“When I told folks I was moving to Alabama, they said ‘Oh you’re going to the Deep South,’” Bridges said. “I said ‘I’m from North Carolina. That’s the South.’ When I saw that headline, I realized what people were talking about. What was shocking to me was that that part of American life was still going on.”
Since then, Dr. Bridges has had a passion for propelling Tuscaloosa forward in a direction that completely leaves that part of Alabama’s history in the past as a benchmark for demonstrating how far we have come. In early summer of this year, part of Bridges’ dream will come to fruition when Tuscaloosa unveils a trail downtown marking landmarks from the Civil Rights era with information on the significance of each location.
In 2016, Bridges put together the Tuscaloosa Civil Rights History Task Force (TCRHT). The group’s mission is “to bring about positive change and reconciliation through collecting, preserving, and telling the stories of the important struggle for civil rights in Tuscaloosa.”
The Task Force questioned whether Tuscaloosa’s civil rights history has received the recognition it deserves. Members constructed a survey to determine how many people recognized key locations from local history. From the results, most people only recognized one location: Foster Auditorium on the University of Alabama campus, where Governor George Wallace stood in the door refusing to allow Vivian Malone and James Hood to enter.
Tuscaloosa Civil Rights History Trail
This information sparked an education initiative that has developed into the Tuscaloosa Civil Rights History Trail. The part of the trail being unveiled this summer focuses on areas downtown. When the project reaches completion, it will also include Stillman College and The University of Alabama.
“We couldn’t tell the story of Civil Rights without telling the history of it,” said Bridges, president of the Task Force. “We tried to let history speak for itself.”
The Task Force has put together an informational pamphlet which includes a map of the 18 current markers and their locations. The pamphlet provides information on each of the sites, including photos of the locations as they looked at that time, and it features images of key players in local Civil Rights events.
"It took two years to publish the Civil Rights Trail, and the biggest challenge was getting documentation,” said Dr. Mary Jolley, a member of the Task Force. “At one point, I said 'reconciliation' and that got repeated. A man in New Orleans saw it and contacted us offering images that he had from his father who was a photographer in the area during that time. Someone from the library found footage from England, TV footage, a minute's worth, that they were able to provide. So, things like that just happened, and really it's amazing that we were able to do it in two years given all of that."
Stops on the trail include the Druid Theatre on the 2400 block of University Blvd., where movie actor Jack Palance attended a movie with his family only to be attacked by a white mob who heard rumors that he was in town supporting integration; the Alston Building (2400 6th Street), which housed the office of Robert Shelton, Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America; the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center (620 Greensboro Ave.) named for the legendary jazz and blues singer who was born in Tuscaloosa; and the Bluefront District (811 23rd Ave.), which housed an African-American commercial district outside of the local black neighborhoods where blacks could socialize and have a dignified consumer experience.
These are just a few of the 18 markers which will go up downtown between 15th Street and University Blvd. going East to 22nd Ave. and West to 28th Ave.
Bridges says formally recognizing the events in our city’s past will help in the healing process for the community, but it’s just the first step toward a greater goal: reconciliation.
“We need recognition in order to achieve reconciliation,” Bridges said, adding that Dr. Jolley brought about the idea of reconciliation to help the community move forward in a positive direction.
“I often hear ‘I didn’t do it; I didn’t have anything to do with it,” said Bridges. But he has calculated rough estimates of how many thousands of descendants there are from slaves and slave owners alike, and he acknowledges that everyone is still deeply affected by the way of life of their ancestors just a few generations ago.
A four-phase reconciliation initiative began last year. The first three phases occurred from July 2018 to February of this year, making way for the fourth phase: Project Development and Execution. This phase involves community projects, allowing others in the community to participate in the reconciliation process and help pass it on. The group will unveil and launch the projects during a community-wide function around the time of the unveiling of the trail this summer.
Dr. Jolley, who celebrated her 90th birthday in 2018, pulled the idea of reconciliation from years of her professional experience as an advocate for minorities and those in poverty, focusing largely on education and job creation, among many other things, during her influential career.
"We all the time hear people say, 'We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go,'” said Jolley, “but no one ever describes what that 'long way' is. In my heart, that is reconciliation."
For Jolley, the Task Force, and many in our community, the June 4, 1964 event now referred to as “Bloody Tuesday” carries with it one of the greatest injustices in need of reconciliation. Like “Bloody Sunday,” which occurred one year later in Selma, a group of citizens gathered to walk in protest of the Jim Crow laws. Their walk was interrupted by police with tear gas. Many protesters were beaten. Over 30 men, women, and children were sent to the hospital, and nearly 100 people were arrested.
Unlike the Selma march, Bloody Tuesday did not receive much media attention at all and went virtually unacknowledged for decades. The Civil Rights History Trail will commemorate Bloody Tuesday.
One goal of the reconciliation project is to establish trail guides, who can lead people through the stops, offering additional information about each of the landmarks. The hope is that the Trail and reconciliation projects will work together to facilitate healing.
"Reconciliation comes from recognition on the part of both black and white people, and acknowledging the facts, the truth,” Jolley said. “Nelson Mandela, who is most famous for 'truth and reconciliation,' acknowledged that. We must be willing to change our outlook and take another look. When we can tell a story and tell the truth, just basing it on fact, that has amazing power to change your outlook. And when we do that, we find out that most human beings have the same hopes and dreams, and that has a way of bringing people together. That's what I hope for."
To get involved with the Task Force, or to get more information visit their website, civilrightstuscaloosa.org, or the Tuscaloosa Civil Rights Trail Facebook page.