Montgomery & Selma Alabama
From mid-December, 2019 through January, 2020 Susan and I enjoyed a five week road trip. Starting from Evanston, IL we drove south to St. Louis, MO and Memphis, TN. We then headed east to enjoy Nashville, TN and Ashville, NC, then south to Atlanta, GA. Eventually we drove west to Montgomery and Selma, AL. Then it was New Orleans, LA followed by Galveston, Austin, San Antonio and Marfa, TX. Phoenix and Scottsdale, AZ were fun. Returning to California after several months in the mid-west was welcomed.
Road tripping is, well, a trip! We enjoying scenic vistas, the vibe of small towns, local cuisine and local residents. We experienced some of what makes the United States of America a proud nation but with a checkered past. Through a series of blog posts I’m going to highlight some of our experiences and impressions.
While in Montgomery and Selma, Alabama we deepened our knowledge of the tragic treatment of African Americans during the Jim Crow era and of the ensuing Civil Rights Movement. Of course, there is much more to Alabama than this element of history, or its Civil War history or the controversy over the flying of the Confederate battle flag on State Capitol grounds. Alabama boasts multiple inland waterways, beautiful Gulf Coast beaches and coastal plains, hills and plateaus, the Talladega Mountains, and parks and forests. Its people take pride in its architecture, music history, aerospace engineering, collegiate athletics and overall southern hospitality. The people we met were warm and friendly.
In Montgomery, I recommend The Legacy Museum on Coosa Street (aka, the “Lynching Museum") and the related National Memorial for Peace and Justice on Caroline Street. If you have read the book “Just Mercy” these sites were founded by its author Bryan Stevenson (played in the Hollywood film of the same name by Michael B. Jordan). In 1989 Attorney Stevenson established the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit human rights organization committed to challenging racial and economic injustice. Located on the site where black slaves were warehoused, the museum is a moving historical narrative that uses unique technology to dramatize the evolution of racial terror lynchings. One block away is the former Alabama rail and dock station, a very active 19th Century slave auction site. www.museumandmemorial.eji.org
A wall of jars containing soil collected from known lynching sites
Granite pillars listing the names of lynch victims
I also recommend the Montgomery sites and landmarks associated with the historic 1955-1956 bus boycott. We were very interested to learn that the notorious arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her bus seat occurred 9 months after the arrest of 15 year old Claudette Colvin for the same transgression. Young Miss Colvin's arrest came to the attention of the local chapter of the NAACP leading to a chain of events that changed the course of American history.
Ms. Parks, the then secretary of the local chapter, was deemed to be the best candidate to intentionally endure an arrest and then challenge it in the courts.
Rosa Parks pictured by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
During our walk in central Montgomery, close to the Court Square (where black slaves were marketed), we paused to reflect at the Rosa Parks memorial bronze statue. It stands at the very bus stop where she boarded a bus on December 1, 1955. She then sat in the “white section” and, as stated on the commemorative plaque, “refused to give up her seat for boarding whites”. Also check out the Rosa Parks Museum nearby.
We ate lunch at the famous “Chris’ Hot Dogs since 1917”. We learned from our waiter that prior to the Civil Rights Act the KKK forbade them from admitting “colored”. Rather than risk the ire and retribution of the Klan, Chris’ created a sidewalk take-out counter. That was upsetting to hear. It is one thing to know that this was common during Jim Crow, it’s quite another to learn of it on site, from one who could recall that time.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge
That darn bridge. The name of the Confederate General and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan remains emblazoned in large black letters across a white steel cross beam.
We wanted to pay our respects to the now U.S. Congressman John Lewis (front row, light colored trench coat) and the 600 civil rights marchers who experienced the pain and brutality at the hands of local law enforcement officers on March 7, 1965, “Bloody Sunday”. At the time Mr. Lewis was 25 years old and the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The courage and conviction of those marchers resulted in the enactment of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson five months later.
It rained as we drove toward Selma from Montgomery. We approached from the east side and parked. The rain turned into a drenching downpour. It seemed apropos, adding to the heaviness I felt. At the foot of the bridge near a bend in the Alabama River is a memorial to those who had been instrumental in starting the Voting Rights Movement. We were approached there by a friendly man who, for a small gratuity, filled us in on some of the lesser known history.
Despite the rain I was intent on walking across. The bridge traffic was light. I walked on the north sidewalk, the same side as the marchers but in the opposite direction. It just happened that way. Reflecting back on it, I walked in the direction that the bloodied marchers were sent hobbling back into Selma after being clubbed and beaten.
Susan met me on the other side and parked the car. We walked down Broad Street. We had coffee at the popular but low tech “Coffee Shoppe”.
On the west side of the bridge, at the foot of the main street is the National Voting Rights Museum. Check it out.
There, we learned how television network news coverage touched the nation. President Johnson ordered federal troops to protect Dr. King, John Lewis and thousands of others as they marched the 50 miles to the steps of the Alabama State Capitol Building in Montgomery. Governor George Wallace refused to meet with Dr. King or personally accept a petition that demanded expanded voting rights.
As I write this, in early June, 2020, we are in Day 10 of demonstrations and protest marches in multiple cities and towns across the country (and the world) in response to police brutality levied against people of color, sparked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. Most protestors were wearing facemasks to protect against infecting fellow protesters with Coronavirus COVID-19.
Seeing the televised images of the heavy handedness of some local police officers at the expense of peaceful demonstrators (including in Lafayette Park on the north side of the White House) I am reminded of Bloody Sunday and that systemic racism, tragically, rages on.