kevin Durant, Augie looked at his phone to tell us all the news. “A car driven by 20-year-old James Alex Fields, a misguided neo-Nazi sympathizer from Ohio rams through Charlottesville’s counter-protestors, killing Heather D. Heyer and injuring countless others.”

Jacqueline chimed in: “assassination, terrorism—my god, what kind of a country is this that feels like a broken record?”

Given the context of this news that arcs precisely from the founding of the KKK and the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. to this summer’s torch-lit neo-Nazi parade and the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, this was a weighty question. All citizens of this democratic nation urgently need to grapple with it—especially given that we have a president who continues to stir the pot of racial animosity.


John J. Ciofalo received his B.A. in History at Colorado University and Ph.D. in Art History and Comparative Literature from The University of Iowa in 1995. He went on to teach at a variety of universities and wrote a book on Goya’s self-portraits that was published by Cambridge University Press. The book won wide acclaim. After teaching for around 15 years at the college level, he took the advice of a mentor who said that if you want to make a difference in the world, you probably want to teach high school students. Since 2012, he has taught history at the high school level. He left his post on the cusp of his 60th birthday to write a necessary book, The Summer of Hate: A Family’s Southern Sojourn to Honor Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement. You can find John on Facebook