We arrived at the Staybridge Suites Montgomery-EastChase late Monday. The EastChase area, about 10 miles from downtown Montgomery, consists of a couple of hotels and every retail outlet imaginable. So we unpacked and went shopping. Stops included Target, Dillard’s, Michaels and Chipotle.
Yesterday we toured the Civil Heritage Trail, a 2.5 mile stretch of downtown highlighting Montgomery’s historic sites. We started at the Rosa Parks Library & Museum.
This small museum was very educational and quite entertaining. We started our tour by entering the “Cleveland Avenue Time Machine”, which I would describe as a watered down version of a Disneyland 3D show. The time machine is a large 1950’s style city bus operated by “Mr. Rivets”, a robotic driver. Once in our seats we were suddenly surrounded by smoke, lightening, and sound effects, as the on-screen narrator took us back in time for a quick history lesson on civil rights issues from the origin of the term “Jim Crow” up to Rosa Parks taking her famous stand on a Montgomery bus in December, 1955. Although designed for teaching children about civil rights, we both found the experience fun and informative.
The next stop at the museum was a reenactment of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, her subsequent arrest, and the events that led up to the 13 month-long Montgomery Bus Boycott. Watching the event unfold was very moving and so much better than just reading plaques and looking at pictures. The rest of the museum was reading plaques and looking at pictures …. as we followed a timeline of the boycott’s major events including the bombing of Martin Luther King Jr’s home.
Our next stop was the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where MLK Jr. served as minister from 1954 to 1960. King organized the bus boycott from his church office.
Just one block up the street from the church is the Alabama State Capitol building. We decided to go inside and have a look around. It turns out this particular building is pretty historic in its own right. The state has done a great job of restoring the historic sections of the building to their original appearance including the Senate Chamber, where delegates from the Southern states voted to establish a new nation in February 1861, and where Jefferson Davis was elected First President of the Confederacy.
Next door to the State Capitol building is the First White House of the Confederacy. Jeff Davis and the fam lived in this house for six months before moving to the new Confederate Capital in Richmond.
Our next stop was the Civil Rights Memorial. Maya Lin (best known for being the controversial winner of DC’s Vietnam War Memorial design contest) did a fantastic job designing this memorial which literally chronicles the key events of the Movement in the form of an inverted cone-shaped polished granite fountain. The 41 names inscribed in the granite memorialize the people who were killed while fighting for their rights between 1954 and 1968. The water flowing over the names symbolizes King’s paraphrase “…we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream…” from his “I have a dream” speech.
Next up, the Greyhound Bus Station, where on May 20, 1961 a group of the Freedom Riders stepped off a bus and were viciously attacked by a large angry mob. The riders (black, white, male, female) were purposely breaking state segregation laws by sitting on the bus together, eating at the station cafes together, and (God forbid) sitting in bus station waiting rooms together. The beating the protesters took (to the indifference of the police) shocked the nation and forced the reluctant Kennedy Administration to become more involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent 400 Federal Marshalls to Montgomery to help protect the Riders. The next night the black community responded with a rally at the First Baptist Church where several of the Riders had taken refuge. Before long a mob of over 3,000 surrounded the outside of the church and started burning cars and throwing rocks, trapping those inside. Fearing the Federal Marshalls were losing control of the mob, Kennedy threatened to call in the Army from nearby Fort Benning, forcing the Governor to finally declare martial law and send in the Alabama National Guard. An agreement was eventually reached allowing the Freedom Riders to finish their trip to Jackson, Mississippi where they were arrested and jailed, but also protected from any further mob violence. Finally in November sweeping new Interstate Commerce Commission regulations went into effect “declaring unequivocally by regulation that a Negro passenger is free to travel the length and breadth of this country in the same manner as any other passenger”. 1961.
We also drove by MLK Jr’s Montgomery home.
Montgomery is so interesting in so many ways. First, the contradictory nature of this city is just absolutely fascinating. Considered the focal point of the Civil Rights Movement and the birthplace of the Confederate States of America, Montgomery is just full of ironies. This is the front of the Montgomery Section 8 public housing complex (just happens to be next door to the Rosa Parks museum):
Near the steps of the State Capitol Building is a monument commemorating the final stop of the famous Selma to Montgomery March (see above pic). On the steps of the Capitol is this:
The city is a virtual checkerboard of memorials to both the civil rights movement and the ideology and institution of slavery. I understand it on one level…… remembering the great human sacrifices made for “______” rights. Fill in the blank with “states” or “civil” or “human”, but there certainly must be some sort of denial going on to just celebrate and endorse all of it. Perhaps people quietly (or not so quietly) just support their side and ignore the other. I think you need to be from here to really have any understanding of the paradox of this place.
The other odd thing about downtown Montgomery is the solitude. We walked or drove through most of the business and tourist areas in the middle of the day and I can’t remember seeing more than a handful of people at any one time. It was a bit eerie.
On another note, the prior 24 hours were chock full of prime whining material for us. In order: we got a cracked windshield on the way to Montgomery, had the worst complimentary breakfast we have yet to experience in a hotel (more salt in those scrambled eggs than in the Dead Sea), got a parking ticket at the Rosa Parks Museum (the only sign in the lot says parking for Troy University and Rosa Parks Museum), had incredibly incompetent service at lunch (we ordered 2 grilled salmon sandwiches and received one grilled salmon and one pulled pork, we ordered 2 sweet teas and got 2 unsweetened teas, we asked for ice, it never came. Robin really went to town on the server!), returned to the hotel and for some reason they checked us out so the keys didn’t work. I know….mostly little things, but the venting really helps….Thanks. If that was our worst day, we’re doing really well.
Finished the day by getting the windshield repaired and a quick dinner at Which Wich.
Today we drove to Vicksburg, Mississippi with a quick side trip through Selma. We stopped at the Edmund Pettis Bridge and walked up the bridge to the river.
I think most people know the history of Bloody Sunday and the March from Selma to Montgomery, but just in case, here is a shot of the plaque at the bridge entrance.
On the way to Vicksburg we also stopped in Toomsuba Mississippi for lunch, and in Jackson to see the Mississippi State Capitol Building (sadly undergoing renovation).
We also passed a lot of this:
Just arrived in Vicksburg and checked into the Marriott Courtyard Hotel.
Looking forward to visiting our last Civil War battlefield tomorrow!