In Search of a Usable Past (John Fea’s posts)

June 18th, 2017

Here are my posts from the 2017 Civil Rights Bus Tour:

https://thewayofimprovement.com/category/civil-rights-bus-tour-june-2017/

John Fea

Day 3- Albany, GA and Montgomery, AL

June 13th, 2017

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Today started in Georgia, and we went to the Charles Sherrod Civil Rights Park. This was beautiful and gave some facts of the history of Albany in the Civil Rights Movement. It is easy to tell that Albany is open and readily talking about their history in this movement. My favorite part was the tiles, and some of them say donor’s names, but one said “God is on Our Side,” and another said, “Let Freedom Ring!” How beautiful are those sentiments? God is on the side of those fighting for liberation. That is just the God we serve and that was a great reminder for me. the fight for justice is not something that is anti-Christian, in fact, it is one of the most Christian things we can do.
Following this, we went to a museum where we were able to meet Ms. Rutha Harris. Rutha Harris was one of the original Freedom Singers, and to hear the songs of this movement from people who were directly involved was inspiring and moved me to tears. I was able to sing with Ms. Rutha, and that was such a great opportunity, but of course, I was nervous! This woman has pipes! Her voice filled the entire room, and I got to sit next to her on stage and sing. The integration of this protest movement along with the Spiritual oral tradition was beautiful to hear and be a part of. Everyone in the town knew Ms. Rutha, and she was so humble, and truly had a beautiful spirit. The songs would beg Pritchett and Kelly to open the cells because God’s children are praying and crying in their cells. As I write this, I am listening to Ms. Rutha’s CD and these songs are extremely powerful.

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After this visit, we went to eat lunch and then headed to Montgomery! Unfortunately, it was raining in Montgomery so we couldn’t stop at a lot of the places we had hoped to. We stopped at Holt Street Baptist Church which was so amazing because history was made there. This is where discussion happened about the Montgomery bus boycott. I felt honored just to be standing in a place where the plans were made for a boycott that would show the power of black people and also change our lives forever.
We then were able to go back to the hotel and had dinner made by Sophia. This was the food that you would expect in the South. There was fried chicken, cornbread, meatloaf, watermelon, yams and more. This was truly a treat!
I have found it interesting that all of these cities are so eager to talk about their part in the Civil Rights Movement, but what that really means what that there was a lot courageous black people, but also the most blatant racism in these areas. While one of these things is worth celebrating and is still true today, I fear the other still lingers on as well.

A valuable part of this trip has been the conversations that I have had with faculty and students on the bus, at meals, and in the hotel. I am really gaining a lot from that and look forward to that continuing through the rest of the week!

Day 2- Atlanta, Georgia

June 11th, 2017

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The morning started on the bus early, and on the bus we listened to a sermon that King preached. The big points that I took away from the sermon were that often people say that in time, things will get better when it comes to race relations. But there is never a good time for the privilege to work to give up their privilege. I think that is important to remember, and it is interesting that King said things like this from the pulpit. The next thing King talked about was how a lot of people will say that the black people don’t need any help, they just need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. King debunked this theory by saying that there isn’t an even playing field. King said it is like telling someone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they have no boots. That resonated with me because often people pretend like white people have been more successful than black and brown people just because they work harder and that’s a lie. The opportunities they are born with are completely different. Someone on the trip said that being white is like winning the “birth lottery”. White people did not do anything, and yet they are heard and experience far less oppression than their black counterparts.

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When we arrived we went to MLK’s home church. This was interesting because everything in or near the church was preserved. We went to the home he was born in, the old church, the new church, the reflection pool where MLK and Coretta Scott King tombs are, and a museum built in his honor. The part that impacted me the most was the old church. The church has beautiful stained glass and is a beautiful infrastructure. When we walked in, I could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. I sat down and prayed while hearing the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. resonating through the room. There is power in his words, and King used the pulpit to give a message of nonviolence. I find that to be so Christ-like. Dr. King was not a poor uneducated black man, and I think that makes his sacrifice so significant. King could have lived a life still facing oppression, but he received a doctorate degree and had education on his side, so he could have made it okay. Instead, he fought with the least of these who really had no voice. That is so significant to me.

