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Shoebox Lunches Sustained Civil Rights Demonstrators In Selma

Shoebox Lunch
Leoneda Inge

Those re-enacting the historic Voting Rights march from Selma to Montgomery will gather on the steps of the Alabama state capitol today.  The event wraps up more than a week of commemorations marking the 50th anniversary march.  

While preparing to make the Civil Rights pilgrimage to Selma, I began to think about what food I would pack.  What did African American families take on such trips 50 and 60 years ago?  Family members reminded me about the “Shoebox Lunches” they would pack and couldn’t live without.

Two charter buses prepared to roll out of Durham around 1 a.m. Saturday. But not before The Reverend Michelle Laws with the state NAACP walked the aisle of my bus passing out goodies.

“Well this is not the healthiest food but the crackers are actually sorta healthy.  We do have fruit on the other bus and water," said Laws.

There was also Red Velvet Cake on the other bus.  Of course, the cake went pretty fast.

“I’m Teemer Barry.  I’m from Durham, North Carolina , we’re going to Selma, Alabama, I’m drinking Vitamin Water," said Teemer Barry.

That’s my 14-year-old son.  I forced him to pack as much as he could, grapes, granola bars, sandwich meat, bread.  It’s understandable people would bring snacks on a long 600 mile trip to Selma.  But 50 plus years ago, when African Americans made a trip like this, bringing your own food, likely packed in a Shoe Box, was mandatory.  Delores Benton Evans remembers.

“My father had a very good job so it wasn’t for economic reasons, it was for safety reasons and because of racial discrimination," said Evans.

Blacks weren’t served in many restaurants. One of the first stops on our trip was at a Cracker Barrel restaurant somewhere between South Carolina and Georgia.  Evans, 67-years-old and retired, sat in one of those rocking chairs in front of the fireplace recalling her Shoebox lunches.

“And I remember very well packing fried chicken," said Evans.

Evans says there was also some type of spiced ham on what she called “loaf bread.”  And Evans says if you wrapped the fried chicken in wax paper and put it in a brown paper bag, the bag would serve as a heat conductor.

“And the food, it wouldn’t be hot, but the food would be warm hours after we left home," Evans said with a smile.

Ed Bell, of Raleigh, was concerned about keeping his snacks cool on the trip.

“I froze my two bottles of water, and I put it in a bag with my Ginger Ale and my lunch meat," said Bell.

Bell got a good laugh when I accused him of being "old school," in the way he packed food. 

Bell says he remembers the rules of the road his parents taught him.

“It is a historical legacy, that when you travel, you travel with food and you travel with enough food to share some if need be," said Bell.

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Leoneda Inge
Credit Leoneda Inge
My son Teemer Barry, and I take a 'selfie' once we reach the top of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL.

After resting in Birmingham, we were ready to join tens of thousands of other people who were in Selma to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 

“Need a little room, Ms. Boynton coming through!  Ms. Boynton coming through, need a little room, please!” two men chanted as I walked by, on the bridge.

They were pushing 103-year-old Amelia Boynton Robinson in a wheelchair across the bridge.  She is known for helping to organize the Voting Rights march 50 years ago.  She was badly beaten on that “Bloody Sunday” trying to cross the bridge. 

Sharon Patton stood on the side of the bridge taking it all in.  The 57-year-old from Birmingham says she was too young to march, but she was there too.

“As a kid I came down with my foster mother, we delivered shoebox lunches for the marchers.  They couldn’t stop any place and so they had to eat.  You walk 54 miles, you gotta eat," said Patton.

And Patton says this is what she helped pack.

“What I can remember putting in our lunch, I don’t know what everybody else did.  But she made fried chicken, I can remember this, bread, pound cake and a piece of fruit.  And I put the napkins and the wax paper in the boxes," said Patton.

Food trucks selling Jerk Chicken and rice and side-walk vendors selling homemade Caramel Cake greeted folks like me 50 years later.  If you ever make it to Selma and cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, at the bottom is the National Voting Rights Museum.  I’m sure they have several tasty Shoebox Lunch stories to tell.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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