A city that was at the heart of the Confederacy and the Civil Rights Movement
We had planned to spend the day wandering around Montgomery, the State capital of Alabama. One of the things we were most interested in was the role Montgomery played in the 1950s and 60s in the Civil Rights movement.
Alabama State Capital building
Fortunately we were once again blessed with splendid weather. The downtown area of Montgomery is splendid in white, with grand government buildings decorated with palladium pillars. We walked up to the Montgomery Capitol building onto the very steps where Jefferson Davis was declared the first president of the Confederacy in February 1861. One of the things that continues to amaze us in these dangerous times is how easy it is to enter major public buildings in the US – although I remember having to go through metal detectors when entering the Department of Motor Vehicles in Elizabethtown, New York (which is a tiny place in upstate New York!). We walk into the foyer of the impressive looking Capitol building where we are greeted by an elderly gentleman who welcomes visitors to the building – he shows us the impressive three storey, cantilevered spiral staircase. The acoustics in this foyer, as a result of the staircase, are amazing and he shows Jack and Emily how the sound is amplified from one corner of the room to the other.
On climbing the stairs you enter a room with the main rotunda which has a magnificent painted ceiling and murals on the walls depicting historical events in the State’s history. Off the rotunda are 2 historical meeting rooms where the Alabama senate had met in days past. These rooms had been preserved to reflect their original glory.
First White House of the Confederacy
Leaving the capitol building we went off to find the First White House of the Confederacy. Having grown up in the United Kingdom we are used to seeing the large stately homes of the aristocracy, but this house is much more modest. Today, the building is a museum that is open to the public.
The First White House of the Confederacy was the Executive Residence of President Jefferson Davis and family while the capitol of the Confederacy was in Montgomery, Alabama. The house served as the first White House of the Confederacy from February 1861 until late May 1861, when the Confederate capital moved to Richmond, Virginia. Completely furnished with original period pieces from the 1850s and 1860s, the 1835 Italianate style house is open to the public. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974. It is located across from the south side of the Alabama State Capitol, next door to Archives and History Building.
2nd Baptist Church & Rosa Parks Library and Museum
The main reason for our trip to Montgomery was not to explore the history of the confederacy; we were more interested in the city’s modern history.
In 1955 a seamstress and Civil Rights activist Mrs Rosa Parks got onto a Montgomery bus. When asked to give up her seat for a white passenger who had boarded the bus after her she refused and was subsequently arrested. This led to a series of events, marshaled by the local churches and activist groups, which resulted in a boycott of the Montgomery buses. The leader of the protest group was a young local pastor of the Dexter Avenue, 2nd Baptist Church, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The bus boycott lasted a year before the courts ruled segregation on public buses was illegal – this was a seminal moment in the US Civil Right movement history and led to many of the remaining segregation laws being made illegal over the next two decades.
The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church is open to the public as is the parsonage. Tours are run most days of the week for the church and the parsonage. We decided to take the tour of the church and see the pulpit where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his powerful sermons. As part of the tour you get to visit the basement where there is a wonderful, 47 ft long mural depicting the Civil Rights crusade of Dr. King.
A short distance from the Dexter Avenue Church is the Rosa Parks Museum and Library.
Rosa Parks’ story is widely known, but the Rosa Parks Museum, which has six main areas and a children’s wing, brings to life that historic moment of civil disobedience on a city bus through a powerful, multi-media reenactment that captures the zeitgeist of the Jim Crow era. In the children’s section there was a “ride” disguised as a travelling Montgomery bus – which takes you back in time through the period mid 1800’s to 1955.
Other exhibits focus on the bus boycott that followed and tell the story of how the black community was able to stay the course for 381 days.
Carpools were organized to provide transportation to boycotters. A fully restored 1955 Chevy Bel Air station wagon is representative of the “rolling church buses” used in the effort.
A highlight is the Victory Room, an exhibit that has a likeness of King and other civil rights leaders proudly riding at the front of the bus after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation illegal.
The whole thing was a wonderful experience – and afterwards you get to go to a resources room full of materials such as the police records from the bus boycott period.
Civil Rights Monument
We still had some time left in the day so we visited the Civil Rights Monument. The Memorial is dedicated to those, both black and white, who died in the struggle for equal rights for African Americans. It gives profiles of individuals – most of whom are not household names and were simply people who cared. The startling thing is the number of deaths at the direct hands of the authorities; many others fell to the murderous actions of white supremacists. This is a very powerful experience. A movie tells the stories of some of these people, including the moving tale of Emmett Till who was murdered for calling a white shop assistant “baby”. He was murdered, his body disfigured and his remains dumped in a river. His mother returned the body to her hometown of Chicago and put her son’s remains on display in a open casket so people could see what was happening to innocent African Americans. This event had a profound effect on the black community and sparked the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s. At the end of the museum is a Wall of Tolerance – this a huge electronic display upon which you can pledge to be committed to tolerance of others irrespective of their color, faith, sexuality or disability. We, of course, added our names which are now permanently displayed on this wall. Outside of the Memorial is a permanent monument, a round marble table topped water feature listing the names of the fallen – including the names of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and Emmett Till.