Exploring the Double-Edged History of Montgomery, Alabama

In Montgomery, during the Freedom Rides, I heard Martin Luther King say that while Brown v. Board of Education had been the legal turning point in the movement, the Montgomery bus boycott and the sit-ins were the psychological turning point.

So writes Calvin Trillin in a recent New Yorker, reflecting on the civil rights struggle in the deep south, which he covered for Time magazine “from the fall of 1960 to the fall of 1961.” He’s writing, then, on a sort of fiftieth anniversary for the movement, which of course spanned nearly two decades, making any hard and fast anniversary difficult to declare.

Another anniversary looms large in Montgomery this year, that of the outbreak of the Civil War, 150 years ago this past April. The stage was set for a Confederate victory at Fort Sumter, South Carolina when the Montgomery Convention met, in February, in what was the Alabama capitol building’s senate chamber, to organize the new secessionist government.

For both anniversaries, this summer was a fascinating time to drive through Montgomery.

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As Trillin continued in his piece, describing an event commemorating the Freedom Rides held in Jackson, Mississippi this May:

One of [Governor Haley] Barbour’s speeches was at the unveiling of a plaque that marked the old Greyhound station (now restored as an architect’s office) as a stop on what the state is calling the Mississippi Freedom Trail. … Civil-rights-history buffs can soon be guided to, among thirty or so other places, the university where Clyde Kennard applied for admission in the fifties, only to be framed and thrown into jail. They can see where Medgar Evers was shot, in 1963, and where another N.A.A.C.P. leader, Vernon Dahmer, was killed in 1966, when the Klan firebombed his house.

The names Evers and Dahmer are engraved, as are many others, on the Civil Rights Memorial outside the Southern Poverty Law Center in downtown Montgomery. Designed by Maya Lin and inspired by King’s paraphrasing of a biblical passage–”Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”–it’s a somber fountain in black granite, honoring those murdered in the years following Brown v. Board of Education. A group of school kids walked up at the same time as me, touching the names on the slab, remembering the dead. Inside the center, a melted clock hangs on the wall next to the security checkpoint, explaining the need for a magnetometer and X-ray machine: The clock was damaged in a fire sparked by Klansmen at the SPLC in 1983.

The center is on the same street as the First White House of the Confederacy, the modest but stately mansion of Jefferson Davis, the southern states’ first president. It now sits on Washington Avenue, across from the capitol building, though it was originally located at the intersection of today’s Bibb and Lee streets. Administered by a White House Association, it’s filled with some of the Davis family’s effects, period furniture and supremely knowledgable docents, selected by the Association to educate the public on the republican nature of the C.S.A. and its Civil War-era history.

Less than a mile away, the Rosa Parks Museum memorializes the life and momentous contribution of Montgomery’s most famous seamstress. Owned by Troy University, the building is on the historic site of the Empire Theatre, where Parks refused to give up her seat on December 1, 1955. (The bus on which she made her stand by refusing to stand is now in Dearborn, Michigan.) The Montgomery Bus Boycott began immediately after, with the support of King, who at the time was preaching at a church on Dexter Avenue. Visitors to Montgomery can tour the landmark, now embellished in name as the “King Memorial Baptist Church.” It’s where King, with the help of Parks and many others, planned the bus boycotts that helped secure desegregation of public transportation nationwide.

The city, as Mississippi has done with its Freedom Trail, embraces the Civil Rights struggle as a tourist draw, putting together an easy-to-follow itinerary and audio tour of its most notable historical sites. Montgomery also looks further into the past: Visitors can also follow a Confederate Trail itinerary, complete with a stop at the First White House. Following both routes gives visitors a fascinating double-edged look at the complicated history of Alabama.