The city of Montgomery, Alabama has embraced America’s legacy of racism and the heroic civil rights struggle with open arms. That big hug is what invites visitors of every skin color and ethnic background to visit, weep and be recruited into the struggle for human rights that continues everywhere.
At our fall 2020 visit, the weeping was from visitors impacted by the immersive museums and historic sites marking past incidents of racial terror. The Montgomerians we met, by contrast, are “fired up” as local newscasters used to say about the infamous Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Equal Justice Initiative and the many civic improvements they support have inspired the next generation of Alabama Blacks with enthusiasm and hope for the future.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rosa Parks
The Montgomery Bus Boycott that fired up Black Alabamans began in 1955 with a young Black seamstress and activist, Rosa Parks. In the strictly segregated South, she refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white person. Her arrest triggered a 13-month-long boycott of public buses by the Negro population of Montgomery, who worked together to launch ride shares, carpools and private taxis.
That protest was led by the young pastor of the A.M.E. Baptist Church and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. became a household name.
The Rosa Parks Museum and Children’s Annex chronicles the life of Ms. Parks, focusing on the bus boycott. Peruse the historical context of her story to better understand the ugly legacy of racism. Of great interest to families, the Time Travel exhibit in the Children’s Annex welcomes visitors to board a bus like Ms. Parks did, then follow a timeline of racial discrimination and civil rights protests through projections outside the windows.
Public Monuments to Civil Rights Activists
A few blocks away, on the corner of historic Dexter Avenue, a life-size bronze statue of Ms. Parks stands her ground, waiting for the next bus. You may meet Eddie, as we did, a tall, lean Black who acts as an unofficial guide to travelers who pause by the statue. Eddie adds color and detail to the history of the Montgomery’s famous Court Square Fountain, whose top tier holds a statue of the Greek goddess Hebe to protect the belowground artesian well. The square was the center of slave auctioning during the long period when Alabama ruled the domestic slave trade as one of the largest slave-owning states.
The Civil Rights Memorial Center was designed by Maya Lin (artist of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC) for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Its quiet strength comes from its simplicity. Contemplate the somber black marble bowl inscribed with the names of 40 individuals who sacrificed their lives in the Civil Rights struggle. Behind it, a wall bathed in falling water softens the legacy of racism so evident here with one of Dr. King’s most famous quotes: “Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.’
Freedom Riders are Honored in Montgomery, Alabama
Walk up to the retro Greyhound sign towering above a one-story building and you’ll be confused by which door to enter. Turn that doubt into fear of losing your life if you pick the wrong one – that’s the emotion that launched the Freedom Riders movement in 1961. After the Bus Desegregation victory triggered by Rosa Parks, African-Americans were still not allowed to share terminal facilities. The laws protecting segregation in interstate commerce were a powerful legacy of racism in America.
Groups of young white and Black activists, including the late Congressman John Lewis, boarded buses throughout the South to help end racial segregation. Because the Freedom Rides earned a lot of publicity, they were often met outside stations by local law enforcement or the Ku Klux Klan, who triggered havoc, chaos and mass violence.
The Freedom Rides Museum, a small site run by the Alabama Department of History, tells the story of 21 activists and that chapter of the Civil Rights movement in comprehensive wall panels. While a cornerstone of Montgomery’s role on Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail, the Freedom Riders National Monument is in Anniston, Alabama, where the firebombing of a Freedom Riders bus made headlines around the world.
The Equal Justice Initiative Defines Montgomery
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has had a profound impact on Montgomery and the country. Founded in 1989 by attorney Bryan Stevenson to challenge cases of racial injustice and abuse, its story was immortalized in Stevenson’s best-selling book “Just Mercy” as well as the 2019 film starring Michael B. Jordan.
Today, the non-profit EJI continues its legal and social justice work while sponsoring research about lynchings since the Civil War. EJI’s transformative public memorials honor victims of all types of racial terror and explore the legacy of racism. In the spring of 2018, EJI opened the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, adding the Legacy Pavilion with its southern restaurant and gift shop in 2020.
Within walking distance of downtown Montgomery, each EJI project is a striking architectural achievement showcasing searing proof of racial injustice.
Universal acclaim for their undeniable power has drawn visitors from around the world and put Montgomery – with its grim history of racial violence — on the dark tourism map.
EJI’s Museum Explores Legacy of Racism
The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is located in a former warehouse for imprisoned Blacks. On entering, visitors descend into virtual slave pens occupied by digital enslaved peoples who tell their story. The legacy of their stories, of the Civil War, lynching, mass incarceration, Civil Rights struggles and marginalization is told through video, sound, photo displays and artifacts.
Just say the names written on jars of soil from the sacred ground where Blacks were publicly lynched. From listening to prisoners through headsets to studying the attributes of slaves up for auction, the Legacy Museum is immersive, terrifying and powerful enough to stop short of being overwhelming.
EJI’s National Memorial for Peace, Justice and Lynching Victims
The most humbling site in Montgomery is the EJI National Memorial for Peace and Justice, more commonly known as the Lynching Memorial. Hundreds of tall iron gravestones organized by state and county are engraved with the names and dates of lynching victims. The weight of these rusted markers, like coffins hanging overhead, is unbearable. Their haunting presence cries out for recognition; listen as visitors whisper each victim’s name and the county of their death. Another set of the same engraved panels commemorating the worst legacy of racism are laid out flat on rolling green lawns for easier access.
That more than 4,000 victims of racial terror were discovered by the EJI researchers is not as startling as learning that scholars believe the actual number is much higher.
The theatre inside the memorial plays video compilations used in the various exhibits of the Legacy Museum. Spend some time there to catch your breath before returning to the historic downtown of the city.
Montgomery’s Legacy of Racism Leads to a Better Future
While everything is not black and white, Montgomery is still a city of contrasts. The glittering, white granite Alabama State Capitol is where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy in 1861.
Just one block away, the worn red brick Dexter Avenue Baptist Church is where Reverend Martin Luther King was selected to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott – and the Civil Rights movement – in 1955.
Where Southern isn’t Synonymous with Racist
Today, the city subdued by the global pandemic is quieter and, in some ways, is more powerful. The legislature is not in session. The memorials, museums and many businesses are run by Blacks. As white visitors, we are a minority warmly welcomed to learn more about a painful past in a city where Black lives matter.
Our hotel, the Springhill Suites Montgomery Downtown rises from a converted factory building. A lobby display of artifacts found at the site during the renovation indicates grain making, tool cutting and other myriad businesses. Very stylish rooms, with exposed brick walls and soaring ceilings, overlook Coosa Street and the Alabama Riverfront, where so many historic struggles took place.
Across the street, Central is typical of city’s newer foodie establishments. These places with farm to table menus prepared with sophisticated Southern style are a contemporary version of the all-you-can-eat soul food buffet served up by the classic Martha’s Place Buffet.
That both have their place in thriving Montgomery is a testament to how far the new generation of Blacks and Whites have come towards reconciliation. It’s that spirit that Montgomery embraces and that visitors will take away.
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