In the south, the past is very much alive. There is cotton, little museums, sweet tea, and everybody seems to have relatives up north. The War of Northern Aggression practically ended yesterday: On my first day here, my airport van driver–who was oozing Brooklyn–literally pulled out photographs of Columbia under Sherman that he kept in a folder under the dashboard, and gave me a lecture on the horror of fires in cities. “You are German, you understand, right?” I mumbled a response and wished I could pretend to speak no English.
Today is Confederate Memorial Day in South Carolina. Other states celebrate the day on Memorial Day, Arkansas holds its commemoration on Martin Luther King Day (!). SC has been partying for a month already, the canons at Fort Sumter have been firing away, remembering those first shots 150 years ago, and Charleston threw itself a ball to crown a week of festivities.
Columbia is a bit more moderate, and when I drove by the Capitol after my monthly visit to the ophthalmologist, I spotted some people in nineteenth-century costumes milling around by the confederate flag and all I could think was that Hitler, too, had build the autobahn. What precisely are they celebrating? The war? Terrible living conditions? Slavery? The legacy of a system that has rendered this state one of the poorest and least educated in the nation?
The State, our local newspaper, recalls a different day today: 50 years ago, on May 4, 1961, the first Freedom Riders rolled into the south. On Thursday, 6 p.m. at ETV headquarters, 1041 George Rogers Blvd, I am going to hear two scholars from USC–Kathy R. Forde and Patricia A. Sullivan—who will talk about the period, joined by rider, Glenda Gaither Davis from Great Falls who was a student at Claflin University in Orangeburg and participated in the New Orleans to Jackson Freedom Ride aboard the Illinois Central Railroad.
PBS is airing a new documentary, Freedom Riders, on May 16. The website offers interviews with riders and background information, and follows the 2011 Freedom Ride.
Here are the student participants of 2011 chosen by PBS: