Saturday, April 19, 2014

Montgomery, Alabama? Why?

My wife told her lunch companions last week that she was going to Montgomery. Alabama. Their response, almost in unison, was an instinctive “why?” The short answer is that I was giving a talk on Tuesday in Montgomery. The longer answer is that Alabama is the only state that I haven’t been to. The answer is that I believe in history and Montgomery is the city with some of the most significant history in America. The downtown/Capitol area is a living history museum. So many critical points in American history occurred within a few square miles of downtown Montgomery. Prominent signage marks the historic sites in Montgomery. The memorial signs are not the same as being at the scene at the time, but you can “feel it.” The city and state are not hiding from their slavery, secessionist, segregationist past. They mark this past just as they do the Civil Rights Movement. They are airing it all out in public. Both Montgomery and Alabama publish maps and brochures with the appropriate Civil Rights Trail. Montgomery was the “Cradle of the Confederacy.” It is the Old South. Montgomery is the birthplace of the modern Civil Rights Movement. The Confederate States of America were formed on February 4, 1861 in the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery. The Provisional Constitution of the Confederacy followed on February 8, 1861. Jefferson Davis was sworn in as President of the Confederacy on the steps of the Capitol on February 18, 1861. The first White House of the Confederacy is across the street from the Capitol. Jefferson Davis lived there with his family until the Capitol was moved months later to Richmond, Virginia. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed 25,000 from the same Capitol steps at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March. Dexter Street runs six blocks from Court Square, a rotary circling an artisan fountain, up Goat Hill to the Capitol. Rosa Sparks walked a few stores from her job as a seamstress to the bus stop on the square on December 1, 1955, a defining moment in the Civil Rights Movement. The three story Winter Building stands across the street from the bus stop. Leroy Pope Walker, Secretary of War for the Confederacy, entered the second floor telegraph office on April 11, 1861 and signaled General P.G.T. Beauregard in Charleston, South Carolina to remove the Union soldiers from Fort Sumter. The shelling began the next day, igniting the Civil War. Slaves were auctioned by the Court Square Fountain. The Dexter Street Baptist Church was earlier a holding pen for slaves. Two blocks, two bus stops down the street, is the bus stop where Rosa Parks refused to stand and yield her seat to a white passenger, igniting the modern Civil Rights Movement. She may not have been legally required under Montgomery law to yield her seat, but the bus driver believed she was. She was immediately arrested. Montgomery blacks responded by mounting a boycott of the busses. They formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to coordinate the boycott. The 24 year old Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., recently arriving in Montgomery for his first ministry (1954-1960), was named the leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association. He soon became the face and voice of the Civil Rights Movement. Attempts were made to assassinate him in Montgomery. The Reverend Ralph David Abernethy preached at the nearby First Baptist Church (the one for blacks – not whites). He became Dr. King’s closest friend and successor. Troy University built the Rosa Parks Library and Museum next to the second bus stop. The museum has a replica of the bus, on which a video is shown reenacting the critical moments on the bus. (You can sit on the actual bus in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.) The museum contains several original documents from the history of the Boycott. The successful 381 day Boycott struck a large blow to segregation and the Jim Crow laws. Reverend King’s church, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, now the Dexter Ave. King Memorial Baptist Church, is just one block down from the Capitol. Tours are available of the Church. You can stand at his pulpit. The basement is a shrine to Reverend King and the Civil Rights Movement. It contains a wall length mural depicting his life. It is also where the bus boycott was planned. A few blocks away is the Dexter Parsonage Museum, where the King family resided during their six years in Montgomery. Also a few blocks away is the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial and Center, beautifully and movingly designed by Maya Lin. A few blocks up South Court Street from Court Square is the Greyhound Bus Station, where 21 Freedom Riders (mostly college students) from Nashville were assaulted by 200 Ku Klux Klan protestors on May 21, 1961. None were killed, but several were severely injured, including John Seigenthaler, an assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who responded by dispatching hundreds of federal marshals to protect the Freedom Riders. Floyd Mann, Alabama Public Safety Director, was a segregationist, but also a man of the law. He believed a deal had been reached between Governor Patterson, Montgomery Commissioner L.B. Sullivan (the Sullivan of New York Times v. Sullivan) and the Attorney General to protect the Freedom Riders. He was wrong. Many Montgomery Police took the day off, while a few motorcycle officers directed traffic. Director Mann stopped the violence and saved lives by sticking his gun on the head of a demonstrator about to kill one of the Freedom Riders. He threatened to kill the demonstrator. I did not know that a white segregationist was the unsung hero of the day. He went on to an illustriuos career in Alabama and Washington, D.C. The Kennedys were hesitant to become too visibly involved in the Civil Rights Movement for fear of losing the southern states in 1964. The violence, especially in Aniston, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma forced them to act. The bus station is now the Freedom Ride Museum. The Capitol originally contained the Governor’s Office, the Supreme Court of Alabama, the Alabama House of Representatives, and the Alabama Senate. The Capitol is open to the public and is a museum. A small touch is that the House and Senate chambers now have plaques listing the African American Representatives and Senators who served during Reconstruction. A block from the Capitol is the Alabama Archives and History Building, which contains the Museum of Alabama. The new addition lays out the history of the state, again depicting the good, the bad, and the ugly, the heroic and tragic, the sordid and soaring. Where else but Montgomery will you find the the Hank Williams Museum and the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald House and Museum? We had no idea. Montgomery, like many cities throughout America, has seen better days. The once bustling Dexter Street, with wall to wall hotels, department stores, variety stores, jewelers, and other merchants, is now mostly empty storefronts in faded glory, hopefully awaiting redevelopment. The First Confederate White House was moved in 1920 from the bottom of Goat Hill to its present location across from the Capitol. The former location is now a skate park. How quiet is downtown? There is no Starbucks. No Subway. No McDonald’s. No fastfood restaurant at all. One of the downtown restaurants is Wintzell’s Oyster House, part of a chain based in Mobile, Alabama. Its wall is plastered with small signs. The two I like are “A dime is a dollar with the taxes out,” and “Success only comes before work in the dictionary.” Downtown shuts down on Sunday. Montgomery lacks corporate headquarters. Most of the jobs are in government and, to a much lesser extent, tourism. It does have the minor league Class AA Montgomery Biscuits baseball team in Riverfront Stadium. The city is bringing back the downtown riverfront area. Old Alabama Town, scores of restored old stores, residences, and lofts, many in their vintage splendor, is nearby. Taxis do not line up outside the new Renaissance Hotel, connected to the new Montgomery Convention Center and the new Montgomery Performing Arts Center, is nearby. The current bus map lists attractions, Wal-Marts and Sam’s Club. Why Montgomery? Because

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