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When I saw Dr. King and Coretta Scott King’s graves, I really struggled because I wasn’t feeling too many emotions. Of course, it is touching, and it is important to remember that King knew his life was on the line every time he went out and he kept going out. I think that I have become so desensitized to the deaths of black and brown people that it takes an Emmett Till image to really pull at my heartstrings. Isn’t that horrible? The death of black and brown men is no longer surprising to me. I think this trip challenged me in that way. Hurting for each black man who has died is tiring, but everyone deserves that. If my brother or father died, I wouldn’t want people to be unphased. It’s unnatural not to feel when faced with the brutal deaths that people experience for no reason besides the color of their skin or the fight for basic human rights.

 

IMG_2167MLK has such a large area dedicated to him, and I think he deserves it. I think a lot of other people deserve it too. The Civil Rights movement is often boiled down to two or three names, but there were so many people and no matter how small of a role they played, they knowingly put their lives at risk, and deserve that credit. This is something I continue to reflect on throughout the tour. One of the small moments I       appreciated in this part of my day was a tour guide named Sunshine. Every day from 9-5, she volunteers at the fire station that Martin Luther King Jr. played at, and she had so much passion for what she was talking about, and she never stopped smiling. To volunteer every day doing the same thing, and still keep a positive attitude with a goal of making everyone feel special was really something I enjoyed and will remember about today.

 

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We then went to Georgia State University and heard from two speakers. Dr. Glenn Eskew talked about the South and the appeal of slavery and Jim Crow in the Confederacy. It was fascinating to me how slavery came with economic benefits and how often people in higher up places used racial tensions to keep them the black and white lower class apart. His lecture was full of history, and explained some of the South’s motives that are less talked about but NEVER justified slavery or segregation which i think is important and challenging to do. Dr. Eskew clearly knew what he was talking about and that was present when we asked him questions, which he gave quite insightful answers to.

Following Dr. Eskew, Juanita Jones Abernathy spoke to us all. This was amazing because she and her husband were close friends with Dr. King and Coretta Scott King. The way she talked about them was like old friends. This was such a cool experience, that not everyone will get. Ms. Abernathy was such a character, and so filled with joy. She talked about how she learned nonviolence from Jesus Christ, not from Gandhi or anyone else. Her inspiration to protest nonviolently was because of Jesus as her example. It was interesting because she said that she doesn’t pledge to the flag because she still doesn’t have justice, but she still had so much American pride. I don’t normally see those things together, and it was kind of confusing but humbling because she played such a huge role in America’s history. I think though America’s history is messy, it’s inspiring that she has found pieces of America to love while she stood in the face of oppression. Ms. Abernathy said she loves America because she has the right to protest when she is upset with something being done, and one of my favorite quotes was, “I love America with all her mess”. She has seen change and holds onto hope for more. Ms. Abernathy was a participant in nearly every march in the 60’s and was one of the first people involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This is such an opportunity, and her joy was straight from the Lord, and that made me appreciate it even more.

Day 1-North Carolina

June 11th, 2017

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Last night I was asked what I was most excited for when coming on this trip, and my answer was to know more names. I had no idea where that came from, but when thinking about my education as a young biracial child, I knew three names of black people who changed the world for the better, and I knew the names of an innumerable amount of white people. I think this made it easy for me to associate white with good, and black with bad but this is far from the truth. My youth pastor always says, “Every name has a story, and every story matters to God.” If that is true, which I do believe it is, why are we not hearing the names and stories of all of these black and brown people who literally gave up their lives for me to have a better life? This is something that is troubling to me, and I hope to be a part in remedying it. These names are important. These stories have value. They deserve to be heard. This does not discredit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks, but I think they would say the same thing. I am excited to be on this trip with white people because these stories will help them to be a better ally and share the stories of others because their voice is often more readily heard. I know this trip will make me feel every emotion that exists, but I pray that I am able to adequately articulate them so that others may get a glimpse of what I experienced. This is such an amazing experience, and I am blessed to have been given it. Today we are driving to North Carolina, and then going to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum and North Carolina A&T. To stand where the Greensboro Four stood is amazing and inspiring, and I am ready to feel all the feels. I feel entirely out of my league here, where the rest of the students are far more well versed on these topics, but I hope this will help me to get there.

