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A LONG ROAD TO EQUALITY

Trailing History

Birmingham. Selma. Montgomery. Alabama bears the scars of the civil rights era, and the monuments to that struggle inspire the courage to face new challenges.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009; Page P01

You need to get to the rain forests before they're all gone, and the polar ice caps may have melted by the time you try to see them, but it's Alabama that demands your immediate attention. And by Alabama I mean that place where elegant black ladies of a certain age stand sentinel over the trails through civil rights country.

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Really. They're lit from within, these women; they glow as only people can who never thought they'd live to see the day but then live to see the day. And as they gaze out on the landscape of a country facing agonizing choices and certain pain, they haven't a doubt in the world that we'll get through this. After all, we've gotten through far worse.

The day I landed in Birmingham a few weeks back, there was every reason to believe that the rain and icy temperatures would soon end and the city would return to the 60-degree weather to which it's accustomed in February. Instead, it began to rain harder, and then it began to pour. Pedestrians with mangled umbrellas raced through Kelly Ingram Park, a standard-issue urban green space where pansies now grow in dainty rows but where thousands once gathered to demand an end to segregation and police retaliated by siccing attack dogs on children and aiming at them with fire hoses powerful enough to strip the bark off trees.

Across the street at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum and research center, five massive picture windows overlook the park in a room devoted to the Kelly Ingram chapter of the story. The institute also houses a charred Greyhound bus, a replica of one that a group of Freedom Riders rode through Alabama before it was firebombed; and the pale green bars of the cell where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous "Letter From Birmingham Jail." And when you get to the end of a long series of hallways (a gut-wrenching trip that begins with sharecropper mannequins and ends with a quote from then-Sen. Barack Obama: "We are the ones we've been waiting for"), you get to Yvonne Williams's desk. Before coming to the institute, Williams spent all of 31 years teaching fourth grade in Birmingham public schools. And still she retired too soon.

"We used to have that poster with all the presidents, you know?" Williams says. "And I distinctly remember this little boy coming up to me one day and saying, 'Mrs. Williams, where is the black one?' I thought, Lord, give the words to say it." She stops for a moment, collects herself.

"I just said to him, 'Maybe in your lifetime.' "

The doorbell at the institute rings, and Williams's demeanor changes abruptly.

"Denzel!" she shouts. "Get down there to the rotunda. We got company!" After a moment, a boy of 12 or so wearing a clip-on tie slinks slowly past. He gives her a look, and she gives him one right back.

"Now what was I saying? Some people come in here -- you see tears, anger, everything. The other day I saw this white gentleman just overwhelmed. I said, 'Do you need a chair?' And he said, 'No, I just need to get out of here for a while.' "

Williams has worked in the institute's research division for five years now "and will be here till God sends me home." She worries about the younger generation, for whom nonviolent resistance is a quaint notion, and she wonders if they've already forgotten how rocky the road to Inauguration Day really was. They're up against a lot these days, she says, and toughness in the face of such trials is the only thing that's going to work.

"We just have to keep fighting. That's what I tell them. That's what America's all about. Don't stop."

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