Here’s what it means to intern at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama:
You go swimming in a lake on a farm in rural Alabama, floating along on a noodle. The only sounds you can hear are cows moo-ing somewhere in the distance, and you relish not hearing the MBTA green line careening by in the background.
You become intimately familiar with the 11th Circuit’s jurisprudence, and churn out legal memo after legal memo explaining constitutional claims that you didn’t know anyone actually litigated outside of constitutional law classes.
You discover something called “meat and three,” where you eat a meat (fried chicken, ribs, etc.) and three sides (macaroni and cheese, collared greens, coleslaw, etc.). You are delighted every time there is a meat and three restaurant where you automatically get cornbread without it being a part of your “three.” (So really you get meat and four!)
You learn about hate groups still all around the country, and every time you see someone wearing a baseball cap that says “Rebel” on it with a confederate flag, or note a confederate flag bumper sticker with a giant “Dixie,” you feel a slight chill.
You go to a baseball game of the Montgomery Biscuits, the minor league baseball team. You get chicken and biscuits at a concession stand and debate how possible it would be to eat chicken and biscuits with your hands if the biscuits were covered in gravy. Delicious.
You go to about every Civil Rights Memorial in the Deep South, and when you visit the Dexter Avenue Parsonage where Martin Luther King lived, the lady in the gift shop asks you where you’re from, and when you tell her SPLC, she smiles and says, “Oh, they’re part of us.”
SPLC is not affiliated with the Dexter Avenue Parsonage. That woman was referring to a far deeper connection. Exploring that connection is, in fact, what it really means to intern at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Working at SPLC is to be a part of something – to be a part of us.
I was marinated in “us” this summer, and to be perfectly frank with you, there are some things about “us” that are radicalizingly heart-wrenching.
I walked down a gravel road in a trailer park full of mostly black people, and looked over the fence at enormous half a million dollar homes full of mostly white people. I learned how white people had fled public schools into religious private schools, so-called “segregation academies,” and how the public school system had been drained of funds. I saw the antipathy and derision with which we can inflict intolerable cruelty on each other. Police officers in Birmingham routinely pepper-sprayed kids in the hallways of their schools. I put my hand on a fountain in downtown Montgomery, and read a plaque saying it used to be a slave market, where selling someone else’s seven-year-old was big business. I learned that south-central Alabama is colloquially referred to as the “Black Belt,” an area with particularly fertile (black) soil. In antebellum days, the Black Belt was home to many plantations, and now, it is home to predominantly black people trapped by their government in inexcusable poverty. Alabama state employees still get Jefferson Davis’s birthday as a day off work.
But then, there are some things about “us” I quite like. I met a group of black boys in their mid-to-late teens who cracked me up, eloquently ranted about the state of their schools, and dreamt of becoming rappers and running businesses. An elementary-school-aged black girl read Harry Potter aloud to the rapt audience of her younger brother, calling Hermione “Herm-oin” (a mistake I made well into my teens). A lesbian woman in rural Mississippi pressed ahead trying to get a license to open a gay bar despite an obstinate city council, hoping to build a place for the LGBT community in the rural deep south to find camaraderie. Teenagers whose high schools did not have any art classes nonetheless made plans to become artists, their homes dotted with their drawings and paintings. You can tour Martin Luther King’s house, and your tour guide will take you down two houses to meet a woman named Vera, who housed Freedom Riders in the 60s and now sits on her porch swing, cheerfully entertaining questions and pictures from a bunch of tourists.
These people – all of them – and this history – all of it – are inextricably connected.
These connections extend beyond Alabama and beyond the Deep South. I had moments over the summer where I felt quite far away from Boston, where there are half-a-dozen coffee shops with a 15-minute walk of my apartment, I can walk to a Trader Joe’s and a Whole Foods, and there is not a Chik Fil-A to be found. In Montgomery, I swam in a lake on a farm, ate fried chicken on a biscuit at a baseball game, and yes, even went to a Chik Fil-A (I had a rainbow scales of justice pin on my bag, though, so I am hoping that makes it okay). These differences, however, are relatively shallow. Once you dig under the grocery stores and coffee shops, you realize that the dreams of a black boy in Alabama are not so different from a white girl in Brookline. And all of us are, whether we want to be or not, united in a common struggle: how to use these inevitable connections to heal instead of harm. We are all a “part of us.”
To work at SPLC is to join the many people who have recognized the law’s potential for healing or harming, and have tried to turn its power towards a little more healing, a little less harming. And though I have returned to Boston, this is a struggle I will carry with me during my last year of law school and beyond, because the people I met and the work that I did in Alabama are still a part of me.