We watched a documentary called “Soundtrack of the Revolution”. There was a quote that said “the police can’t take away our songs,” and I was so moved by that because there was so much the police could and did do to the people fighting for their freedom, and to see them singing while being mistreated and arrested was completely moving. The hope that comes through song is empowering. Music created a sense of solidarity through all of the struggles that came their way. The documentary also talked about how the oral tradition has sustained black life and looking through history that is so unbelievably true. It talked about how going to jail became the thing to do, and I started thinking about how we are taught that people in jail are bad people, but for black and brown people that have never really been the case. So we are perpetuating this false narrative that people in jail are bad, and the police are good, but far more often than we want to believe that is not a complete truth.

When I got the monument for the Greensboro Four at North Carolina A & T, I was speechless. It’s easy to look at the statute of four men, shrug your shoulders, and move on, but I think it’s important to remember the amazing courageous that came with this protest. To think that men my age started to change and revolutionize America in difficult ways really is inspiring. While schools may be “integrated” there is still more to be done and these people inspired me to do something now. I think it’s important to reflect the lives that were put in danger for my rights. I would not be here without the Greensboro Four and those who followed after them.

There is no way to adequately express how this whole thing made me feel. I have cried 2-3 times, and it’s weird because we are traveling, but it’s not a happy trip per say. I know how I shouldn’t respond to these monuments and museums but is hard to know how to react. Some people took pictures with the monument of the Greensboro Four but I found my experience to be too somber for that. I recognize that as I advocate for other people, I am only able to do it with relative confidence of my safety because these people risked theirs first and I think that is moving, and disheartening.

The Museum was cool because I was able to stand where the Greensboro Four sat and the rest of the protestors at that time. That, to me, was really inspiring and just an opportunity I feel blessed that I had. The parts that moved me most was when we went to the “Hall of Shame”. The Hall of Shame is where there were pictures of morbid events that happened throughout the years, and they haven’t stopped, and they are not restricted to the South. I cried looking at the mutilated faces and bodies of men, women, and children that lost their lives for no justifiable reason. Emmitt Till was pictured, and it brought me back to the grace that Mamie granted the murderers of her son and the Spirit of God so present within her. That gave me a glimmer of hope, in such a horror filled area. The museum also talked about how the fabric of this country is not as perfect as we often portray it, and throughout the formation of this country, people have not been treated fairly. This is important to remember because this history does play a role in the current state of our nation. There is so much hurt, but we have come so far and seeing the Greensboro Four, and knowing they were victorious is a beacon of hope in a rather depressing time. This one restaurant’s integration is not enough for me to be satisfied, and the fact that they were beaten and tortured simply to be served a meal breaks my heart. In the museum, as the tour guide broke down different pieces of the oppression the black people faced in the 60’s, the intentionality of the white people to degrade the black folk and make sure that mentally they knew they were less than disgusts me, and that mindset permeates our media and other modes of knowledge even today.

As I was looking at their monument, which stands at the college at which they were college freshmen, I began to look into myself and think about how I had done nothing nearly as impactful as that. While I was thinking that, Kelly said, “This is the challenge in making people into big figures to look up to, we forget how we are playing a role as well, no matter how small it is.” That is so true. Every conversation I have about race and equity is a part of the role I am playing. I can’t help but thank God that often I am able to speak up without fear of my life, but many still can’t. Change is coming, but I want to be an agent of change. Yes, God will do it, but God uses people, and I want to be one of the people He uses.

