Historical notes: Extraordinary courage in ordinary places

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ABOUT 20 miles west of Montgomery, Alabama, stands a solitary stone marker. Inscribed on the six-foot pointed arch is: "In memory of our sister Viola Liuzzo, who gave her life in the struggle for the right to vote. March 25, 1965". Other than a divided road stretching out across the hills, there is little other sign of human handiwork. No one is buried beneath it and a passer-by might wonder why the memorial is consigned to such a remote location.

The memorial marks the spot where Ms Liuzzo, a housewife who had come from the North to fight for racial equality in the 1960s, met her brutal end. She had heard about a voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, during which Dr Martin Luther King Jnr led a band of black and white protesters on a 54-mile journey from Selma to Montgomery. At the steps of the State Capitol Dr King promised the crowd it would not be long before segregation crumbled "because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice".

After the speech, Ms Liuzzo ferried civil rights workers back in her green Oldsmobile. She was spotted by Ku Klux Klansmen who, after a high- speed chase, pulled up beside her car, and shot her. The murder was quickly twisted in mystery by the fact that an FBI informant was in the assailants' car at the time. However disturbing that fact was, two other men were found guilty in the first civil rights convictions for a racially motivated murder in the modern South.

Meanwhile, US Congress passed voting rights legislation that wiped away centuries of discriminatory practices and paved the way for blacks to hold office and participate more fully in civic life. In Alabama and elsewhere, Liuzzo became a martyr, and her name was used in countless songs, prayers and tributes.

The Liuzzo marker is just one of dozens of memorials that have sprouted across the American South in the 1990s to commemorate the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. They are appearing at the ordinary locations of extraordinary acts of courage. In these places, local people built the movement from an idea into a political force and finally into laws and customs endorsing, if not perfectly implementing, racial equality.

Only now has enough time passed to consider the movement history worthy of physical monuments. In the early 1990s, things began to change. The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, formerly a black establishment where Dr King was assassinated in 1968, was converted into a world-class museum of civil rights history that drew more than 100,000 visitors in its first year after opening in 1992. Nearly every town and city has renamed a street in Dr King's name, and historical societies are planting plaques on the homes of those who helped him in the cause.

It has not happened without some resistance. The Liuzzo marker has been meticulously scrubbed with solvent to remove hate-generated graffiti. Other graves of movement martyrs in Alabama and Mississippi have been regularly vandalised. Many feel that recounting the more violent aspects of the struggle simply recycles unflattering images of the South or is too graphic for young children. But many towns are starting to see the beginnings of civil rights tourism as people return to the area to witness its battlefields first-hand. Groups can be seen retracing the steps of the marchers, tossing flowers on graves and wondering if the movement has fulfilled its lofty goals. Although the national media has grown tired of reporting about the movement, except on certain anniversary dates, the generation that lived through it continues to examine its impact and pass its lessons on to the next.

Townsend Davis is the author of `Weary Feet, Rested Souls' (Norton, pounds 19.95), to be published on 26 August