An Unintentional Education
American Road Trip, or American History 101?
A little after 5 p.m. on a Tuesday, Matt and Andrew stood in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, staring at a statue of a hose. They had just left Birmingham’s civil rights museum, so they knew exactly what the statue represented: in May 1963, acting on the orders of police commissioner Bull Connor, Birmingham police sprayed high-pressure hoses at hundreds of marching children, knocking them to the ground. Matt and Andrew were fingering the brass reconstruction when from behind them a voice called out.
“We called those cannons,” said a man whose name we later learned was Juan Perkins. In Army fatigues and a brown fedora, Perkins was thin, with leathery brown skin sagging below his eyes. Pedaling towards them on a bicycle, he explained that he had been 16 when organizers led by Martin Luther King, Jr., pulled him and other children from school. The children were to replace adult demonstrators, many of whom had been shut up in Birmingham jails. “They told us older boys to be tough, how to get the police angry,” he said. “Then we walked in the front to protect the younger ones.”
After the legislative victories of 1964, Perkins said, he left his hometown for Vietnam, from which he returned, years later, a different person. At this point, he turned to Matt and Andrew. “You veterans?” he asked. Startled, they shook their heads no. He continued. Though he had been trained in King’s nonviolence methods, Vietnam radicalized Perkins. Just as he was about to join Black Power, Perkins said, he had a change of heart and got married instead. The marriage lasted 30 pleasant years; when it ended, he said, he turned to alcoholism. Now he lived among Birmingham’s vast homeless population, at that moment some of the only people outdoors.
“At 5:30, the city becomes a ghost town,” Perkins explained. The middle class Alabamans who work downtown during the day get in their cars and drive away to the suburbs. Crime takes over. “We were fighting against lynching and castration. Now, they don’t have to do it to us. They can just sit back, open the newspaper, and watch us do it to ourselves,” Perkins said. Himself, he was spending nights in an alley under an insurance building a few blocks away and days giving tours, which made him enough money to get by. Matt and Andrew exchanged another look.
Twenty dollars later, Perkins rolled away on his bicycle, leaving us alone. “Whatever,” Matt said. “I’d gladly pay $20. I learned more from him than I did from that museum.”