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The Ever-Present Relevance of Civil Rights Within Our Democracy – Robin Lauermann

June 23rd, 2016
Retracing the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL

Retracing the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL

”A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?”

– Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963) “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

For nine days, we traveled through nine states, visiting historical and contemporary sites of significance and talking with veterans of the Civil Rights movement. Of all the impactful takeaways – and there were many – this experience affirmed my value of civic engagement, especially the extent to which the right to vote supercedes other rights and privileges because of its ability to check government power and inhibit the infringement by citizens on the rights of one another through legislation. Potential weakening and reversals of legislation upholding citizens’ rights to register and vote reveal that not only must we appreciate the sacrifices for this right, but we must also remain vigilant in its ongoing protection.

My first personal experience with the topic of race and ethnicity – at least the first of which I had awareness – came in grade school when something inconceivable, at least to my elementary-school mind, occurred. One morning, in the early 1980s, I awoke to news and a picture of a burning cross, at a home just next to my school in the suburbs of Buffalo, NY. That home belonged to a class-mate, our school’s only African American student. This incident shocked, sickened and scared me; I can only imagine the impact it had on her and her family.

Following a rather superficial education in this area during elementary and secondary school, not an uncommon experience even to this day, I began to dig in deeply to these issues in both my undergradute and graduate studies in political science: Context courses, legal and other policy courses, and even a year working as a research assistant to a faculty member working on a book about Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which denied federal funding to entities discriminating on the basis of characteristics prohibited in the legislation). My academic work – teaching, research and institutional service -has had continued attention on this issue, especially as it relates to civic engagement. The civil rights tour vividly reinforced the importance of voting, as well as the sacrifices, which are often underappreciated in low voter turnout, made by those citizens who fought to exercise their rights.

After all these years, it is still mindblowing to consider that it took almost 100 years to pass a Voting Rights Act to protect the right guaranteed to African Americans by the 15th Amendment. This delay is especially troubling because the lack of voting rights equated, as Dr. King noted, to a lack of representation in effect, both in the candidates who won and in the legislation that they passed. Although the right was backed by constitutional amendment, many tactics degraded African American access to the ballot, including but not limited to:

  •  Legal barriers
    • Literacy tests – which included problematic wording so that even those who knew the answers might not get it right (For example, one question asks which type of cases before the Supreme Court may be changed by congressional law; the answer included the term co-appellate rather than appellate
    • Poll taxes
    • Requirement for a white to vouch for a non-registered African America
  • Informal power barriers
    • Eviction from sharecropping property
    • Termination of employment
    • Lynching and other terrorist acts against individuals, black and white, who attempted to register voters.

Although legislation prior to the Voting Rights Act attempted to redress some of these issues, they were, at best, only partially successful. Understandably it would take more to motivate more significant change, as only 325 African Americans living in Dallas County, including Selma, had successfully registered by 1965!

Of the many pieces of the voting rights story shared throughout the tour, the part that most viscerally impacted me was the time spent in Selma, Alabama with Joanne Bland. Hearing from her about her experiences in the movement more largely – she had been arrested something like 13 times for countering segregation laws by the time she was 11 – gave a personal context for the struggle. Her description of the events surrounding the planning for the march from Selma to Montgomery, including its unsuccessful first attempt that resulted in Bloody Sunday, conveyed the scope of the participants’ support and determination to work peacefully within the system to challenge the deprivation of their rights. When we concluded our time with Ms. Bland and retraced the steps of the March over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I had chills and brimmed with emotion that surpassed anything I had grasped from reading historical descriptions, watching actual footage or seeing the dramatic presentation of the events in the movie Selma.

