As the cradle of the confederacy and the birthplace of the civil rights movement, Montgomery, Alabama has embraced its nascent roots, and is ready to exploit its role in two historic struggles: one, a political secession that was hastily formed to preserve the rights of whites; and the other, a social revolution to protect the rights of blacks. Both have come up short, which makes Montgomery, arguably, a municipal work in progress.
A visit to the Rosa Parks Museum, integrated into a corner wing of Troy University’s urban campus, takes the visitor through an interactive display of film, story-telling, life-size dioramas, documents and artifacts that frame the Montgomery Bus Boycott and its aftermath as ground zero for racial equality.
For her troubles and heroics, Rosa Parks received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.
A 10-minute walk along Washington Ave. to the Civil Rights Memorial Center, across the street from the Southern Poverty Law Center was eerily reminiscent of the calm before the storm. As the second largest city in Alabama, it seemed unusually quiet. The breezy and balmy climate had uncharacteristically produced few cars, and even fewer pedestrians. Shops were closed, and construction areas were still–as if the city was under lock-down or quarantine.
The entrance to the memorial behind Maya Lin’s sculptural tribute was roped off.
We caught the attention of an armed guard patrolling the area who asked if he could help.
“Isn’t this the entrance to the memorial center? Shouldn’t it be open?” I asked, pointing to the hours of operation.
Visitors to the Civil Rights Memorial Center have the opportunity to take the pledge and add their names to the Wall of Tolerance during their visit, and I had come to take the pledge:
“By placing my name on the Wall of Tolerance, I pledge to take a stand against hate, injustice and intolerance. I will work in my daily life for justice, equality and human rights – the ideals for which the Civil Rights martyrs died.”
The guard shrugged. “Everything is shut down today, sir, because of the weather. Yes sir, they closed the schools an’ all, in anticipation of the storm that come through here early this morn’. So the memorial is closed as well, sir.”
“But it’s gorgeous outside,” Leah offered.
The guard nodded, “I know ma’am, but the storm is suppose to loop aroun’, an’ this kinda weather is completely unpredictable. Best you come by tomorrow for another look, okay? In the meantime, have you seen the state capital and the White House, just up the road?”
“Sounds like a plan,” I acknowledged.
The stately-looking capital sits alone on a green and projected a ghost house allure, devoid of any activity. I imagined Alabama governor Robert Bentley hiding under his desk–weathering his own personal storm of sexual misconduct, awaiting word from the State Ethics Committee who holds his legal fate in their sweaty fingers.
Directly across the street is the transplanted Confederate White House, home of Jefferson Davis, the first and only President of eleven southern breakaway states, whose doctrine upheld slavery as a states’ right along with political liberty for whites. Inside the house, an affable guide exchanged greetings and historical trivia in down-home Southern hospitality fashion.
“Make sure you buy plenty of cotton clothes before you leave town,” he drawled, alluding to the area’s cash crop, “an’ help our local farmers.”
The town could use some help as well. About a quarter of the population lives close to the poverty line, and it shows in large chunks of the business community, where abandoned storefronts are less the exception than the rule. Nevertheless, there are pockets of revitalization, such as the Riverfront,
which features a minor league baseball park and amphitheater,
and the novelty of an old-fashioned steamboat cruise down the Alabama River.
Montgomery is not hiding from its past. It chooses to become a relevant city that tells it’s story from colliding perspectives, while dealing with hate and tempering with tolerance.
P.S. Four days after publishing this post, Governor Bentley is now an admitted felon who resigned to avoid prosecution–all because of chasing tail. Perhaps, the blog title be changed to “Three Tales/Tails of One City”?