Traveling Around the South Taught This Brit a Whole Lot About Race in America
The textbooks might suggest a post-racial country. A trip to Alabama proved otherwise.
This Narrative Belongs To:
I had just finished a year at the University of California, Davis studying American history as an exchange student from Scotland. Though I had been to talks by the likes of Cornel West and other inspiring civil rights leaders, historians and academics, my real education was about to begin with a three-week tour of the Deep South.
It was the summer of 2016, and Barack Obama had just six months left of his presidency. Donald Trump was in the running for the Republican nomination, but the majority of America was still in its naive phase of considering his candidacy a joke. Below the surface, however, were the simmering flames that the world would later see fanned by Trump’s divisive and vitriolic hate speech. But all that was to be unveiled much later.
For that summer, I was preoccupied with getting my bearings from one Greyhound bus station to the next. Much to my parents' horror, I was forced to couch surf with random strangers during my trip due to a shortage of hostels. During my first week in the South, I turned up at the door of a young white couple in Birmingham, Alabama. Both were extremely friendly and immediately confirmed all preconceptions of Southern hospitality, which I’d long heard so much about.
They welcomed me into their home, laid out a blow-up mattress for my two-night stay and cooked a beautiful meal for us to enjoy together that evening. It was fascinating getting to know the couple who, like me, were in their early 20s but who clearly had chosen a very different path than me. While I was living my best life as a single 21-year-old touring America, they had recently married after dating in high school and excitedly informed me they were expecting a baby in a few months’ time.
The childhood sweethearts had grown up in Birmingham, lived there their entire lives and were now proud owners of a gorgeous Southern home, intending to live out their days there. They spoke lovingly of their childhoods spent in the area and the many friends with whom they’d kept in touch, laughing that one particular close friend now even works as the town’s sheriff. Then, I opened up about my interest in civil rights history, the reason that I had ventured into the South.
Get Our Newsletter
My Hosts Had Never Learned About the Civil Rights History in Their Backyard
Upon hearing about my intentional trip, they were curious that I, a white guy from the U.K., was so fascinated by the Black freedom struggle. They seemed cautious to talk openly about their politics, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that they weren’t going to be voting for Hillary Clinton in the upcoming election that November. They were not fans of Obama, either, and seemed to belabor the point that he made everything a “race issue” and had only made racial tensions in the U.S. worse.
The husband, who worked as a construction worker, admitted that many of his older white male colleagues would make discriminatory comments about their Black co-workers behind their backs. Though extremely courteous to Southern white women, some of his older colleagues would refuse to open the door for a Black woman, he revealed.
“Their views are quite old school,” he said, before quickly adding, “I would never act like that, but things are still quite segregated down here.” Then, he continued. “When you come to think of it, it’s not been all that long since the days of Jim Crow. It was in our parents’ lifetime.”
The next morning, I expressed my interest in visiting Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, which was famously bombed in 1963 by a white supremacist, killing four African American girls. I was surprised to learn that neither the husband nor wife had ever set foot in such a historic site. But still, the pair agreed to accompany me, and we traveled the three miles downtown to get there.
The couple remained rather quiet as we toured the sacred building and listened to our guide describe the events of that fateful day. “I felt really emotional the whole way through the tour,” I said as we walked down the church steps an hour later.
“Yes, it was really touching. There was so much I didn’t know,” the wife admitted.
“I don’t really remember hearing about that at school,” her husband added. “I was just so fascinated by America’s battle for independence in my history class.”
I remarked about another site I was desperate to see while in Birmingham and was surprised that the pair suggested accompanying me again.
“Of course,” I said.
The Civil Rights Institute Exposed My Hosts’ Attitudes
We walked a minute across the road to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a modern museum that has illustrated Birmingham’s central part in the civil rights movement since opening in 1992.
The pair had been inquisitive up until the point of reaching the entrance of the building, when we were asked for a $15 entry fee. At that point, the husband made a comment under his breath, asked whether I wanted to stay (I did) and stormed back to the car with his wife trailing closely behind him. I stood there dumbstruck, realizing that his appreciation for his nation’s civil rights history had reached its limits.
I said goodbye and walked into the entrance of the museum and was greeted by a beautiful elderly Black woman wearing a badge that stated, “Nobody is born a racist.” She lovingly welcomed me, giving me some further information about the self-guided tour and directing me toward the exhibition rooms.
I walked around the quiet rooms, moved by the stories of freedom fighters in the movement who endured such terror, discrimination and violence all in the name of racial justice. I couldn’t help but think about my host’s reaction and felt disheartened that someone could have such contempt for the courage and sacrifices made by those who fought to make his country more just and fair. It hadn’t taken much to bring to the light of day his true attitudes about race, despite what he liked to think and wanted me to believe.
I was later reminded of this when I was confronted by a similar reality in my own country during the 2020 Euro championship football final. In this instance, three of England’s Black players had missed three penalty shoot-outs, which provoked a tsunami of racist hatred lying just below the surface. It was a heartbreaking but arguably not at all surprising turn of events. During my trip to Birmingham, I couldn’t have known at the time but the incident provided an insight into many white Americans’ true feelings about racial justice, which lay just below the surface, so often hidden for fear of being labeled “racist.”
Racist Attitudes Still Persist Throughout the United States
All was to be revealed in November later that year when Donald Trump was elected on a campaign that made a scapegoat of the “other” and sought to return the nation to a time when white Americans, particularly men, exclusively held first-class citizenship. This, of course, would lead to the chaotic scenes of January 6th some four years later when American democracy was so blatantly in peril on the world’s stage.
My encounter with my hosts that day marked the first time I realized how precarious the notion of “racial tolerance” remained in America’s supposedly post-racial society. I had studied the research and theories of leading historians in American history, but all the textbooks and seminars in the world could never have taught me more about the true state of race relations in America or what was to come.