Further study and attention to current events reveal that progress towards full access to these rights is not irreversible. The Voting Rights Act was significant, but still suffered from challenges in enforcement – there is a reason why policy folks note that the implementation of a law is the key to its success. Although registration rates have increased among the African American population, recent elections still have evidence of tactics discouraging individuals from exercising their rights at the voting booth. Renewals of specific sections of the VRA, requiring clearance of plans for states with history of most egregious deprivation of voting rights, have been watered down. In addition, partisan gerrymandering, which is an ethical but not illegal activity, provides a proxy for diluting the vote of African Americans and others through “cracking” and “packing” of districts when the boundaries are redrawn every 10 years following each census. (North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District has been a gross example for decades and only recently successfully challenged by federal court decision as racial gerrymandering). Some states have also  recently adopted strict voter id laws, which disenfranchise the least economically priveleged, even in the absence of ANY systematic evidence in non-partisan research that voting fraud exists in any measurable levels.  In short, the struggle is not yet over.

Ms Bland shared an idea with us that captured both the historical and contemporary significance of the civil rights movement. She noted that social movements are like a jigsaw puzzle, in which each of the participants is a piece; without any one, it is incomplete. I think that analogy can be extended further, by considering the movement as a mosaic puzzle, in which smaller images come together to create a larger picture. The aspect of voting rights, is just one segment of the movement, albeit one so fundamental as to affect all other rights. We must be aware of our individual role within democracy and act to preserve as well as strengthen it.

So BLESSED! – Tiffany Burrows

June 18th, 2016

GratitudeAs we have been touring all of these museums and hearing from all these speakers, I am realizing all the more that everything bit of freedom that was desired had to be fought for. Blood literally shed for the everyday privileges I’ve taken for granted.

So I am now sitting in the hotel overlooking a beautify lit view, and just recently came from walking in downtown Nashville, I have this abundant sense of gratitude. :)

Day 6: Memphis, TN (Abbey Combs)

June 17th, 2016

This entry is not so much to reflect on this particular day, but rather the tour as a whole (thus far) and the themes that have been laid heavily on my heart for the last 6 days. We have seen so much this week and yet every day the same two themes have been overwhelmingly present: hate and love.

It was the hate that first stunned me. We’ve seen and heard of undeserved beatings, Emmett Till’s murder, children in jail, firehose attacks, Selma, the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist and signs that read “No negro or ape allowed in building.” I can’t begin to wrap my head around how human beings can first feel so much hate, and then act on it. It’s unfathomable. This week has awoken me to the reality and magnitude of hate in our earthly world. I’ve been forced to confront this hatred, not only in our history, but also in the present. The mass shooting in Orlando and my recent studies of migrants’ sufferings in Mexico make it very evident that hate is alive and well today.

At first, this new awareness of hatred consumed me. It discouraged me. Yet, I’ve increasingly found that wherever hate exists, there too, love seems to dwell. Hearing the personal accounts of those who lived through the Civil Rights Movement has given me more hope than I originally expected to find. They have consistently spoken of pain and fear, but their focus has been love. Listen to any of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons and you will find that love exudes from every word. In the face of terror and tragedy, he led the masses to respond in LOVE… that’s powerful.

And not just any ol’ love, but God’s love. The church was such an integral part of this movement; faith led every step of the way. Mrs. Juanita Abernathy, despite her hardships, repeatedly proclaimed that GOD IS GOOD. He knows what He is doing and she is grateful to have been where He placed her in American history. Carolyn McKinstry, who lost four friends in the Sixteenth Street Baptist bombing, prefers to focus on “what matters” when she shares her story. The bulk of her message was not about the horrors of September 15, 1963, but rather reconciliation and how we can show our love to God by loving others. Lisa McNair, sister of Denise McNair, admitted that hate will always be here. Yet, praise be to God, so will His love.

It’s amazing that those who have experienced the most hate in the world seem to be the ones who best understand love. This has been a humbling week… how amazing to be filled simultaneously with such great despair and great hope.

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“All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the lifetime of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetimes on this planet. But let us begin.” -John F. Kennedy.

“Hate is too great a burden to bear… I have decided to love… He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

Day 5: Birmingham, AL (Jake Edmunds)

June 16th, 2016

As we are learning about the history of the Civil Rights – hearing the praises of the movement’s values, the passion of the movement’s leaders, and the mourning of the movement’s lost heroes – some of the lessons I have been taught about racial reconciliation have become much more concrete to me than they ever have before. Here is just one of them:

Several months ago, I heard some students from minority groups on campus try to explain to fellow students just why it’s difficult to be in a minority. From the perspective of the majority students, nobody hated anybody else for the color of someone’s skin, so why can’t we just move on? The response from students of color could be summarized like this:

“We don’t get to move on. We don’t have the privilege of not thinking about ethnicity. You (white people) can choose to disengage from these conversations. You can go around, ignoring the issue and talking to a bunch of other people who look like you and who feel the same way you do. We don’t have the privilege. We have to think about these issue every time we glance around and see that there are more people who look like you than there are people who look like me.”

Men and women in Selma during the Civil Rights era marched 54 miles to Montgomery because of the freedoms that were not offered to the black community. In Montgomery, they boycotted segregated buses for over a year because they were tired of facing, daily, the fact that they were viewed as inferior citizens. In Greensboro, students sat at a lunch counter because they were done being reminded of their ethnicity – and the way whites viewed their ethnicity – every time they ordered lunch. These were daily issues.

Now I understand that I may never fully understand that struggle. I may never understand how unique it may be to be able to simply not think about my ethnicity for a few days or weeks. I hope recognizing the limits of my understanding may be, in itself, a step toward a deeper understanding.

Don Opitz in Birmingham

June 16th, 2016

I was in the back of our group as we queued to enter the Birmingham  Civil Rights Institute. A wise guide said: “Here’s what you really need to do, Read! You need to read all you can and you need to read every day.” The wind was blowing, and this is what I heard: “Here’s what you really need to do, Greive! You need to greive all you can and you need to greive every day.” Last night we had the honor of talking with Rev. Carolyn McKinstry, survivor of the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where four little girls were killed. She has been greiving for 53 years, every day.

Read and Greive.

Day 4: Montgomery, AL (Scott Zeigler)

June 15th, 2016

The first thing that should be understood about me is that I am not a blogger and tend to be very private when it comes to sharing much of anything on the Internet. During the course of this remarkable trip I find myself flinching and cringing alternately with being amazed at exceptional demonstrations of courage.

Over the years I have enjoyed watching numerous documentary series by Ken Burns. One of my favorite documentaries is his series “Jazz”. I was aware of the horrible lynchings that were conducted in the South and many times they were conducted in front of crowds which included family members of all ages. It was through Burn’s series that I learned of a song entitled “Strange Fruit” written by Abel Meeropol under his pseudonym Lewis Allan and sung by the legendary Billie Holiday in 1939. The singing and recording of this song was a courageous act. It is a haunting song where the strange fruit mentioned refers to the victim of the lynching (by hanging and/or burning) that remained on the trees to be ravaged by the sun, wind and animals.
(Go to YouTube and search Billie Holiday Strange Fruit to hear the song or see the words of the song at http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/35/4/902.full)

Today, while visiting the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama I experienced a spine tingling cringe. As we entered the auditorium and turned around, we saw a display in the back of the room of large jars of soil labeled with a name and date of death, taken from known lynching locations to remember those victims who lost their lives in this terrible and hate filled manner. By rough counts there well over 220 jars of various hues of brown and black. To me, these hues represent the many different skin tones possessed by these individuals. These jars are a small portion of the 4,075 known lynchings. (I was not aware of this vast number.) Researchers are sure that more incidents exist where the details are unknown. I personally feel a wave of deep grief and gloom as I ponder the waste of life and imagine the sorrow and helpless frustration of family members. As Miss Holiday ended her first performance with this song and did no encore, I will end with the final words of the song to haunt and remind us of the atrocities of lynching, “here is a strange and bitter crop.”

Allan, Lewis; “Strange Fruit”, World Copyright (excluding USA) Edward B Marks Music Company, US copyright © 1939 (renewed) by Music Sales Corporation (ASCAP), All rights reserved